Martin's Tavern Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Update 4/19: 

Following the publication of this article, Martin’s Tavern owner Billy Martin Jr. reached out to City Paper to explain how he’s responding to allegations that two staffers racially profiled a Black customer at his establishment earlier this year. Initially, Martin only responded to City Paper’s questions by issuing a statement through his attorney and directing City Paper to a Facebook post on the Martin’s Tavern page.

He now says he hired Dr. Erinn Tucker in her capacity as a co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week to conduct an in-person, three-day diversity, equity, and inclusion training at the Georgetown tavern that could begin as soon as May. All of the tavern’s staff and management are scheduled to take part in it, according to Tucker, who is also a faculty director of Georgetown University’s Global Hospitality Leadership master’s program. 

Tucker’s training will cover topics such as understanding the impact of bias in the workplace. She’s also planning an event with invited community members and civic organizations. Post-training follow-up is part of the package as well. “We believe that this dual education approach, training the industry professionals and connecting those affected, will produce a better dining experience for all,” Tucker tells City Paper in an email.

Kristi Riggs, the customer who initially raised concerns about the actions of Martin’s Tavern’s staff, says she was racially profiled at the 88-year-old restaurant on Feb. 26 when a server and a manager pressured her to vacate her table before her time was up in order to accommodate two White women. Riggs also alleges that the restaurant allowed those White women and other White diners to stay longer than 90 minutes—a violation of the tavern’s own pandemic-related time limit restriction. 

On March 11, Riggs and her attorney met with Martin online, where she presented a list of five steps she wanted the restaurant to take to resolve the situation. While Riggs says Martin agreed to all of her steps at this meeting, Martin tells City Paper he is taking no further action beyond hosting the staff training with Tucker and terminating the two employees who were involved. “From her list, we had tried to work with her on that and … it was a failed agreement on that,” Martin told City Paper on April 9.

Although he’s moving forward with DEI training, Martin says Riggs’ treatment was not racially motivated. In his view, his former employees “failed to meet the expectations of our excellent customer service that we like to provide and we’re well known for.” He says he reached that conclusion after talking to Riggs and the ex-employees. “Knowing these employees as long as I have, I know there was no racial bias in any of that,” says Martin, who is White. “And I firmly believe that.”

Riggs issued a lengthy statement to City Paper on April 19 when asked for her reaction to Martin hiring Tucker. 

“His retaining the services of a black owned company to conduct sensitivity training is simply a token and performative gesture that he’s making in an attempt to save public face,” the statement reads. “It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the golden opportunity and larger commitment that I suggested to him that would really initiate structural and ongoing change in the culture of his restaurant and the greater Georgetown business community. It’s also a clear attempt to gaslight me and the public causing us to question what really happened.”

“Unfortunately, what happened to me is not unique and happens frequently. Bias and racism are a reality,” Riggs continues. “With that understanding instead of just being angry I was simply attempting to partner with Mr. Martin to set an example as to how we all can resolve these situations in a unified and healing way going forward.”

Riggs shared some of the racist and sexist messages she received on her personal social media channels on April 7. Meanwhile, Martin’s Tavern has faced some consequences. Even before City Paper’s article originally published on April 2, the Georgetown Voice reported that the Philodemic Society, Georgetown University’s oldest student organization, severed ties with the tavern after Riggs went public with her allegations. 

Original story follows:

Kristi Riggs, a Black woman who accused two Martin’s Tavern employees of racially profiling her in February, crafted a list of five demands that she hoped would lead to reconciliation with the historic Georgetown restaurant in the aftermath of the encounter. The owner, Riggs says, initially agreed to her terms verbally, but has since gone silent.

According to Riggs, Billy Martin Jr. has yet to sign onto her terms in writing or schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss a timeline for implementing her reforms. She says when he stopped communicating with her, she felt he had reneged on what he agreed to at a March 11 online meeting. Now, both parties have retained legal counsel. According to Riggs’ attorney, Ayanna Jenkins-Toney, Martin now wants any eventual deal kept confidential—something she says Riggs won’t agree to.

“I’m done being understanding,” Riggs says. “I’m done giving Martin’s Tavern the benefit of the doubt. I’m finished with that. And if I don’t get satisfaction with this, I will take my offer of goodwill off the table and we’ll handle this differently.” 

On Feb. 26, Riggs says a server and a manager, whom Riggs believes were Hispanic, pressured her to vacate her table. She says they cited a pandemic-related 90-minute time limit policy and sought to give her table to two White women before her time was up. She further alleges that Martin’s Tavern employees allowed those women and at least one other table of White diners to stay longer than 90 minutes. 

There is no mention of such a policy on the restaurant’s reservation platform, but when City Paper called the restaurant to ask if such a policy exists, an employee confirmed it does and said it applies even when the dining room isn’t full to keep customers moving. Martin’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment on the policy. The restaurant’s general manager and Martin posted separate statements responding to Riggs’ concerns on the Martin’s Tavern Facebook page.

