Was it a case of discrimination on the basis of race? Or was it some other factor that led to 17-year-old Abby Brammer, an African-American teen from Larchmont, not being hired by Marty Chen, manager of Matsumoto Restaurant in Larchmont?
Abby’s parents, Bradley and Kathy Brammer, filed suit against the manager and the owner of the restaurant on June 22, alleging a violation of Abby’s civil rights. Their witness is Rebecca Kitsis, a Caucasian friend from Mamaroneck High School, who was vacating the Matsumoto job as cashier, telephone order taker and hostess to focus on her studies.
When Rebecca told Mr. Chen about Abby over the phone on March 20, “He was very excited and glad to have me on the team,” Abby recalls. But when they met later that evening at the restaurant where Abby had begun training under Rebecca, “he was reluctant to even shake my hand,” she told the Gazette.
For the most part, Mr. Chen does not disagree with Rebecca’s narrative in the legal papers about what happened next:
After observing Abby work for less than fifteen minutes, Mr. Chen pulled Rebecca aside, told her he was not a racist, but said it would be bad for business to have Abby work there.
That’s illegal.” Rebecca recalls telling Mr. Chen.
Abby and Rebecca walked out of the restaurant, not waiting to be paid for the evening as Mr. Chen had offered.
Reaction to the Incident
According to Abby, Rebecca immediately contacted her uncle, an attorney, who recommended she take detailed notes of the encounter for a possible law suit. Going through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was unsuccessful, but a suit was ultimately filed on Monday, June 22 with the help of attorney Joshua Friedman, whose daughter is a friend of Abby and Rebecca.
On Wednesday, June 25, Abby and 25-30 friends protested in front of Matsumoto holding signs, many of which called for a boycott. Text messages from Abby had gone out over the weekend explaining about the discrimination lawsuit and that Mr. Friedman wanted her and her friends to picket in front of the store.
“I wanted to help Abby out and support her in the case,” explained MHS senior Jonathan Williams, one of the protestors. “I wanted to stand up for what was right,” said Laura Glass-Johnston, another friend of Abby’s.
“I’m not a discrimination person,” said Mr. Chen, 35, a Hong Kong native in this country for 10 years. In an interview with the Gazette, he struggled for words to describe why he thought Abby would be fine as cashier, but not as hostess. Finally, Mr. Chen put on an expressionless face and cast his eyes down to demonstrate his view of her demeanor. ”I had the feeling that she wasn’t comfortable greeting people or having conversations with the people,” he said.
“I kind of had a feeling that she’s not going to be compatible with the restaurant,” he said. “She was trying very hard, but she didn’t have the smile like a hostess.” He recalled telling Rebecca, “Maybe, I should have an Oriental feeling environment.”
All of the wait staff and sushi chefs at the restaurant come from Asian countries, but there are greeters from other nationalities and ethnic backgrounds.
Mr. Chen emphasized that he had not yet interviewed Abby nor even received an application from her when she began trying out for the job on March 20. His typical procedure is to interview prospective applicants from a list, he said, showing a clipboard with names of job seekers.
The Brammers’ suit calls for the defendants to pay Abby the wages she would have earned and to “compensate her for the loss of hope and the suffering and fear their illegal conduct has caused.”
Abby said she had been counting on the Matsumoto job to help pay for college. She has been accepted to Muhlenberg College with a $29,000 scholarship and received an additional $1,000 from the Mamaroneck Student Aid Fund, but she still needs another $15,000 to bridge the gap. Currently working part-time at the Larchmont Yacht Club, she’s “looking for a second or maybe even a third job” and may have to defer her college plans.
Mr. Chen has been speaking with an attorney and is awaiting advice on how the incident can be settled without further hurting the restaurant for something he may have done. “It’s only one manager doing something maybe improper,” he stressed, “it’s not the restaurant.”
Mr. Chen said he is very worried about the business.
The restaurant has already gone through a number of upheavals. Matsumoto took over the spot at 158 Larchmont Avenue in 2008, following a three decade run by Marimo and a very short incarnation as Sachi’s Sushi. Sachi’s closed after an altercation between the owner, Chang Zhu, and one of the waitresses. (See: Owner Arrested for Assault: Sachi Restaurant Remains Closed. ) The restaurant underwent a redesign – inside, outside and on the menu re-opening as the more upscale Matsumoto.
“I’m willing to hire all kinds of people,” said Mr. Chen.
Having Matsumoto show it does not discriminate by hiring African-American staff is an important consideration for Abby – and for the young people involved in the protest. A sign held by one of the picketers read: “Mamaroneck Won’t Stand for Discrimination.”