Muslim Patrons Sue Urth Caffe

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Crowds pack Urth Caffe on weekends, earning the ire of some neighbors and now some patrons. Photo by Jody Tiongco.
Since its opening, crowds have packed Urth Caffe on weekends, earning the ire of some neighbors and now some patrons.
Photo by Jody Tiongco.

A lawyer representing seven Muslim women filed a lawsuit against the Urth Caffe, claiming they were ousted from the popular Laguna Beach restaurant in an act of religiously motivated discrimination, a violation of a state civil rights act.

The suit filed in Orange County Superior Court on Monday, May 2, seeks to permanently halt what they suit says is the discriminatory application of the restaurant’s seating policy to Muslims as well as unspecified punitive damages.

Signs on the tables urge customers to move on after 45 minutes during peak periods.

A video posted to Facebook and taken by Sarah Khalil Farsakh shows her circling through the restaurant on Friday, April 22, narrating what the viewer sees — many unoccupied tables — even as she questions the manager’s order instructing her party to depart.

“They were discriminated against because of their religion,” said lawyer Dan Stormer, of Pasadena, who represents the seven woman, six of whom live in Orange County. Rawan Hamdan, 27, lives in Jordan, the suit says.

Owners Jilla and Shallom Berkman, who began the five-restaurant company in 1989 in Los Angeles, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Since the restored 1917 Craftsman bungalow re-opened last September, it has become a favorite late-night destination for Muslims because of its alcohol-free environment. In recent months, though, the suit alleges that Muslim patrons have experienced “hate crimes” at the location, including egg-throwing, racial slurs and tire slashing.

Police confirmed such incidents took place, but not in the presence of patrons. Prior to the incident last month involving Farsakh and her friends, “we haven’t been out there called by Muslims,” Captain Jason Kravetz said.

But the restaurant that built its brand on organic coffee and a health-conscious menu has earned a less than wholesome reputation among its neighbors at Aster Street and Coast Highway.

Nearby merchants and apartment dwellers voice rising frustration with the operation’s management practices, which they say disregard the impact of its customers and vendors. They cite idling delivery trucks blocking access, late-night noise, and patrons who congregate on the sidewalk, litter and smoke tobacco.

Many are afraid to complain, fearing retaliation, said Jon Madison, owner of an adjacent historic structure, Madison Square Garden and Café.

But a code enforcement investigation at Urth Caffe is underway, confirmed supervisor Fred Fix, who declined to detail the nature of the inquiry. If a violation occurred, corrective action would be ordered, Fix said. “Our goal is compliance.”

Mondher Elouaer tolerates the restaurant’s noise that penetrates his nearby apartment and receives courteous treatment when he patronizes Urth Caffe. “I think they need to make rules for their customers,” said the six-year Laguna Beach resident, a native of Tunisia.

Farsakh and her friends, six of whom were wearing headscarves, collected around three tables on the restaurant patio after ordering meals and coffee on Friday, April 22, the suits says. After about an hour, about 8 p.m., they were asked to vacate the premises, ostensibly because they had violated the restaurant’s 45-minute stay policy, even though at least 20 tables were open and the order line short, said Stormer.

When the women protested, management called police. “They’ve done nothing wrong. The actions are discriminatory,” Stormer said.

One of the two officers who responded recalled seeing other patrons present who were also wearing headscarves, said Kravetz, who pointed out that restaurants throughout the town routinely ask police to escort out patrons they are no longer willing to serve. Reasons range from patrons with bare feet to bringing children into a bar, he said.

Stormer said the identity of several plaintiffs was withheld to spare them harassment.

The women have no desire to hold negotiations with the restaurant owner, Stormer said. “We are going to compel them to comply with the law,” he said. “This has turned into something larger.”

 

 

 

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Another frivolous lawsuit filed by people who think the rules don’t apply to them. The restaurant’s policy is clearly stated and they violated it. They bring up religious persecution because it’s a hot button issue and they feel they can milk it for some extra cash. I hope the lawsuit is tossed and these self entitled ladies have to pay Urth Cafe’s legal fees.

  2. That is a management problem. 45 minutes to leave sounds like a Lunchtime turn over. If a patron has ordered beverages only, then maybe, but only advisable not set in stone.

    The advertised help wanted for the restaurant is usually only in Spanish language which in itself reeks of inequality.
    If the staff is ordered by management to ask patrons to leave after 45 minutes then I can only imagine what else is under cooked to save time.

    The restaurant needs to be more flexible especially during the first two years of operation, what company policy works at other locations is not a blueprint to be followed when dealing with public hospitality.

  3. its a set up

    Why was one of the women taking a video prior. Or even when it happened. The intention was to cause a law suit.. Especially if CAIR is lingering in the background.

    Have you been to most coffee shops where people linger forever on their computers and you can not get a place to sit. the 45 minutes is short but the place is aways full with more people wanting in that is because they have everything fabulous…

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