Riggs says the experience left her and her friend Pamela Washington, who is also Black and joined Riggs at the end of the meal, comparing their treatment to the days when Black people in the South were often forced to surrender their seats to Whites on segregated buses. “I was Rosa Parks at Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown,” Riggs says. “I was made to get up and leave the restaurant so that two White women could have my table.”

Since then, it appears the restaurant made good on one of Riggs’ requests to let the two employees go. An employee who answered the phone at the tavern confirmed that neither of the two men are “with us anymore.” 

In the aftermath, Jenkins-Toney drafted a statement that says Riggs was “the victim of a racially charged incident by former staff of Martin’s Tavern, Georgetown.” It continues: “The actions of both the former server and former manager were unjustified in every way. Ms. Riggs was targeted and singled out by the aforementioned employees and was forced to give up her seat at her table to two White women in contravene to the policies of Martin’s Tavern. The incident left Ms. Riggs feeling understandably insulted and affronted.” 

In the agreement accompanying the statement for both parties to sign, Riggs outlined a five-point plan she says would promote healing. Riggs requested that Martin:

  • Fire the two employees involved in the incident;
  • Close the tavern for 1 to 2 days to provide mandatory sensitivity and diversity, equity, and inclusion training to all ownership, management, and staff from a preferred list of Riggs’ suggestions; 
  • Create ongoing accounts or business relationships with at least three Black-owned vendors who are food/beverage suppliers, maintenance service providers, restaurant suppliers, or marketers;
  • Provide regular management training and job placement for Howard University students enrolled in the school’s hospitality program; and
  • Make an annual contribution of at least $2,500 to the United Negro College Fund in Riggs’ name.

Martin’s attorney, Thomas B. Martin, who says he is not related to the owner, offered the following statement to City Paper on the status of the situation. 

“Martin’s Tavern has at all times worked in good faith with Ms. Riggs and her counsel to resolve this issue. Billy Martin, Owner of Martin’s Tavern, met virtually with Ms. Riggs, listened carefully to her concerns, and had a positive discussion about charting a path forward. Even through Mr. Martin’s health crisis, he worked diligently in good faith to try to reach a resolution. However, the parties were unable to come together on the terms and wording of the joint statement Ms. Riggs requested. Nonetheless, Martin’s Tavern remains hopeful that a positive outcome may ultimately result from this matter.”

The owner told City Paper in a March 14 email that he’s recovering from major back surgery and experiencing additional complications from it that require serious medical attention. 

Riggs is tired of waiting. Reacting to his latest statement, she says Martin is “stonewalling” her with his inaction. Black diners have faced racial discrimination in restaurants for decades. Riggs says she hoped her situation would lead to a collaborative, good-faith effort to turn her experience into a teachable moment to benefit the local restaurant scene and the broader community. But her optimism over partnering with Martin to resolve the situation, she says, has given way to frustration and disappointment.

***

Riggs has had a lot to say about her experience at the storied tavern where John F. Kennedy is rumored to have proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier. The 88-year-old establishment counts every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush as customers and recently graced the cover of Washingtonian for being a stellar neighborhood restaurant. Riggs says she’s eaten at Martin’s three times since the 1980s and respected the tavern’s place in history. 

After the onset of COVID-19, Riggs says she largely avoided restaurants but made an exception to visit Martin’s on Feb. 26 after reading articles in the Post and Daily Caller reporting the tavern was struggling financially. As a fellow small-business owner, she says she planned on ordering cocktails, an appetizer, an entrée, and dessert—something she says she never does. “When I came to Martin’s Tavern, I was filled with nothing but joy and good vibes and ready to eat and support Martin’s Tavern,” she says.

But Riggs also says her evening didn’t go as planned. Upon arriving around 5:15 p.m., she says a host explained that because of COVID-19, the restaurant has a 90-minute time limit on eating when the dining room is full. That wasn’t a problem for Riggs, so she seated herself at a covered table on the patio.

When a server approached, Riggs ordered a cocktail and potato skins and later added meatloaf and a second cocktail. When the server took her order for the second cocktail after she finished her meatloaf, she told him that a friend would be joining her for dessert and a drink.

Riggs says the patio and outdoor seating started filling up about 20 minutes after she arrived. Some time after that, she noticed two older White women looking around to see where they could sit. Riggs watched her server rush over to greet them. One of the women pointed at Riggs’ table. The server turned his head to look back at Riggs, then turned his back to her. After a few moments, Riggs says, he walked over to the side, paused for a beat, then walked toward her.

By this point, Washington had sent Riggs a text message time-stamped at 6:19 p.m., letting her know she’d just parked, according to a screenshot of the text provided to City Paper. The server asked Riggs when her friend was coming, and Riggs replied she’d be there any moment. Then, she says, she asked the server why he asked. She says the server tapped his wrist and curtly reminded Riggs she couldn’t be there beyond 90 minutes. Riggs pointed out she hadn’t been there that long, and the server walked off.    

