Edible Monterey Bay

Racist Attacks Rock Two Local Restaurants

July 7, 2020 – There are many takeaways—some crushing, some overwhelming, some uplifting—from the recent race-laced outbursts of violent speech and action in high-end restaurants on both sides of Monterey Bay, namely Alderwood in Santa Cruz and Lucia Restaurant at Carmel Valley’s Bernardus Lodge.

These are not isolated incidents is among the most important takeaways for Paul Suniga, 26, the Filipino-American chef who was targeted by racist language that led to an attack that saw both parties expelled. Suniga, who was dining on an off-night with friends, declined to give many specifics of the incident, citing potential pending legal action. After speaking with a range of staff present that night, June 18, Edible Monterey Bay has assembled a multi-witness version of events.

The ugly incident has received waves of renewed attention because of what happened in its aftermath, including the firing of Suniga, the resignation of much of the Alderwood staff in solidarity, controversial restaurant statements—and now the racist Bernardus exchange that has gone viral on Instagram and Twitter. As this story publishes, footage of a man verbally attacking an Asian-American family with vicious racist slurs, recorded by Jordan Liz Chan, has received hundreds of thousands of views and tens of thousands of likes.

It’s a lot to unpack, but for an industry and a country built on the backs of the marginalized, it couldn’t be much more important or more timely to do so.

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People are asking the wrong questions. That’s an important takeaway for Suniga. They’re asking whats (What happened? What were said?) and whos (Who started it? Who is responsible?) when they could be asking the whys and hows.

“Everyone who’s worked in this industry knows that this is not an isolated incident. People are used as stepping stones all the time, especially at the higher-end restaurants, to do everything they can for valued guests,” he says. “It’s the environment we let in the doors.”

It’s a surprisingly wise, grounded and—more than anything—calm perspective for someone who was attacked verbally and physically by at least three imposing and intoxicated aggressors after politely asking them to be more courteous. That’s partly because none of this is all that surprising to him.

“When things turn violent we shouldn’t shy away from standing up,” Suniga says. “Unfortunately it happens every day and we have to be able to protect our workers and hold people accountable—not valuing the money but valuing the workers who make the place what it is.”

Suniga and chef Jeffrey Wall in happier times

The brawl on June 18 may have triggered the end of Alderwood as we know it.

Edible spoke at length with three former employees who were present that night to recreate this accounting of events. Enrique Alvarez was manning the wait station closest to the tables involved in the fight and assisting in serving both. Gabby Rokeach, who is also Suniga’s girlfriend, was the remaining manager on duty that night. Weston Haight was bartending.

Two have been with the restaurant since before it opened. All three loved working there. All of them resigned in the wake of ownership’s handling of the attack.

COVID-19 has already changed restaurants as we know them, possibly forever. And one key pandemic adjustment plays a mighty role in what happened at Alderwood: big, heavy, roll-away partitions positioned between tables—and positioned right next to Suniga’s back.

Partitions were installed so that Alderwood could reopen safely

Alvarez took a reservation for six—the max per statewide COVID-19 regulation—and the group who sat next to Suniga crowded into a table normally set up for four. Another two would join them less than a half hour in, making for a group of six men and two women, all white. The hostess advised them on COVID-19 policy, they appealed to management, who allowed it. 

The first six sat around 6:30pm and started drinking and eating loudly. Haight could hear from the bar they were clearly having a rowdy and raucous time, and anyone in the restaurant could too. He fielded orders for things like Bloody Marys and whiskeys. The group also brought their own bottles of wine.They would end up with a roughly $2,000 tab.

Their banter got increasingly loud and profane. Alvarez has been in restaurants for decades, but flinched at the language he heard at the table. “They’re talking about anal sex, rimming someone’s ass,” he says. “Not a conversation for dinner, especially with a table across from you.”

He also remembers one of the men mocking his pronunciation of “that” when he asked if he was done with a plate. “What is ‘dat’?” he said, per Alvarez. He noted the older female of the group was visibly uncomfortable, encouraging the group to leave, saying, “Let’s go, let’s go,” repeatedly, without results. Later she would be calling for her table to please calm down.

The restaurant stopped seating at 9pm and the GM and chef clocked out. The owner was also away. By 9:30pm just the two neighboring tables and a two-top remained.

Eventually, after one of the large group who had an injury and was using a one-leg-up scooter, started riding it around the restaurant, the table was cut off from more drinks. They continued to pour from their own wine, which exceeded the two-bottle-free-corkage limit.

On one trip around the table, the guy with the medical scooter rode into the partition protecting the tables, tipping it and sending it into Suniga, who had been seated with two roommates.

