AUBURN — The former waitress gets it, she really does.
She understood when her manager at IHOP suspended her for a week. She even understood it when IHOP’s corporate officials blasted her in the media and ordered her fired.
What the 41-year-old mother doesn’t get, however, is the hatred. The threats. The allegations of racism and assertions that she’s a bigot who offended blacks and teens alike by asking a group of young patrons to pay their bill up front.
“The situation was nowhere near the way it’s been portrayed,” the former waitress said Wednesday. “It had nothing to do with any race or any culture.”
What it came down to, she said, was mainly the fact that she had been previously plagued by young diners who skipped out on big bills. When a group of four came in and ordered $100 worth of food Sunday night, she became wary.
“If they had ordered $40 worth of food,” the woman said, “I wouldn’t have said anything. It raised a red flag. I kept going back to that time I was dine-and-dashed.”
The incident blew up into a national story when a young man at a nearby table confronted the waitress and later posted his views on the matter on Facebook. That post ultimately resulted in IHOP’s decision to fire the waitress, but it also transformed into allegations of racism and words of disgust flung at her — so much vitriol, in fact, that she dares not identify herself or even explain her position.
“I can’t come out and speak on my behalf,” she said, “because now I’m worried about my safety. There are people out there who are crazy and this has made it nationwide.”
The former waitress said the decision to ask for payment up front was all her own. It was not an IHOP policy, nor had management suggested she make such a move. The decision was hers, and she regrets it.
“I made that decision on my own, not knowing it would have the consequences that it did,” she said. “I was ignorant, yes. And I got punished for it. I’m sorry those customers got offended, but it wasn’t racial anything.”
The irony is that the four teenagers who had been asked for payment up front did not appear to be offended by the request.
“One of them said, ‘I totally understand,'” the waitress recalled. “‘No problem, not at all.'”
Those customers, who could not be located Wednesday, also assured the waitress that they would indeed be coming back to the restaurant again soon.
The folks at a nearby table, however, were not so forgiving. When the waitress made her request, they jumped to their feet and began screaming at her, deriding her actions and labeling her a racist.
“They were very upset. They raised their voices at me,” the waitress recalled. “I was in awe. I didn’t realize I had done anything wrong. I was just trying to be straight up.”
Avery Gagne of Monmouth was one of the customers who confronted the waitress. He later posted his description of the affair on Facebook, and the post went viral.
It’s been nothing but trouble for the waitress and her manager in the days since.
“People are irate right now. I don’t blame them,” the former waitress said. “If things had really happened the way they say it did, I would have been irate, too. But that’s not the way it happened.”
IHOP Manager Melvin Escobar said the restaurant has been receiving angry calls from around the country. He defended his former waitress, insisting that she meant no offense — racial or otherwise — when she asked for payment up front, even though it is not company policy to do so.
He also questioned the logic of people drawing opinions based on a Facebook post from someone who may have misinterpreted what he had witnessed.
“These people didn’t really know exactly what was going on,” Escobar said.
At least some of the people who populated Gagne’s Facebook thread tended to agree. While most commenters applauded Gagne’s involvement, a few posted comments in defense of the waitress, blasting Gagne in the process.
“People like you are what the problem is in the world,” wrote one man, “too many do-gooders. The restaurant has every right to ask for money up front if they have had problems with walkouts.”
The waitress had been working at IHOP for a year and a half. She’d spent years prior to that in the food industry. She loved her job at IHOP, she said, crying several times during an interview. She loved her co-workers and she enjoyed working with the people she served.
“I care about every customer,” she said. “I’m just that type of person. I cared about my job.”
She has a boyfriend of color, she said, and children she has raised to never discriminate against people based on race. While she understands some of the anger over the Sunday night affair, the former waitress swears that she meant no insult to any color, culture or age group.
“I didn’t mean to offend anybody,” she said.