American Times Denny's Diner: You're welcome: US restaurants offer hand of racial friendship Ethnic minorities start winning the racism war in restaurants

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A FACE appears on the television screen. It is brown, wide-eyed, and framed - quite discreetly - with dreadlocks. "I want to let you into a little secret," says the voiceover. "I'm black."

Reading this in Britain your reaction might be neutral or dismissive: "Well, so what? Of course, you are." But this is the United States and such frankness about race still shocks.

"There are some people who never notice another person's colour," the advert continues. "But most of us do. And that's OK. Don't feel guilty. Noticing a person's colour doesn't make you a racist. Acting like it matters does."

The face fades out to be replaced by a yellow, red and green logo: "Denny's". To an American viewer that logo means two things - a chain of rather old-fashioned restaurants, the sort of no-frills Formica-topped places where you can have breakfast or a burger and be waited on by motherly ladies with large-pocketed aprons. But Denny's means something else. It has behind it two expensive court judgments for discriminating against black customers, orwould-be customers, because their main complaint was that they could not get served. Either they were ignored at the door when they waited for the hostess to seat them, or they seated themselves and went unserved.

I, too, have a problem with the hostess system at American restaurants, and not just at Denny's. I fail to understand why, at an eatery which is but a couple of notches up from a fast-food joint, I should have to stand at reception, contemplating dozens of free tables, while waiting for someone to seat me.

It is one of those American practices that leads Europeans to ask whether American service-sector jobs are "real" jobs and, as we wait for the frazzled hostess to notice us, to ponder the economics. How can they afford to keep so many tables empty and employ someone just to seat us? Would they not do better to employ fewer people at higher pay and have them all wait at table, instead of having us wait around for the hostess?

This, however, might be "white" reasoning. If you are black or Hispanic, you might reach a different conclusion. And it was this sort of thing that gave Denny's a bad name with the very customers that it could have courted.

A new set of television commercials, of which the "I'm black" advert is one, is the company's way of signalling that it has changed. It is costing $2m and is the brainchild of James Adamson, chief executive of the parent company, Advantica.

Mr Adamson was appointed four years ago when Denny's was at its nadir. It had just paid out $54m to two groups of aggrieved customers who said they had been refused tables or service for no reason other than the colour of their skin.

A small, slight and bouncy 50-year-old, Mr Adamson embodies that very American virtue: feeling good about yourself and, of course, your company. He has an all-American pedigree, coming from Gap, via Burger King, and is credited with rescuing the restaurant chain's fortunes and reputation.

Last year, Advantica - which owns three restaurant groups besides Denny's - caused a stir by coming second in Fortune magazine's list of best 50 companies for Asians, blacks and Hispanics.

Almost half its employees are now black or Hispanic, and one-third of its supervisory staff are from ethnic minorities. It has "minority" representatives on its board and puts all staff through "diversity" training. The number of Denny's franchises held by black Americans has gone from one to 123 in six years.

Mr Adamson acknowledges that discrimination exists, deliberate or not. "I am a complete supporter of affirmative action," he says, "because I don't believe the playing field is level ... white men tend to hire white men." He is unusual, too, in believing - probably correctly - that racial integration in the US is getting worse rather than better.

The advertising campaign is an expensive gamble that Advantica, which emerged from bankruptcy only last year, can hardly afford. But as the complexion of America changes, and the spending power of minority groups grows, it is a gamble that Mr Adamson, for one, thinks worthwhile.

Comments