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Sunset Ribs reckons with allegations of racism

With the owner of Sunset Ribs planning to open a restaurant in New London, some in the city are concerned about what they say are past discriminatory practices at his popular Waterford business.

From roughly 2014-18, according to employees and customers interviewed, the Mago Point restaurant enforced the "Jordan rule" when it operated as a nightclub on weekends, when people wearing Air Jordan shoes were not allowed inside. Current and former employees as well as customers say the rule is no longer in effect. Past patrons also highlighted a rule against do-rags and gang colors. Enforced by the bouncer at the nightclub’s entrance, the rules are considered by some as a way to keep Black people from patronizing the business.

The New London City Council this year approved a revised agreement with Sunset Ribs owner Frank Maratta to lease a portion of the Custom House Pier for a seasonal restaurant and water activity rental establishment.

During a City Council meeting on June 1, Councilor Curtis Goodwin questioned whether the culture of a new restaurant from the owner of Sunset Ribs would fit in New London.

"I'm concerned with the shift in cultural changes that will come to the pier," Goodwin said during the meeting. "In the climate we are in now, there is opposition toward folks who are not culturally competent to our specific area. We take pride in being a diverse community. I have had a lot of conversation with regards to this, and I want to note there is some opposition to it. I think our waterfront deserves to have this foot traffic, but I want to note that the opposition toward it warrants a conversation to make sure it has the backing of the community."

Goodwin elaborated on those remarks in an interview with The Day.

"I wanted to bring to light apprehension from community members with regards to the Jordan rule itself, so I was just being very direct," Goodwin said. "Those types of rules are going to be met with apprehension, there's no way around it. Before they decide that rule's going to go up, why not address it now?"

Goodwin said a number of citizens contacted him directly to discuss the Jordan rule and how it's affected them personally.

"I don't know about the rule," Maratta said, noting that he leaves day-to-day operations to his manager. But he refuted any claims of racism. "Business is tough enough for you to throw a stone at us like that," he said. "If you're saying that we have prejudice, there's no prejudice in that building. Try to be fair, I don't know what's going on, but try to be fair, because we treat everyone alike."

Maratta said he is excited about the opportunity to liven up the city's waterfront, but it is too late in this year's season to start installing the four shipping containers he plans to use for the restaurant and bar.

"It's a large investment and there is a lot of preliminary legwork to get done," he said.

Explanation from management

Sunset Rib Co. managing partner Sean Gauthier, who handles much of the day-to-day operations for the restaurant, confirmed the rules had been in place and explained their origins. He said hats other than baseball caps were prohibited since, “over the years, guys who come in with crazy hats, they’re always a problem. Like cowboy hats — it’s just something we’ve seen. As a whole, it was enough to say ‘baseball hats only.’”

This and the Jordan rule were part of the dress code for the restaurant when, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it turned into a nightclub with live music after 10 p.m. on weekends. Gauthier said Sunset Ribs also doesn’t allow motorcycle clubs to wear their vests or T-shirts, which is part of the no gang or club colors rule.

“If they take them off, then we allow them in. But if a group of guys show up all wearing lime green or red shirts and bandanas ... we will still deny entry unless they change or lose the bandanas or whatever the door man identifies,” Gauthier said. “Even in some circumstances, if they agree to change, we may still deny entry if they exhibit signs of being intoxicated, or they’re hostile about removing their colors.”

Nike began making Air Jordans for NBA star Michael Jordan in 1984. Depending on the style, they sell from $150 to $500 and beyond.

Gauthier and others at Sunset Ribs say they noticed a pattern: In 2014, two large fights broke out at the establishment, and Gauthier said Jordan shoes played a major role.

“My first year at Sunset Ribs was 2014, and within two months, we had two bigger-than-average fights,” he said. “Every once in a while you might have a fight, but not that big, and we had two that were more than we could handle. One was caused by somebody stepping on someone's Jordans, and one was actually a girl complaining that someone spilled a drink on her Jordans. I had a guy who was my head of security at the time and he was like, ‘Dude, these are $500 sneakers and we're super packed, let’s just not have them in here.’ It was such a nightmare.”

Mark Battista, who bounced at Sunset Ribs around 2016-17, confirmed the existence of the Jordan rule and the rule against wearing gang-affiliated colors. Gauthier said the Jordan rule was discontinued because fights at the nightclub have declined.

Discriminatory experiences

Lew Beasley, a Black man from New London, said he experienced racial discrimination at Sunset Ribs in 2018. Beasley, who has a large social media following, has been posting about the Jordan rule on Facebook in recent months in an attempt to get Maratta to acknowledge the rule publicly and to let people know about the reputation Sunset Ribs has among people of color in the area. Others on social media have told stories similar to his.

