Agreement Reached in Cracker Barrel Case
By CURT ANDERSON
Associated Press Writer
May 3, 2004, 4:03 PM EDT
WASHINGTON -- Black customers at many Cracker Barrel restaurants were seated in areas segregated from white patrons, frequently received inferior service and often were made to wait longer for tables, according to a Justice Department civil rights settlement announced Monday.
Cracker Barrel agreed to end discriminatory practices alleged in a government lawsuit and consent decree filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. The lawsuit contends that Cracker Barrel violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by "engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination against African-American customers" at dozens of restaurants, mainly in the Southeast.
"To discriminate on the basis of race in the provision of food and service tramples most gravely not only on the civil rights laws but also our nation's promise of equality," said R. Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for civil rights.
While agreeing to a number of operational changes, Cracker Barrel did not admit wrongdoing and will pay no fines or penalties to the government, spokeswoman Julie Davis said. The law does not permit the Justice Department to seek fines in such cases.
"This moves us forward in a direction we were already going," Davis said. "It allows both sides to avoid protracted and costly litigation."
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc., based in Lebanon, Tenn., has been the target of several lawsuits filed by black customers who say they received poor service compared with white patrons.
While the Justice Department settlement will have no direct effect on those cases, department investigators found that blacks often had exceptionally long waits for tables compared with whites, were seated in racially segregated areas in restaurants and sometimes were denied service by white employees. Blacks who complained about poor service also were treated less favorably than whites.
The investigation found evidence of the problems at more than 50 restaurants in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Acosta said 80 percent of the 150 employees or former employees interviewed in the probe said they had witnessed or experienced discriminatory treatment at Cracker Barrel restaurants, with managers often directing or condoning the behavior.
In one restaurant, for example, the investigation uncovered a section called "the Ghetto" where black patrons were seated, according to Justice Department officials.
The agreement will last five years and requires, among other things, that the chain's employees undergo expanded racial diversity training and that procedures to investigate patrons' complaints be improved.
The company also will hire an outside firm to send agents acting as customers into restaurants to check on Cracker Barrel employees.
"We do not tolerate any form of discrimination," said Donald M. Turner, Cracker Barrel president and chief operating officer. "It is, and always has been, a violation of our policies and procedures and is neither condoned nor allowed."
Cracker Barrel operates 497 restaurants in 41 states. It had $1.9 billion in sales last year.
Monday's agreement is similar to a previous consent decree reached between the Justice Department and the Denny's restaurant chain. In 1994, Denny's reached a $54 million settlement in a class action lawsuit alleging discrimination against blacks that resulted in broad changes, including more black restaurant franchisees and an increase in minority supervisory employees.