What happened at Clique this weekend?

The popular Detroit diner is the subject of a customer’s Facebook post alleging mistreatment from the restaurant’s staff

ne of the trickiest stories a writer can try to tell is one involving a dispute at a restaurant.

It's difficult to write these stories. As the reader, your first question is "why bother?" Disagreements in restaurants happen all the time. Is this news?

If it involves a popular restaurant, whether new or old, it could be news.

You might have seen a viral Facebook post – more than 1,400 shares as of this post – about Clique Restaurant on Sunday.

After 10+ years of patronizing this restaurant with business associates, friends & family, today I watched the owner disrespect 6 black customers (including myself & my friend). Not only did he snatch and throw away my friend's food while she was eating, he then began ranting about he's the customer too & that he doesn't care about customer service because black people will eat at his restaurant regardless. There's no way, I'll ever spend another dime in a restaurant that treats their customers like trash…and you shouldn't either! (CLICK SHARE, TAG A FRIEND & HELP US MAKE THIS GO VIRAL! Let racist restaurants like The Clique know that black dollars matter too!)

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Metro Detroit’s complicated history with race relations needs no explanation. Metro Detroit’s current racial climate, however, does need to be taken into consideration.

We’ve seen it happen recently with an incident at Punch Bowl Social, where black customers described mistreatment from the waitstaff, some of whom were white. The consensus among many who sided with the customers was that patrons of color aren’t welcome in the trendy “New Detroit” locales like Punch Bowl Social as places downtown begin to attract whiter crowds.

But Clique is definitely not New Detroit. That’s something we can all agree on, right? Clique is probably as far from New Detroit as you can get. One needs to look no further than the autographed napkins – news personalities, athletes, musicians, the political and business elite – hanging on the restaurant’s wall. It’s a destination for everyone, regardless of what side of Eight Mile they grew up in – or what side of the Detroit River they live on. (And full disclosure: I usually recommend Clique as a must-visit for out-of-towners.)

Still, it doesn’t change the reality that many black Detroiters feel on edge about what their place is in New or Old Detroit. So here we are, wondering aloud if an Old Detroit staple like Clique could be – could be, for the social media keyboard warriors ready to pounce – guilty of the same transgressions we see in the New Detroit. And this is why it’s news.

I reached out to Christen Rochon, the author of this post, to offer her version of events, and I also reached out to Marina Gjokaj, who co-owns Clique with her husband.

Rochon, a writer from Detroit who now lives in New York, says she was back in town for her birthday. A friend wanted to take her out to brunch but wasn’t sure where to go. Rochon suggested Clique because her friend had never been, and, as she noted in her Facebook post, it’s also one of her favorites.

“It was pretty packed, and we probably had to wait 15 minutes before we were seated,” Rochon says. “Once we sat down, it was about another 10 or 15 minutes, but we noticed there was an altercation taking place at another table.”

Rochon says she and her friend saw one of Clique’s staff arguing with patrons over an omelet. She says one of the customers asked for ham to be left out of the omelet, but the staffer told them “this isn’t Burger King, you can’t have it your way.” After some back-and-forth, Rochon says the staffer reluctantly served a ham-free omelet.

“The whole restaurant was silent,” Rochon says. “I believe that’s really what ignited a bad feeling, or explains the state of mind that the manager was in before he had the altercation with my table.”

Rochon says a waitress took their order – she had a sandwich, her friend had steak and eggs – and waited about a half-hour for their food. When their order arrived, her friend noticed the steak was cooked, but cold. They asked if the steak could be warmed up on the grill.

Then, Rochon says, they waited another 10 minutes before they noticed the steak dish waiting on the counter near the food-prep area. Rochon says her friend went to get the plate herself – she emphasizes that her friend did not go back into the food-prep area – and was approached by the manager.