This marked the second time they had bumped it into Suniga’s back, unintentionally. Suniga appeared from behind the partition and asked them to be more careful. 

The younger of the women started berating Suniga with slurs, calling him a Mexican faggot so loudly several present could hear it clearly. When two men rose aggressively and moved around the partition toward Suniga, Haight ran from behind the bar to restrain them and coax them to their seats. Then he clearly heard the younger woman point and say, ““This is white America, stay out of our country.” Rokeach heard her shout “white America” repeatedly. 

“I’m stunned at that point,” Haight says. “I had never really heard that up close. I looked at Paul, who never reacted, and [his calm] was shocking to me.”

Rokeach regrets not being able to de-escalate things, a tall order for any manager, but particularly a 23-year-old without any training to do so. “I apologized deeply to my staff,” she says.

Back at their table the group and the younger woman hurled more insults—“Her mouth was out-of-this world,” Alvarez says—then one of the men purposefully pushed the partition a final time, striking Suniga over the head and shoulders before clattering to the ground.

“That’s when I was [thinking], ‘Before they were being aggressive, now they’ve started a fight,’” Haight says. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to break it up.”

Two men advanced around the partition toward Suniga, who threw a glass of water that landed almost entirely on Haight, who was trying to hold back one of the men.

Fists started flying. Haight ducked down to call the police, moving into the open kitchen for slightly more quiet and cover, describing the all-out—and completely uneven—brawl. Then men continued to chase and strike Suniga, who describes a struggle that knocked over tables and ranged across the restaurant. Rokeach called the owner. 

Alvarez attempted to intercede, taking punches to the back of the head. More tables and glasses crashed. One of the men took aim at Alvarez, tackling him so hard the server says he was thrown “like a rag doll, like in a movie.”

“I wasn’t expecting that,” he says. “I never did anything to the guy. I landed on my ass on a table.”

In the five minutes before the police arrived, a woman started recording on her phone, which did little to slow aggressors, who continued to throw punches until the police arrived. In a video posted online it is difficult to see the entire incident.

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By all accounts, the slurs and ensuing violence made for a traumatic experience. In some ways what came next was worse. Haight felt baffled by the scene on the sidewalk after the police arrived as he observed the group of diners laughing and socializing. Then an officer reentered and baffled Haight further. He wasn’t there to take a statement.

“The officer told me, ‘If they come back tell them they’re not welcome and ask them to leave and you can call us again,’” Haight says. “I was thinking what do you mean, ‘If they come back’? You’re just letting them go? It was really bad. I was scared.”

Alvarez met with EMT on the scene and along with Suniga was taken to the hospital. Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz Police put members of the group table in a rideshare.

Alvarez asked to press charges, but hasn’t been contacted by police since, who are deferring to the DA.

“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions,” he says. “Clearly these people were wrong for what they did to Paul, three or four on one at the same time. I believe it was racially motivated. Then these people obviously walk away.

“If that party were Hispanics or Black, if Paul were white, what do you think would be the outcome? Reverse the roles. I leave it to your imagination.”

Suniga has declined to press charges, but sighs when he thinks about the gap in consequences. “Let’s be real,” he says. “If it was the other way around, I would be in handcuffs.”

Alvarez’s ambulance bill cost $3,300. He spent the early morning of his 51st birthday getting X-rays of his back, where he says he’s developed a painful knot his wife says looks like a ping-pong ball. He’s still waiting for workers comp claims to be initiated as he was promised it would be the following day by management. That troubles him, but he seems most frustrated by reports ownership hasn’t allowed inspection of the surveillance tapes by police. 

Chef/co-owner Jeffrey Wall, owner Mahmoud Hamdy Ahmed and GM Mike Falco were each messaged and called for the purposes of this piece, but did not return those calls. Same goes for multiple calls to two different Santa Cruz PD information officers, though an investigation is underway. Hence Edible has been unable to verify whether the tapes have been shared.

“If someone came into your workplace and assaulted you, wouldn’t your owner want to share that video?” Alvarez asks. 

Hamdy did tell KSBW that the restaurant, which first opened in late 2018, shut for the safety of the remaining staff, though departed staff doubt there are enough warm bodies to keep the place operational.

“We have to think about what’s next and how we can reach out to the community and have a dialogue with the community,” Hamdy said on air. “We feel we’ve been treated unfairly in this whole situation.”

Meanwhile, each of the staff interviewed by EMB is mystified they were not asked for a report on what they saw or experienced—by ownership or the police. In pre-shift briefings the day following the incident it wasn’t addressed. The first time management organized a group discussion it was the following Tuesday, the day after leaning much of the staff, having convened offline, had already decided to resign.

