Laura Hayes
Laura Hayes

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“It shouldn’t have taken an article,” says Yesha Callahan, deputy managing editor of African-American news and culture site The Root. “But because it went viral, they had no other choice.”

Callahan wrote a story over the holiday weekend describing an incident at the 14th Street NW location of El Centro, a Mexican restaurant that turns into a place to dance after dark. She describes a personal account in which the fourth person in her party of four was denied access to El Centro because he was wearing sneakers. Her friend was African-American. Meanwhile, a group of white patrons were spotted at the bar, all wearing athletic shoes with laces. Callahan snapped a picture.

The article goes on to capture tweets and other forms of testimony from would-be patrons of El Centro who experienced something similar. Tuesday morning, people were still reaching out to Callahan. “A Hispanic guy called me to say he couldn’t get in,” she says. “To a Mexican restaurant!”

Denver-based Richard Sandoval Restaurants owns two locations of El Centro, Masa 14, and Toro Toro in D.C.

In response to public outcry, RSR managing partner Ayyaz Rashid fired the bouncer who blocked Callahan’s friend from entering, revoked the “no sneaker” policy at both El Centro and Masa 14, and will be offering a training workshop for other staff at the restaurant to prevent future incidents.

One of the reasons Callahan says she’s frustrated that it took her story to enact change is because there have long been complaints about El Centro’s practices on social media and review sites like Yelp. Several former employees of local RSR restaurants, who all commented under the condition of anonymity, recount workplace experiences that suggest that discrimination is part of the company culture.

A former employee of Masa 14, El Centro’s sister restaurant from RSR on the same block, was not surprised to read the headlines over the weekend. She left the company in 2013 and has been in the hospitality industry for 20 years.

“As far as environments go, the hospitality industry is kind of a shit show,” she says. “Richard Sandoval Restaurants were particularly the shittiest of shows, and that’s across the board.” She attributes the issues to poor centralized management and a lack of managerial training.

“Some of them were new to the industry and they were already managers and bouncers,” she continues. “So as far as racial discrimination, that doesn’t surprise me at all. Any jerk-off can work there or work the door there and not have the maturity or wherewithal to know you can’t discriminate that way.”

Another former RSR employee says he noticed discriminatory practices during the last three years he worked at El Centro. He doesn’t pin all of the blame on mismanagement, saying that some bouncers acted independently. “Let’s just say they aren’t the most open-minded people and are pretty racist.”

A third employee refutes that the contracted bouncers are entirely to blame. “The story that Richard Sandoval Restaurants is claiming that this racist door policy was the work of one lone racist bouncer is nonsense,” she says. The staffer worked at El Centro for six years and says the no-sneaker policy has been enforced for years. “I am 100 percent sure that it was a corporate policy.”

As bartenders, they would complain about the policy because it was bad for business, according to the employee. “We would be told by late-night managers that there was nothing they could do because corporate management insisted on implementing it,” she says.

Friends and regular El Centro customers would text this employee asking for help getting in when security denied them entry. “I was told no, no we can’t let these people in because we will get in trouble because of the shoes they’re wearing.” She thinks the policy was put in place to keep customers out who the company thought were “likely to start a fight.”

On security staff, Rashid tells WCP there will no change in how they hire security at El Centro, but he elaborated on the training process in an email. “We do train our security staff on a regular basis and provide them regular feedback on how to keep a positive guest friendly environment,” he writes. “Our most recent training that the security staff received was National “HOST” Security Training (Hospitality Operations Security Techniques), we are in process of scheduling another workshop with them at the moment.

Rashid adds that he’s to blame. “I am taking responsibility of this,” he writes. “I am in charge here and responsible for making sure that such things don’t happen and we provide the absolute best customer service experience to every guest that walks in our door. I obviously fell short here, I don’t want to point fingers or make excuses but to own up to it and take progressive immediate actions to resolve this issue.”

Some think El Centro is having trouble navigating the nightlife scene because it’s a dual concept: restaurant by day, nightclub by night. It’s not the only restaurant that has stretched into the nightlife category to help make ends meet. Masa 14 made the same metamorphosis and faced backlash back in 2015 about its dress code.

With these hybrid establishments, it can be confusing to see patrons eating tacos in sandals or sneakers during the day and early dinner hours and then expect them to know to wear something different at night, especially if no signs are posted.

“You’re a restaurant with a bar that has a dance floor,” Callahan says. “What’s wrong with sneakers? They’re comfortable—they’ll keep someone at your bar longer. You’re not this private, exclusive club. You’re a Mexican restaurant.”