“He said, ‘what are you doing…(the steak) needs to sit, it needs to sit for awhile,’” Rochon says. Her friend explained that she’d asked for the steak to be warmed up, and that it was now ready to be served. When she walked back to the table with her plate, the manager, Rochon says, followed her and repeatedly told her to leave the plate where it was.

“Then he grabs her plate and throws it away,” Rochon says. “I’m sitting here in shock, because I’m like, ‘OK, what happened?’”

Rochon says her friend then left the restaurant without saying anything, but “I didn’t feel right about leaving without paying for my food.” Rochon says she then tried to approach the manager and waitstaff about what had happened, but was “brushed off” by the manager. “There were two ladies sitting at the counter, and they said ‘that’s not right,”” Rochon said.

The manager, Rochon says, came back to talk to her, where she says she tried to explain the confusion over the steak. “Then he started to walk away, saying ‘I don’t care, I just don’t care.’”

Rochon repeated to me what she wrote in her Facebook status that the manager said that “black people will eat at his restaurant regardless.” She says that she informed the staff before leaving that she would never return to Clique.

“I don’t complain often,” Rochon says. “I like to share positive posts — one of my biggest passions is sharing positive stories about Detroit.” (For the record, her Facebook account does reflect this.) “I’m not the type of person that would share something that would paint Detroit businesses in a bad light.

“But this is this person’s character, and it’s going to affect their business in the future,” she says.

Gjokaj, who was not working at Clique when Rochon was there (“It was my first Sunday off in seven years,” she says), says she’s aware of the Facebook post and the reaction to it, but said her husband, who was manager that day, did not do or say anything in Rochon’s post.

“Our customers who know us — let them tell the story of who we are,” Gjokaj says. “What she did was very degrading and very untrue.”

In the Facebook post, some people wrote that they had similar experiences because the managers are Middle Eastern, which Gjokaj says is also untrue; she and her husband are of European ancestry.

“I was born in Detroit. My father had his first coney island at Davison and Linwood. I’ve been here my whole life,” she says.

Gjokaj says she has not been in contact with Rochon or her friend. (Rochon also says she and her friend have not been in contact with Clique since Sunday.)

“Maybe she got embarrassed and had to play the race card. That was very sad, but that’s all I have to say,” Gjokaj says. “Ask the customers about us, that’s all I have to say.”

Here’s what’s going to happen after this is published, as is always the case in these stories that are a complicated web of he-said-she-said, customer service in restaurants and racial tension in Detroit. Half of the people who read this will take the side of Rochon; the customer is always right. And the other half of the people who read this will take the side of Clique; the customer is often wrong.

Former restaurant employees will read this and detail all the horror stories they’ve had with arrogant, demanding customers and will indeed make the same case for Rochon. Restaurant patrons will read this and detail all the horror stories they’ve had with rude, obnoxious servers and relate it to Rochon’s story. Social media debates will rage on, and you can bet that since this is a story taking place in Detroit, there will be the inevitable call for us to say nice things about Detroit and put this all behind us so that the whole city can move forward because optimism and positivity is absolutely what the city needs right now.

Everyone’s going to ask if there’s video (what did we ever do without cell phones?). Someone’s going to ask if there’s a police report filed. “The media” will be criticized for doing too much, or not doing enough.

Clique’s Yelp and other online reviews will be temporarily flooded with bad customer service reviews. The comments under this story will inevitably take an offensive term with all but the n-word being shouted at black diners. Someone will ask why is it all about race, and someone will say this is all about race.

This is how it always goes with these kinds of stories; you notice it after reading – and writing – them over and over again. I’m preparing you for this now.

But what’s absolutely indisputable is that there was a Facebook post too big to ignore. Substitute any restaurant for Clique, and you’d still have a business’ reputation at stake. Substitute any customer in place of Rochon and her friend, and you’d still have undertones of racism that need to be addressed.

It’s tricky to write these stories, but we still have to tell them in the best way we can.  Do you hope for resolve? Absolutely. Because the reason why these stories are written is because we hope the resolve will be found here.

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