Cracker Barrel restaurants agreed Monday to change their training and management practices right after the Justice Department accused the nation-style chain of extensive discrimination against black diners in about 50 locations. A civil rights investigation learned that black diners at Cracker Barrels in seven Southern states were routinely given tables besides whites, seated after white customers who arrived later, and given inferior service, the department said in informing the settlement.
Managers allowed white servers to refuse to wait on black patrons, and blacks received less favorable treatment than whites once they complained about service, investigators found. Interviews with lots of employees suggested that managers ”often directed, took part in, or condoned the discriminatory behavior,” the department said.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, a chain situated in Tennessee which has 497 locations nationwide and is renowned for its country-style cooking and folksy retailers, denied the accusations in a lawsuit the Justice Department filed on Monday in Georgia. However in an agreement filed using the lawsuit, the organization decided to wide-ranging steps to combat discrimination against black diners. Among them are new training programs, random testing by undercover diners, the posting of nondiscrimination statements on menus, as well as the hiring of the outside auditor.
The agreement ”moves Cracker Barrel menu forward in a direction we were already moving,” said Julie Davis, an organization spokeswoman. She claimed that while Cracker Barrel failed to believe the accusations, it consented to the six-point plan partly in order to avoid ”protracted, distracting, costly, multiyear litigation.”
The laws under that the suit was brought failed to enable the department to find money. But recently some 100 blacks have pressed discrimination claims and therefore are seeking money from the company in four lawsuits in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina. Stores there and then in Alabama, Louisiana and Virginia were subjects from the department investigation.
”It’s shocking that something like this still happens 4 decades right after the passage of civil rights legislation,” said Heidi Doerhoff, a Washington lawyer working in the Arkansas and Mississippi lawsuits. ”It harkens back to the rear-of-the-bus treatment of African-Americans.”
Ms. Doerhoff said the widespread discrimination detected by the department was just like the experiences in the a large number of plaintiffs. One black employee at a Cracker Barrel in Mississippi stated that white waitresses kaiypp pay her $3 per table to serve their black customers, Ms. Doerhoff said. And a black diner stated that when he complained to a manager that whites were treated better, he was told he should go to Burger King, she said.
Her one disappointment, Ms. Doerhoff said, was that Cracker Barrel ”is unwilling to admit that it’s done anything wrong.” ”They’re still fighting tooth and nail against each of the private plaintiffs,” she said. In past months, some civil rights advocates and Democrats in Congress have accused the Bush administration of failing to aggressively pursue civil rights cases, especially those involving patterns of corporate misconduct, plus they said they worried that cases like Cracker Barrel’s were permitted to lag.
But R. Alexander Acosta, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, stated that the agreement filed on Monday demonstrated the Justice Department’s resolve. ”Where we discover evidence, as we did here, that individuals of the race are receiving anything less than full and equal usage of public accommodations, we will act,” Mr. Acosta said. The N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights advocates stated that the requirements imposed on Cracker Barrel sent a solid message but that this test from the company’s image would be whether the plaintiffs won money.
”It’s unclear if this will be a large black eye,” said John Relman, a legal representative whose discrimination lawsuits against the Denny’s restaurant chain in the early 1990’s helped lead to a $54 million settlement. ”What happens with those lawsuits will truly see whether Cracker Barrel gains the type of notoriety that Denny’s did.”