Copycat Co.
Copycat Co. Credit: Jessica Sidman

After last call in the earliest hours of Sunday morning a contentious argument involving race broke out at Copycat Co., a popular cocktail bar and dumpling shop on H Street NE. In the days that followed, a Medium post about the incident from a witness went viral. Accusations flew. Emotions ran high. Patrons felt betrayed, vowing never to return. And just today, a bartender was fired. 

Now both sides are talking. First patron Jazmyne Wade. Then Copycat Co. owner Devin Gong

Wade, a native Washingtonian who has lived in the H Street NE neighborhood for 15 years, went to Copycat Co. around 1 a.m. Sunday morning with a friend. They had just come from Art All Night. She says she’s been patronizing the business for four years. “I like the way they make drinks,” she says. “I like the potstickers. I always tipped graciously because I’m a bartender. I came there feeling good.”

The women ordered drinks and food. “We get our bill, pay our bill, and as we’re finishing up a black male bartender comes down to the end of the bar,” Wade explains. That bartender has since been identified as Rob Tinney. “He stood there for two minutes making nasty faces at me. I was like, “Yeah, we should go. He looks like he has an issue. Let’s finish our food and leave.’” 

She tells City Paper she had a prior negative experience with Tinney, but says she wasn’t directly involved. She didn’t disclose anything further but their past at the bar was enough to make Wade seek out a table where she says she “wouldn’t have to deal with him.” 

Then things escalated between Wade and Tinney, according to Wade and the eyewitness who wrote the Medium post, Pierrea Naketa:

“He said, ‘Bitch you need to go. You’re not even supposed to fucking be here. You’re mad because you’re a black ugly bitch.” 

Next, Wade says Gong “approached her from behind and said, “You need to go. You need to get out of here. You assaulted my bartender, you’re banned from here.” 

She says she asked Gong for proof she was banned and if he even knew her name. “I was really embarrassed,” Wade says. “I felt stripped of my dignity. I couldn’t believe it happened to me.”

Naketa’s account of the incident tracks with what Wade describes. She stayed behind to confront Gong after Wade left. 

“Before I left, I decided to pull the manager to the side discreetly, to make sure that he would address the colorist bartender,” Naketa writes in Medium, referring to Gong, who is the owner, not the manager. “I explained to him that while I do not know what happened before, and Copycat may have had good cause to want the woman to leave, the way she was asked to leave was disturbing. I asked him if he would be addressing the colorist rant with the bartender. He abrasively said, ‘What? Do you want me to fire him?’ He then noted that the bartender was black too, which sadly is not surprising. I calmly explained that the bartender’s race is irrelevant and that his employee had screamed colorist remarks in front of a room full of people. I told him that my friends and I were uncomfortable and offended.”

Gong responded to the Medium post in the comments section:

The bar owner has more to say about the incident today, including that Tinney has been fired from his job. 

“Jazmyne has been a regular at Copycat for a while,” Gong confirms. But he says he told her not to come back to the bar after an altercation about five months ago. 

He describes that past encounter. “She came in with two of her friends,” Gong says. “Towards the end of the night, they were really drunk. We couldn’t serve them anymore. They refused to leave because they felt it was unjust to kick them out. They were very angry.” 

Gong says they got into an altercation with Tinney, who brought them downstairs and went to get the police who were parked nearby. That’s when, Gong says, one of Wade’s friends slapped a Copycat Co. line-cook in the face, thinking he was Tinney. “He dodged it, but it took his hat off. At that point we were like, ‘You really gotta go.’ Rob came back with the police.” 

The bar decided not to file a formal complaint. They did not file an official “barring notice” with MPD, either. Gong says he just informed the group they could not come back to the bar and told his staff about what happened. “This girl Jazmyne, she’s not allowed in here anymore.”

Since that incident, Gong says, she has tried to visit or order take-out from Copycat Co. using different names. “She definitely knows she’s banned,” he says. “We’ve confronted her.” 

When Wade visited this weekend, Gong says she was served by a new bartender who had just started and wasn’t aware of the ban. When the lights came on after last call, Gong says Tinney made his rounds taking away any leftover drinks. “He pulled the tray of food away from her and was like, ‘You know you’re not supposed to be in here. Please leave.’ This is past 2:45 anyway.”

Gong does not dispute that Tinney called Wade “ugly,” “black,” and “a bitch.”

“Yes—I think he did say those words,” Gong says. “That in itself is extremely unacceptable. It’s not tolerated. His behavior. And her behavior. All parties are wrong here. It was a drunken argument at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night. Can you understand it? Yes. Is it wrong? Yes. I don’t believe he was being discriminatory. He was emotional. I don’t think he meant it in a discriminatory way.” 

Gong says he apologized to Naketa when they spoke after Wade left and told her he was going to speak to Tinney about his behavior, which is different from how Naketa described the exchange on Medium. She says he was abrasive, brushed her off, and was even joking around.

Reflecting on the incident, Gong says he could have handled the situation much better.

“It was very upsetting for me,” he says. “I acted based on my emotions. And here we are. I own that. I fucked up. But does the company deserve to be called racist? Absolutely not. It’s not fair to my staff. 80 percent of them are people of color.” He says he held a staff meeting yesterday. “I’m literally sitting in front of five women of color telling them they can’t be sexist and racist. I’m telling black women not to hate on black women.”

He says this is “not a time to fight but a time to amend,” and notes that he would welcome a dialogue with Wade. 

Wade says she’d like the incident to inspire the community to “come together and look at their own biases.” 

“Everywhere you go there’s this anti-blackness,” she says. “There’s a dark history behind that.” She says we can all do better and what happened is bigger than her and bigger than the situation.

Update 9/24:

Following the publication of this story, the bartender who lost his job after the incident contacted City Paper and offered a statement. In the statement, Robert Tinney confirms there was an incident involving Wade about five months ago that led to her group being asked to leave the bar and not return in the future. He says someone in Wade’s party struck him in the face that night, not a line cook as Gong told City Paper last week.

Tinney also refutes that he called Wade a bitch in the early hours of Sept. 15. In his statement, Tinney says when he “lost his temper” he said the following, “nothing more, nothing less”: “Get your black ugly ass the fuck out of my bar.” The statement continues, “It’s true, I was angry and defensive and should not have used those words in that way. But Jazmyne is black like me and was being extremely ugly to me.”

The rest of Tinney’s statement is as follows (sic):

I can understand why Devin Gong, a man I worked with for more than five years and with whom I built Copycat from nail and board, felt he needed to throw me under the bus. His first thought in this PR maelstrom was to protect the bar at all costs. But the cost to me was my job and for now, and my reputation. But I hope that readers to my reply will be more understanding. I am a black man, raised by black women whom I love respect. I have survived nearly being killed by street violence and I have worked honestly and consistently with integrity.

For all my bartender and bar owner friends and colleagues, please know this:  We are often asked to do a politically correct job in a politically incorrect environment. When customers become unruly, drunk and disorderly—and sometimes violent and dangerousthings can get out of hand.  But we bartenders do our best to protect the bar and the business. Sometimes we don’t handle the drama in the smoothest way, but I would challenge anyone to do this kind of work under these circumstances without inviting second-hand criticism. In my case, this criticism and the reporting of what allegedly happened, has so far been extremely unfair.