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Coffee isn’t the only thing brewing at Georgia-based Waffle House Inc. In recent years, a legal fight has been percolating, with the popular restaurant chain opposing black customers who allege that they have been denied service, insulted or ordered to leave Waffle House restaurants. The latest lawsuit — Gordon v. Hillcrest Foods, No. 3:01-CV-00281 (W.D.N.C.) — was filed recently in federal court in Charlotte, N.C., by a legal team that includes the Washington, D.C., civil rights law firm that helped bring about the $54 million settlement of a class action against Denny’s restaurants in 1994. Members of a gospel singing group contend that workers at a Monroe, N.C., Waffle House made them leave their seats so white patrons could sit. Avis Buchanan, an attorney at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said the Waffle House suits are similar to race bias claims her firm fought in the early 1990s against South Carolina-based Denny’s restaurants. In those cases, black Secret Service agents and other African-American patrons said that they had been either refused service or mistreated by Denny’s employees. “This is just the latest battleground,” Buchanan said. A SECOND SUIT The most recent lawsuit stems from a Feb. 11 incident in which four members of a Washington, D.C., gospel group and their bus driver say they stopped at a Waffle House at about 1:30 a.m. They ordered food to go and sat down at the counter to wait, they said. Their lawsuit says they changed their minds and told the waitress they would like to eat in the restaurant, but the waitress didn’t reply. Minutes later, a white guard from a private security firm working at the restaurant told them they would have to move because some white customers who had entered needed their seats, the suit alleges. The singers contend that the guard explicitly referred to the race of the customers he wanted to seat. The lawsuit says that the guard eventually told the cook not to prepare the group’s food and ordered them out of the restaurant. The men went back to their bus, with the guard allegedly taunting them. Lawyers James Ferguson II and Henderson Hill, who are working with the committee and with Washington, D.C., lawyer Ted J. Williams, said that the case doesn’t represent an isolated incident. The attorneys, both of Charlotte, N.C.’s Ferguson, Stein, Wallas, Adkins, Gresham & Sumter, said that in a second lawsuit, filed recently in a North Carolina state court, two black customers at a Charlotte Waffle House say that waitresses ignored them for 30 minutes and then ejected them after they complained. Referring to the gospel singers’ suit, the chain’s corporate headquarters issued a statement saying it doesn’t tolerate discrimination but couldn’t comment on the specific allegations because they “solely involve the franchisee.” The chain “proudly serves all customers from all races and backgrounds with a commitment to friendly service,” the statement said. An official at Waffle House Inc. in Norcross, Ga., said the chain has lost few, if any, suits in recent years. Suwanee, Ga.-based Hillcrest Foods Inc., which owns both of the restaurants involved in the North Carolina cases, in 1999 lost a bias suit to eight North Atlanta High School students who said that a cook called them names. A federal jury awarded the students $440,000. Hillcrest officials declined to comment. The plaintiffs in the North Carolina cases are taking the same initial approach the lawyers’ committee used against Denny’s. They held a press conference in hope of attracting other angry customers. The plaintiffs contend that Waffle House officials, like Denny’s officials, ignored or downplayed complaints instead of acting on them. They said that other claims can link the chain’s corporate policies and behavior to the mistreatment of minority customers.

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