“It’s frankly a shame that restaurants double as clubs because their venue isn’t strong enough to stand on its own culinary merit,” says an African-American man who experienced discrimination at El Centro. We’ll call him Sam because he spoke under the condition of anonymity. “Dress codes are fine for certain establishments, but this is just a divey bar at night. It’s not like I’m going to The Ritz-Carlton.”

But being an amateur nightclub is no excuse for flip-flopping on footwear policies. In other words, the problem isn’t the no-sneaker policy. It’s how the no-sneaker policy is selectively enforced.

Sam says he attempted to enter El Centro in September 2016. He was dressed more casually than the friends he was meeting up with who were coming straight from work. He calls his outfit that night “prep apparel.” The last one to arrive, he was told he couldn’t enter and join his friends because of his shoes.

“Many people entering and exiting were unremarkably dressed,” he says. “Several examples of non-African-American people were wearing sneakers and even flip flops.” After a war of words, the bouncer finally signaled that Sam could enter, but he declined, noting that the bouncers use of tennis shoes as an admittance criteria “was bullshit.” Thinking back, he says, “It has to be 100 percent enforced. It’s really that simple.”

That was not Sam’s first night at El Centro, so the evening’s events came as a shock. “I had been to several gatherings at this restaurant and was completely blown away [by what happened],” he says. “But I also realize this is the new D.C. and it’s not all that surprising.”

The new D.C.?

“It’s not just the policies, it’s the new crowd that’s moving into D.C. as far as gentrification,” Callahan says. She says bars and restaurants are catering to people they think have money, especially as bottom lines are being squeezed because of rising rents, increased competition, and soon, an increase in the mandatory minimum wage. “The thinking is that only white people or Asian people have money. The way D.C. is changing has a lot to do with it.”

“If I step into a bar or restaurant there’s the feeling that African-Americans don’t pay, don’t tip, are a hassle, or are going to be loud,” says another African-American man who felt discriminated against because of his footwear at El Centro. He also wishes to remain anonymous. We’ll call him Keith. “Until I belly up to the bar and let people know I’m friendly, there’s apprehension.”

His wife is white and her mere presence can turn a situation around. After he fought his way into El Centro after arguing with a bouncer about his shoes, he went up to the bar. “Bartenders were a bit cold but once I sat down and my date—now my wife—walked in we were all gravy,” Keith says. “I don’t think people are being racist, but I think people have this mindset about what minorities bring to an establishment.”

Keith feels the neighborhood changed when Whole Foods went in on P Street NW in 2000. “Before you could walk in and be whoever you wanted to be,” he says. “You didn’t have to have money or status to be in these bars. Not that I’d rather go back to when there was prostitution, but people felt at home before a lot of these restaurants opened.” What’s now one of the top dining and drinking destinations in the city was once a red light district.

That’s not to say Keith doesn’t frequent any establishments in the neighborhood. He calls Ghibellina, “the most welcoming place in the world,” and tips his hat to Chicken + Whiskey, which has a bar in the back. “The owner has made it homey and it’s all walks of life in there.”

But some nightlife spots that were once comfortable for people of all races have closed.

Callahan moved to D.C. around 2006 from New Jersey. “There were a lot more options then than there are now when it comes to having diverse crowds,” she says. “Those places are gone. They closed. They couldn’t afford rent.” She cites The Islander, which used to be on the corner of 12th and U streets NW, where rent has skyrocketed.

“You can tell the places that are more African-American,” Keith says. “They’re more hideouts to be fair.” He says he tripped over a place on H Street NE that didn’t open too long ago called Po Boy Jim. “Upstairs there’s a ton of hip-hop playing and a ton of African-Americans. I don’t think there’s a written policy that says we’re trying to attract this clientele, but you can feel it when you walk in. It’s very separated.”

In the future, Callahan urges people who experience similar discriminatory practices to put restaurants on notice by writing about them on social media and Yelp. She also says to call the restaurant and demand that offending employees be held accountable.

“When I see these things, I won’t go into these establishments,” Sam says. “I spend my money where I feel welcome and I wish more people did that.”

Keith adds, “Not to get preachy, but in the time we’re in right now the last thing this town needs is for bars and restaurants to be taking a 40-year step backwards by excluding minorities from coming into their bar. Be cool. Be welcoming. Put on some hip-hop. I don’t know what else to say.”