When Beasley first went to Sunset Ribs, he said he enjoyed his time there and decided to go back a week later.

“I was with a girl who happens to be white, the first time I went. The very next week when I went there, I probably had on the same sneakers, and I got turned around,” Beasley said. “They were like, ‘There's a rule, you can't wear Jordan sneakers here.’ I was like, ‘I wore Jordans in here last week.’ They pointed to a little sign that was hung off to the side, it was right next to the security guard.”

Beasley, who has been the chief catalyst for public conversation about the rule, said he was going to move on after 2018 until he learned Maratta planned to build a new business in New London.

“I let it go — you know what, I just won’t go to that venue anymore, and it became a well-known thing around New London, so people from New London didn't go there,” Beasley said. “But now you're trying to come to New London and open up a restaurant in our city. To me, you're going to have to fix the tension that you caused. And you're going to have to show us you have some type of commitment to the City of New London.”

Beasley also took Maratta to task for dodging accountability.

“To me, as a business owner, if I was hearing this type of stuff about my business, whether I'm aware of it or not, when it does come to my attention, I feel like that's something that I should address,” Beasley said.

Paul Howard, a Black man from New London, remembered when he was barred entry in 2017 for wearing red.

Howard said he was part of a group of five male friends who went to Sunset Ribs. Like Beasley, Howard said he’d been there before and enjoyed his time there. He said the friends he was with were Black, Hispanic, mixed race and white.

“When we get there that evening, I have my white shirt with a little bit of red in it, and one of my friends has a solid red T-shirt. Nobody else had red in their shirts. Mind you, none of us are in a gang or gang-affiliated,” Howard said. “So we get up to the door, and this big, heavyset white guy says, ‘Yeah, we can’t let you guys in.’”

Howard said he and his friends at first thought the place must be at capacity, but the bouncer told them that since one of them was wearing a red shirt and Howard’s shirt had red in it, he couldn't let them in.

“We were like, ‘No problem, I have a shirt under this, my buddy has a shirt under this, we can take our shirts off, put them in the car and come back,’” Howard said. But the bouncer replied, “‘No, you’re all set.’”

“So you’re not letting us in because we have a red shirt and a shirt with red in it, meanwhile, you have a red shirt! The dude at the door was wearing a huge red shirt,” Howard said. “He had the biggest red shirt in the place, and you won’t let us in because you see me with a certain color and you think I’m in a gang?”

Howard and his friends left, taking their business to downtown New London for a couple drinks.

“It was funny. I’ve never been thought of as a gang member,” Howard said.

Since the incident, he said, he’s felt like he’s not wanted at Sunset Ribs. He said he believes he was discriminated against.

“I don't even remember a time with Waterford having gang issues,” Howard said. “They see a Black guy with a red shirt on, I took it as they thought I was in a gang. They think they know how all Black people dress — not all Black people wear Jordans. I know plenty of white guys who are avid Jordan brand fans. You think you can judge somebody’s character from their shoes? It’s a little weird.”

Still, Howard said he doesn’t “hate” the restaurant, and he doesn’t want the business to be unsuccessful.

“But I will say, I did see that they’re trying to migrate this way. We’re OK over here,” Howard said. “You want to have the no Jordans rule? That’s fine, keep it over there. But over here, there’s more people of color than where you were before.”

Gauthier sent screenshots of messages, comments and posts on social media from Black people who say they were not denied entry for wearing Jordans or breaking any of the other rules and from white people complaining about being turned away for wearing Jordans. He said regulars are often allowed in no matter what because the staff knows they won’t be trouble.

“I have plenty of friends who are people of color who have talked to me and they’ve asked me what this is about, and I've told them, and they’re like, ‘That makes sense,’” Gauthier said. “But they've also said, ‘Hey, can you see why someone who doesn't know you could find this offensive?’ And I get it. But the question I'd have to ask back is, do you want to be offended, or do you want to be safe?”

New London NAACP President Jean Jordan weighed in on the rules and their implications.

“As far as gang colors, I think those colors are in a lot of clothes that we wear. I’m not changing my wardrobe,” Jordan said. “And do-rags, many people wear them to help with their hair. I have a purple one. As far as Jordans, if my mother was still alive, she had a pair of Jordans, so does that mean if she went into the restaurant she’d be kicked out? If she was still alive, I would dare someone to try it.”

Jordan also warned against implementing similar rules in a New London business.

“If he’s planning on opening up another restaurant in New London and he thinks that’s going to fly here, he’s got another thing coming,” Jordan said. “We’re not going to allow that. People should be able to wear whatever they want, within reason, to a restaurant.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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