Detroit eatery embroiled in viral dispute over steak

George Hunter
The Detroit News

A cold steak sparked a disagreement that led an African-American patron of a popular Detroit restaurant to level racial discrimination accusations at the owners, who claim race had no role when they were dealing with what they say was an unruly customer.

The incident happened Sunday at the Clique restaurant on Jefferson, east of downtown, which has long been popular with Detroit City Council members, attorneys and other power brokers. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm ate there this week.

Christen Rochon, a Detroit-born freelance writer who lives in New York City, on Monday posted her version of events on Facebook. The post has gone viral, with nearly 1,500 shares as of Wednesday afternoon.

“After 10+ years of patronizing this restaurant with business associates, friends & family, today I watched the owner disrespect 6 black customers (including myself & my friend),” Rochon wrote. She asked her Facebook friends to share the post. “Let racist restaurants like The Clique know that black dollars matter too!”

Marina Gjokaj, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Vincko, called the race claim “ridiculous.”

“It’s disgusting that she’s making this about race,” she said. “This was nothing more than a customer who was causing trouble.”

All parties agree the incident started when a member of Rochon’s party complained that her steak was cold. “She asked the waitress to throw it on the grill to warm it up,” Rochon said. The waitress complied.

“Ten minutes went by,” Rochon said. “My friend saw the steak sitting on the counter, so she walked past the waitresses to get it. Nobody told her it was a restricted area.”

Vincko Gjokaj said the woman stormed into the kitchen to retrieve the steak. “I said, ‘excuse me, ma’am,’ and she held her hand up and said she didn’t want to hear from me. Well, you can’t just walk into the kitchen, so you’re going to hear from me if you do something like that.”

Gjokaj said the woman then demanded a free meal. “She says, ‘you’ve got a big mouth, and since you do, this steak is going to be on the house.’ Well, I’m sorry; that wasn’t going to happen. So I took the steak away from her.”

Rochon said her friend walked out of the restaurant in disgust after Gjokaj threw her steak in the trash. “I stayed, because I wanted to get to the bottom of this misunderstanding,” she said. “I wanted to give him a chance to explain himself; maybe he was just having a bad day.”

Rochon said other customers were angry with the way Gjokaj acted, and that other patrons walked out of the restaurant to protest.

In her Facebook post, Rochon claims Gjokaj told her: “I don’t care about you as a customer, I’ll double & triple my business regardless!”

When asked why she was leveling charges of racism at the restaurant even though she admits no racial slurs were exchanged, Rochon said: “There were other black customers he got into arguments with that day. One lady wanted to change her order, and he said, ‘Can’t you read the menu? This isn’t Burger King; you can’t have it your way.’ ”

Gjokaj, who has owned the restaurant for eight years, denied the claim.

“Let me assure you: there were never any words of white or black that day. I don’t know why she’s making this claim that I am racist. She’s angry at me, so I can only speculate.

“I’m thinking all she wants to do is throw a hard punch at me and hurt me, and that’s one of the hardest punches you can throw at someone. If you have a business in the middle of an African-American community, to call a white guy a racist is the worst thing.”

Dozens who responded to Rochon’s Facebook posts vowed to boycott the restaurant.

“Not ever again,” wrote a poster with the screen name Camille Jamerson. “Your food can be spun from the gods, but treating people with respect is paramount.”

A man with the screen name Russell M. Baker added: “Thanks for sharing. This use to be my spot, not so much these days. But I will definitely be seeking other options for my Sunday breakfast.”

There were a few comments supporting the restaurant, including one from a “Rue JRbucks Miles,” who said, “I’ve been going here for over 15 years n they have a wonderful staff.”

Prominent African American attorney Cliff Woodards wrote: “Sometimes we can see racism in a situation involving white folk when it really doesn’t exist at all.

“Perhaps he was rude. Maybe it was bad customer service. But to holler racism just because he got snippy and told her her business was unnecessary for him to succeed is probably an overreach.”

Rochon insisted she’s merely standing up for what’s right.

“I felt I didn’t have a choice but to share this. Too many people are silent when they see someone being treated badly. Too many people won’t get involved; they say, ‘it didn’t happen to me, so I’ll just sit back and see what happens.’ Well, I’m not like that. I’ll stand up and say something.”

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