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.”
Firebrand Media LLC wants comments that advance the discussion, and we need your help to accomplish this mission. Debate and disagreement are welcomed on our platforms but do it with respect. We won't censor comments we disagree with. Viewpoints from across the political spectrum are welcome here. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, our community is not obliged to host all comments shared on its website or social media pages, including:
- Hate speech that is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic slurs, or calls for violence against a particular type of person.
- Obscenity and excessive cursing.
- Libelous language, whether or not the writer knows what they're saying is false.
Scroll down to comment on this post.