Editor's Note: On Oct. 7, while walking down Clark Street near Aldine, Windy City Times reporter Lori Weiner was confronted by Israel Sanchez, whose family owns two Cesar's restaurants in Boystown. Sanchez challenged Weiner, who has reported on recent bias allegations against Cesar's on Clark, to present the restaurant's side. While we have sought the restaurant's commentary throughout our reporting of the allegations against it, and have published Cesar's responses to all allegations against them when a response was provided, Mr. Sanchez felt the reporting was too 'one-sided,' in his words. On Oct. 8, Weiner met Israel Sanchez at the Broadway Street location and conducted the following interview. Meanwhile, Melissa Johns, who said she and her partner Naomi Mendoza were discriminated against at Cesar's on Clark Aug. 31, spearheaded an action against the restaurant when she coordinated a GLBT kiss-in, combined with a leaflet distribution to incoming Cesar's customers, outside the restaurant's Clark Street location Friday, Oct. 10.
WCT: How does your family feel about the bias allegations that have been made against the Clark Street store?
IS: Obviously, we're not going to assume responsibility for something that we obviously had nothing to do with, but we are responsible for [what happens in their restaurant]. Regarding the [Aug. 31 incident involving Melissa Johns and Naomi Mendoza], a couple things. This doesn't affect us at all, the fact that there's accusations flying around. That's fine. People are free to express their feelings, their concerns, as they may. It's a public establishment. Rules have to be followed. If people don't like it, simple as that, go elsewhere. Our letter that we responded with the first time should have stated what our policies were as far as appropriate behavior in a public facility. If people can't handle it, there's a million other restaurants to go to. I have tons of positive responses from people—e-mails, faxes—I have gay, lesbian, straight couples who have read the article and find it somewhat fishy, the fact that it's obviously one sided. That's because I haven't been able to express my concerns, only because I didn't want to make it a bigger issue than what it really was. I don't intend on apologizing, and I won't apologize on behalf of the restaurant, because I don't assume responsibility for something I had no control over. From this point forward, we have established a policy where—it's an underlying rule that no matter what, a public establishment means everyone is welcome. Now, rules have to be followed. I'll say it again—if they don't like it, go somewhere else. Bottom line. And these accusations that keep on coming up, like when you, Lori, told me the last time we spoke about the gentlemen who were offended, and you suggested to me what I should do ... you suggested I offer them [a free meal]. ... Why would I offer somebody food if an apology would be the right way to do it, if that is in fact what happened? Food isn't going to make things right. And if people intend on using that, gay lesbian or straight, as an excuse to get food or get something out of it, people are going to read between the lines ... .
WCT: Have people been asking you for freebies since the articles started?
IS: No, but we don't want to set the precedent. ... Why would I offer food for something that has no monetary—there's nothing that you can give someone to make up for their embarrassment or humiliation.
WCT: Assuming you were to witness a situation similar to those reported, how would you handle it as the manager?
IS: I would obviously do my research on my part, investigate as much as I can, to find out exactly what happened. One thing that you have to take into consideration, once alcohol plays a big role in situations, things start getting foggy. That's where it's at.
WCT: Does Cesar's still contend that [Johns and Mendoza] were drinking?
IS: I don't know. That's why I am not apologizing, because I don't know exactly what happened. These are just all rumors. I made calls. I attempted to make calls [to Johns and Mendoza]. They never pick up, I left them a message, they've never responded. So pretty much the ball is in their court. I don't know what else to say. [When contacted by WCT, Johns stated that Sanchez called her on Sept. 15 when she was in the middle of a meeting at work. When Johns asked him to call her back in 15 minutes, she claims he failed to do so and has subsequently left no messages on her voice mail.]
WCT: What were you planning to say?
IS: I just wanted to hear what exactly had happened. I was going to try to solve it on my end. Which we did, even though they never bothered to call me back. [The employee involved in the Aug. 31 Mendoza-Johns incident] was repositioned within the company. We have set precedents to make sure that this doesn't happen again. A gentleman came in and asked me specifically, 'Do you guys have a policy against boys kissing boys?' And I said, 'No!' Look at where we're at. Look at why we are who we are. The gay and lesbian community, along with the straight community. Everyone has helped us get to where we're at, so for us to close the door on someone, it wouldn't be fair. The bottom line, these incidents have brought more attention to the restaurant. That which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. If other people have concerns, I'm not going to listen to every single one, only because—all I'm trying to do is make a living. If people feel uncomfortable coming here, well then, don't come here. But until it happens to you, or you're personally affected, so be it. From this point on, you can be assured that both the Clark and Broadway locations of Cesar's are gay and lesbian friendly. I don't know what else to say.
WCT: There have been some comments from within the GLBT community that even if some of your customers violated the restaurant's rules, the Cesar's on Clark employees reportedly reacted with excessive harshness, yelling and such.
IS: I'm not going to comment on that. I won't comment on that, because I'm not going to assume responsibility for people ... we've been on Clark street 13 years, and to keep track of everyone's words or actions is kind of impossible. What we do try to enforce is a comfortable, friendly, family environment. That's the bottom line. If people can't follow the rules, they've gotta go. Simple as that. I'm not going to tell someone how to act. You go to a restaurant, you know how to act. You sit on someone's lap, I'm going to have to intervene. Your actions are making other people uncomfortable, including myself. It's that simple. It's a rule that you don't say. It's just out there. You know how to act.
WCT: You mentioned earlier that you've received words of support from gay and lesbian customers.
IS: Oh, yeah. There's been guys, girls, obviously supporting us, because they know we as a family, we as a restaurant, are for the promotion of equality. Us being minorities, we know how it is to be discriminated against. I'm giving you a fax we received recently from customers supporting us since these articles have started coming out. [The fax, written by the male half of a straight Hispanic couple who say they were at the restaurant during the Johns and Mendoza incident, states: 'I applaud Cesar's restaurant for trying to keep a family environment and I do not feel they handled the situation unprofessional (sic) in any way']. The fact that a lack of response on our part [to the recent allegations] was there is because, we get cold calls, people ask to speak with the manager or the owner, we have to screen those calls, otherwise we'd be on the phone all day. That's one of the reasons we did not respond in an appropriate manner before now.
WCT: If customers want to share their concerns with you directly, how should they go about doing that?
IS: There will not be any further incidents, but the first step if someone has a complaint, they should contact the manager on site. Don't leave the restaurant and then come back later. Have it be on a per incident basis. Don't wait five days and be like, 'oh, I remember that day I was drunk and I got kicked out of Cesar's.' You probably got kicked out because you were drunk, not because you were gay or lesbian. If something comes up at that particular moment, it has to be addressed right then. No. 1, I'm not going to take phone calls. Two, I'm not going to filter all my e-mails. If something happens, it has to be addressed that exact same moment. The manager on site will handle it appropriately. We've instituted rules and regulations internally on how to deal with things.
WCT: Some of your customers who have contacted us with complaints said they tried to complain to the manager on duty at the Clark store, but were told there was no manager on duty that night. If a similar situation should happen again, how should the customer proceed?
IS: There should always be a manager on duty.
The following are excerpts from a letter sent by a Blanca, who was with Johns and Mendoza at the restaurant:
'All four of us were enjoying ourselves when all of a sudden, a man came up to our table saying the place was not a gay establishment. We were very upset by his comments because we weren't doing anything that would offend anybody there. He was way too aggressive with us, practically pushing us out the door. There were no families with kids there, only adults and gay couples.'