Their resentment only intensified when they learned Suniga had been fired the following week. The Instagram post with a photo of ownership that followed June 23, the restaurant’s last, did little to stem outrage in the community and social media. (Its website and Facebook page have since gone dark.)

“We started Alderwood to be part of Santa Cruz community fiber, and to be a staple of the culinary arts in Santa Cruz,” it reads. “We do not support racism, bigotry or prejudice in any way. We do not support violence in any way. Our staff and guests are multicultural and always have been.”

It described an event “that escalated last week…involving customers and an employee that was dining with us.”

“A fight ensued, involving racial verbal abuse and physical violence,” it continues. “After reviewing security footage both parties were found to be at fault and removed. Alderwood’s ownership, management and staff do not condone violence or racism!”

When a tidal wave of comments followed, comments were turned off.

“Leadership had a chance to do something beautiful,” Rokeach says. “Instead they’ve done the opposite.”

•••

Kate Gerwin is a veteran Santa Cruz bartender who used to manage Abbot Square Market and lead mixology at Front & Cooper. She mentored several bartenders who went on to Alderwood and is one of many to weigh in on Instagram with commentary.

“Our industry has been incredibly violent towards people of color and we have ignored it. We have justified and explained it away as some wicked morphed definition of being ‘hospitable,’” she wrote. “We allow oppressors to demean and diminish our staff, people working hard for our success, while we cater to the arrogance of babies, and all in the name of hospitality.”

But she takes pains to acknowledge and address her own contributions to a flawed culture that tells its workers, “Servers just have to take it.”

“I was once quite vocal in my earn-my-chops, well-this-is-the industry talk—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, ‘Toughen up, buttercup,’ and been the one telling dirty jokes in the kitchen,” she says. “I used to say no politics in the bar. I used to have a quote, ‘Oh yeah HR is open 6am-6:15am Tuesday, and which of us is awake then.’ I helped create that culture where chefs thought it was OK to be overworked and underpaid.

“Hospitality is empathy, not servitude. Being hospitable doesn’t mean compromising your identity.”

There are potentially redemptive elements here, she adds, if ownership can take some accountability.

She knows she didn’t get it right for a long time. But she’s changed dramatically, introducing her own staff to diversity training, bystander training, de-escalation training, while encouraging Alderwood to do the same, while issuing staff apologies, enabling comments and—most importantly—not playing the victim.

“It’s OK to realize those things aren’t correct, to change that behavior and make people aware that that can happen,” she says. “Cancel culture is not OK, but neither is ignoring what generates that response. Do not avoid the pain. Say you’re sorry.”

•••

Bryton Plush is another Alderwood employee, a server who was hired to open the restaurant, loved working there, and resigned in protest. He set up a GoFundMe page designed to raise $50,000 to help the staff weather around a month without work, with 15 percent going to RaceForward.org “in an effort to support racial diversity in the workplace.” Haight has requested his portion of any funds raised go entirely to the nonprofit.

While Plush is troubled by what he observes as an unfair response from ownership and law enforcement, he acknowledges there are other places to find solutions. 

“In general, it’s so hard,” he says. “The actual answer has to be community. It’s about coming together, it’s about teaching, it’s about leaving our kids more knowledgeable, raising awareness. I don’t believe in creating a divide—“I’m not racist, you are,” isn’t going to help—community is the biggest point. That’s what I love about Santa Cruz. We’re calling on the community to help us. We serve the community as employees. Let’s band together to keep our community safe. Good can come out of this.”

•••

Something beautiful happens at the end of the ugly Instagram video at Bernardus. After Chan’s family has endured sickening racist slights and the phrase “Trump is going to fuck you,” a Bernardus server enters the picture.

“Get out of here!” says Gennica Cochran, materializing between the family and the man. “You are not allowed here! You don’t talk to our guests like that! You need to leave right now! Get out! You are not allowed here ever again!”

Jeremy Stephens organized his own GoFundMe! fundraiser as a “tip” for her atypical response. It has already zoomed past its goal of $1,000.

“As much as it’s satisfying to drag the man who did this to that family, it’s even more satisfying when we lift up the people who stand up to defend those who are on the receiving end of such racism,” Stephens writes. “Cochran spoke out with a passionate fury against this man, possibly putting her job on the line amidst an economic crisis in order to fight back against just a taste of the racism that is running rampant in our country.”

There are some takeaways in there—the importance of standing up to racism, of prizing people over jobs—that a certain Santa Cruz chef will appreciate.

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