Riggs says she then asked a White woman at the table to the left of hers if anyone had come to remind them of the 90-minute policy. No, the diner replied. Then Riggs says she turned to another table of White diners to ask the same question and got the same answer.  It appeared to Riggs that the same policy was not being applied evenly. “So now I’m hot,” Riggs says. “Knowing that I’m the only person out here that’s been pressured to leave, now I’m upset.” 

Washington says she asked the server for a drink menu when he returned and he told her the manager was coming to speak to them. Riggs says she welcomed this news because she wanted to talk to him too. The manager explained the 90-minute policy to Riggs and she told him she hadn’t exceeded her time limit. Both women say he reiterated the policy.

“There was no empathy, there was no understanding, it’s, ‘Well, this is the policy and if you’ve exceeded your 90 minutes, you’ve exceeded your 90 minutes,’” Washington says. “And she hasn’t exceeded her 90 minutes.”

At this point, Riggs says the White woman seated at the table to her left told the manager that if anyone should be asked to leave, it should be her because her party had been there for more than  90 minutes, and so had other diners. According to Riggs, the diner announced she was leaving in solidarity because she believed Riggs was being unfairly targeted. 

Riggs says she asked for her check and the manager replied that the restaurant would cover the cost of the meal and they should “just go.” That defeated the purpose of her visit and signaled to Riggs that her business wasn’t welcome. She says she felt humiliated and that one of the women waiting for her table mocked her by waving and saying “goodbye.” It was 6:36 p.m. when they left, according to Riggs. She believes they should have had at least 15 minutes left to dine.

The pair salvaged their night at Fiola Mare, but when Riggs drove Washington back to Martin’s to get her car more than two and a half hours later, Riggs says she spotted the same White women still occupying their former table, in violation of Martin’s 90-minute policy. 

“It incensed me to see those two White women still sitting at my table chilling, imbibing, relaxing, enjoying themselves, not being bothered, not being harassed, doing what they do, being free,” Riggs says. 

Riggs shared her experience on Facebook the next day. The post has been shared almost 700 times and drew local media attention. Yelp activated its “public attention alert,” which is still in place on the restaurant’s page today. 

Jenkins-Toney, who has a law office in Georgetown, saw the Facebook post and reached out to Riggs to offer her pro bono legal support. Both are Howard University alumni. “When I read it, I immediately could envision myself in that situation and being there, and she handled it with such grace and I wanted to reach out and offer my services, my advice, however I could be of assistance,” says Jenkins-Toney, who is Black. 

The restaurant’s general manager, Luis Valle, wrote a public apology on Martin’s Facebook account on Feb. 28, labeling the situation a “miscommunication” on the parts of the server and manager. Valle added that he said he’d spoken to them, has no tolerance for harassment or discrimination, and was requiring all staff to attend a diversity and inclusion course. “We are not going to allow that type of unintentional behavior,” he wrote. “We strive to provide an excellent guest experience and we will do better.”

As Eater reported in early March, Riggs says that apology didn’t go far enough. She pushed for a meeting with the owner, which she says finally happened March 11. Later that day, Riggs reported on Facebook that Martin “agreed very enthusiastically to all my asks.” Now, she says, it appears to her as if he was attempting to pacify her and change the narrative to stop the social media uproar. “Unfortunately, and I didn’t want to believe it and I was trying to stay optimistic, but it looks like Mr. [Billy] Martin is not a man of his word,” Riggs says. 

Martin authored a Facebook post on his restaurant’s page on March 12. The tavern’s fourth-generation owner thanked Riggs for meeting with him, said he apologized to her for how she was treated at his tavern, and shared that their meeting “led to a broader conversation on ways to ensure this does not happen again and solutions moving forward.” 

***

The episode took place roughly nine months after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes, killing him. The events led to a global uprising against police violence and anti-Black racism. A week after Floyd’s killing, Martin’s posted a black square on its Instagram account, writing “#blackouttuesday” to raise awareness about police brutality and systemic racism. The months-old post prompted fresh criticism on social media from people who learned about Riggs’ experience at the Georgetown stalwart.  

Martin and his attorney did not answer City Paper’s questions about what action, if any, the restaurant took to address systemic racism in the months since its black-square Instagram post; how Martin responds to criticism that the post was performative given Riggs’ recent experience; and how many Black employees work at Martin’s and hold managerial positions. 

They also declined to comment on who the two White women were and why staff accommodated them; whether Martin agrees that his employees racially profiled Riggs; or if there’s any part of Riggs’ story that he disputes.  

“At Martin’s Tavern our mission is to excel at providing all guests with an excellent dining experience,” Martin wrote in his March 12 Facebook post, “and I am committed to ensuring each and every guests [sic] is treated with the respect they deserve.”