Ruth's Chris Steak House in Downtown Jacksonville is pushing back against claims that it created a segregated dining room for black patrons on Father's Day.
"Our brand was founded on the principles of hospitality and legendary service for all guests. Our family of restaurants live these values every night and we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind," Ruth's Chris general manager Ryan Simigran wrote in a statement to First Coast News.
Deidria Franklin said she's no stranger to the upscale restaurant located on the St. Johns River inside of the DoubleTree Hotel. She's been there on many occasions - business gatherings, holidays and special occasions in her family.
"It's one of my favorite restaurants," she said.
Franklin left with a bad taste in her mouth after eating there on Father's Day with 10 members of her family.
"I recognize segregation when I see it," Franklin said, adding that all of her previous visits to the restaurant were positive.
Franklin's mother, 81-year-old Gerlieve Oliver Thompson, called Ruth's Chris to make the family's Father's Day reservation. Thompson, a retired Duval County educator, was excited when she told her daughter that their reservation was changed to Ruth's Chris' "private dining room."
The family arrived Sunday and their host escorted them from the upscale restaurant with its view of the St. Johns River to an empty DoubleTree Hotel banquet room with a view of the hotel's pool.
Franklin told the host that this is not the Ruth's Chris experience she's accustomed to and said they want to be seated in the dining room.
"She told me 'you'll be more comfortable here,'" Franklin said. "I said 'who do you think you're talking to? This is subpar accommodations. We're not sitting here."
"They were going to carry our food - uncovered - from the restaurant into the hallway of the hotel and bring it to us?" she said. "We don't do that."
According to the restaurant's written statement, all parties of 10 or more were called in advanced an offered seating in its "private dining space."
"Size of the party was the only selection criterion used. And the offer was made by phone in advance, without any knowledge, other than party size," the statement said.
The family was eventually seated in Ruth's Chris dining room after about a 15-minute wait. Franklin and her family finished their meal and exited the restaurant. She said her niece looked in the "private dining room" and immediately said, "Aunt, come look at this."
Franklin looked in the room, which was now full, and saw about 75 to 80 black patrons, "with the exception of one white person who was with a party of black people," she said.
The overwhelming number of customers inside Ruth's Chris' dining room were white, Franklin said, including two large parties of white patrons who were seated as she and her family waited for their table.
According to a company spokesperson, those parties were also offered "private dining," in the hotel banquet room, but declined.
Disturbed by what she saw, Franklin said she entered the hotel banquet room and asked for a member of each party to step outside so she could ask them how they ended up in there.
"All of them were told the same thing that Ruth's Chris told my mother," Franklin said, "special seating in a private dining room."
Franklin asked to speak to a manager. When the manager arrived he offered her some gift cards. She declined. She also told him everyone in that room should have their meals comped. "I heard he gave them some gift cards," Franklin said.
The statement from the restaurant said Ruth's Chris has used DoubleTree's "Amelia Room to accommodate larger parties who might otherwise be split among multiple tables in the dining room."
The statement also said that all of the diners in the hotel banquet room were called and offered seating in the Amelia Room and they all accepted the offer.
"Out of consideration to our guests and their enjoyment of the holiday gathering, our reservationist reached out by phone in advance of the holiday to reservations that were more than 10 people to offer to accommodate the entire group at a single table in the Amelia Room, which we use for private dining space," the restaurant's written statement said.
Franklin said the offer of "private dining" was misleading. "It looked strategic," she said.
Franklin's brother, Eric RB Oliver took to social media to discuss the family's experience.
"Everyone in my party was upset, offended and we didn’t even need to say anything, because we all felt the same way when we looked at each other," Oliver's posts states about how the family felt when they discovered the "private dining area" was made up of only black parties. "During this time, my sister went in and asked for a representative from each family's table ... we were told by every family member that was represented, they were told the same thing about “private dining “ special seating and a better area. It was my impression, that 95 percent of these people have never experienced the 'Ruth’s Chris Experience' ... They all said they did feel like something wasn’t right and the seating didn’t feel like the prices represented."
"For 20 years we have used the Amelia Room as additional private dining space in the hotel to which we are connected. Many Jacksonville families have made cherished family memories and celebrated significant holidays and milestones with us in the Amelia Room," the restaurant's statement said.
A company spokesperson said Wednesday that they've reached out to all of the guests who contacted them about the incident. As of Thursday morning, Franklin said she has not been contacted by Ruth's Chris.
Ruth's Chris Steak House - based in Winter Park, Fla. - has more than 100 restaurants across the United States, Canada and Mexico. The restaurant was founded in 1965 in New Orleans by Ruth Fertel.