ST. CHARLES CITY, Mo. (KMOV.com) -- A local couple says they were discriminated against at a St. Charles restaurant when a server told them they had to take their meals to-go, while others were allowed to dine inside in what was a "really degrading and humiliating" situation.
The couple says there's only one reason why and the restaurant chain says that's not the full truth.
Jimmiecia Benit and her wife Camry spent a nice day at Hollywood Casino in St. Charles and then decided to grab dinner at the Waffle House not far away.
“Before we can even get in the door, an employee goes 'you can only do to-go orders. We're not taking dine-ins,'" Benit said. “We were dressed nice, came in properly, not loud, but as soon as we got to the door, no, only to-go orders."
At first they thought nothing of it because of COVID-19 and thought the restaurant was following certain guidelines. They ordered the food and hung around to wait for their to-go order.
But then, an older white man came in and was allowed to sit down.
“We are sitting there looking at each other like, 'you are going to let him sit down and a cup of coffee,'” Camry Benit said.
Then they started taking video as another group, also a white couple, sat down.
“I was in shock," Jimmiecia Benit said. "Is this really happening?"
The server seemed exasperated.
“I am the only server here, and I am trying to catch up from the last shift. So, I have my own reasons for telling you this,” the server said on video the couple recorded on their cell phone.
But the Benits say at no point did anyone then offer to let them sit down.
"I felt like I was begging, like, why wouldn't you let me sit here and eat?" Jimmiecia Benit said.
They feel there is only one reason they were turned away. “Race," Jimmiecia Benit said. "No other reason.”
The Benits' attorney Lynette Petruska said “when the only customers who can't dine in are the Black customers, it just doesn’t look like they are doing things for a legitimate reason." She said they have lots of questions.
“Is this an isolated incident with an isolated server who did something wrong or does Waffle House have a systematic policy of trying to send a subtle message that African American customers aren't welcome?” Petruska said.
But they say they'd received few answers from Waffle House, and no sincere apologies until News 4 stepped in.
“We really are deeply sorry that we have two customers who had a bad experience with us and left feeling very unappreciated,” Njeri Boss, a Vice President of Waffle House, told News 4.
She says they did an investigation into the situation. “Out of that investigation what we found was very poor customer service that was rendered by a very young, inexperienced and flustered server,” Boss said.
But she denies there was any racial motivation.
“Earlier in the shifts, we have video of her serving no problem customers of diverse backgrounds, Black and white customers with no issue,” Boss said.
She says pandemic-related staffing shortages have made normal operations more difficult, but she says the company works hard to train its employees on best customer service standards.
Overall, she said the company takes discrimination very seriously.
"I know it can't take away the hurt that these customers feel and still feel, but we hope it goes a long way to understand that's not who we are not and not what we stand for," Boss said.
Boss said the server voluntarily resigned and notes that the manager of that particular Waffle House is Black.
“I was humiliated,” Jimmiecia Benit said. “I just want to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else. Nobody else goes through this."
The vice president offered the Benits to meet with their CEO about the experience and say they are hoping to make it all right.