‘My clothing was an excuse’: Birmingham woman speaks out about incident at Southern Kitchen & Bar

Local News

Aireal Bonner said that she was disciminated against by Southern Kitchen & Bar (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)

October 02 2021 06:00 pm

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — When Aireal Bonner went into Southern Kitchen & Bar last Friday, being asked to leave because of what she was wearing was the last thing on her mind.

Minutes later, though, she left the restaurant shocked, embarrassed, and convinced that the color of her skin– not just her clothing– was the reason she’d been asked to cover up or leave. 

On Tuesday, Bonner spoke with CBS 42 to describe her experience at the restaurant that day. She said the whole situation started simply because she was hungry and wanted to go somewhere to eat that she had never been before.

“I was just looking for somewhere new to eat,” Bonner said. “I saw this place on Google. It’s apparently been open for years, but I’d actually never heard of it.”

Bonner said when she arrived at the Southern Kitchen & Bar, neither the host or any employees on the floor made any issue about the small, knitted top she was wearing. 

“Nobody said anything or even looked at me funny,” she said. “I talked to and got a menu from the host. I sat at the bar. I talked to the bartender a bit about the menu. I even ordered food, all before I was approached by the manager.” 

This photo shows the attire Bonner was wearing when she was asked to cover up in Southern Kitchen & Bar. (Photo courtesy of Aireal Bonner)

Bonner said the manager on duty came from the back of the restaurant to confront her. 

“She told me that Stephen Goode had seen me come in and sit down on the cameras: he had been watching on an app on his phone from home,” she said. “It was creepy.”

According to his LinkedIn profile, Goode is the restaurant’s general manager. As of Tuesday, his profile had been removed.  

“He asked her to approach me about the shirt I was wearing,” Bonner said. “She asked if I had another shirt. I said no because I was already wearing one.”

The manager briefly left, but soon returned with a shirt. Their second encounter is documented in a video taken by Bonner and posted to social media. It has been viewed 25,000 times on Facebook and over 180,000 times on Twitter. 

“I’m trying to provide you one for free,” the employee can be heard saying in the video, referring to a shirt in her hands.

Bonner refused and asked “Where does it say that?”

“It doesn’t have to; we’re privately owned,” the employee said. 

“Well, whoever your private owner is,” Bonner finished, “Tell him to come tell me himself.”

“I can just call Birmingham PD,” the employee replied, nodding her head before walking away.

Bonner said she had not seen a dress code on the restaurant’s menu, website, or anywhere in the building. 

She said that she believes that restaurants that do not post a dress code, if one exists, are in danger of “a slippery slope.”

“It leaves the door open to discrimination and instances like this,” Bonner said, “where they can make up rules on the spot. One day it can be my clothing. The next day it could be somebody else’s hair.”

The employee who confronted Bonner did not call the police. Instead, she called Goode, who arrived at the restaurant minutes later. 

“He came in aggressively,” she recalled. “He wasn’t trying to diffuse the situation at all. He doubled down, saying that they were a privately-owned, family establishment, even though the restaurant has ‘bar’ in the name, and there were no children present.”

Bonner claimed Goode then screamed in her face, at which point she decided to leave. 

Bonner doesn’t believe her top was the whole reason why she was asked to leave.

“My clothing was an excuse to not have me dine there,” Bonner said. “I think the biggest issue with my appearance is that I look very Afrocentric. My hair is an afro texture. The way that I dress is Afrocentric. So I believe that because they can’t directly say things like ‘We don’t like the color of your skin, we don’t like the way that your hair looks,” my clothing was just used as an excuse.”

Bonner pointed out that photos of other white patrons of the restaurant wearing similar tops have circulated online following the incident.

Overall, Bonner said she was shocked and embarrassed by the incident. 

“I just couldn’t believe this was even happening,” she said. “You hear about situations like this happening, and you never believe that it’s going to be you.”

Similar incidents involving “Dining while Black” have occurred across the country, even leading some to call for the removal of dress codes that could be enforced differently against minority customers than white ones. 

Since Friday, outrage has mounted on social media and elsewhere. Dozens of negative reviews of the restaurant have been posted on websites like Yelp and Google, Southern Kitchen & Bar took down its Facebook page, and a restaurant with a similar name in Jacksonville, Florida, has even distanced itself from the Birmingham establishment.

However, Bonner doesn’t feel bad for the restaurant.

“There are consequences for your actions,” she said. “I want to see this restaurant’s time in the community come to an end.”

Chip Stewart, senior vice president of Cookerly, a public relations firm, released the following statement on behalf of Southern Kitchen and Bar:

“The management of Southern Kitchen and Bar has reviewed the alleged racial discrimination made by Ms. Ariel (sic) Bonner from Friday, August 6th. The event in question centered around a manager observing her in what appeared to be a bikini top which is not consistent with our appropriate attire policy. As a family-friendly, neighborhood restaurant we have an appropriate attire policy in place to provide an experience that meets both our standards as a brand and our clientele’s expectations. In similar instances where attire does not conform to the standards, our staff strives to resolve the issues as politely as possible. Although a manager did approach her in a polite manner with an offer of a free Southern Kitchen and Bar T shirt to use as a cover up, Ms. Bonner was not approached until she had commenced eating her meal.

“We regret interrupting Ms. Bonner’s dinner and understand that would make anyone feel uncomfortable. We apologize for this. Clearly, the matter should have been discretely handled upon the patron’s entry into our restaurant. But we should also note the attempt to follow company policy was ill-timed but not ill-intentioned.

“We are establishing more rigid protocols to ensure all policies within our restaurant are upheld and are enforced by staff. We will make every effort to politely address them at the front door. We have done and will continue to do the work to ensure our restaurant is a place where all feel welcome.”

-Press statement on behalf of The Southern Kitchen & Bar

Bonner said that she was not contacted by Cookerly or by Southern Bar & Kitchen before the statement was released to CBS 42, nor has she received a direct apology from the restaurant.

“I think it’s laughable,” Bonner said of their statement. “It’s laughable that they didn’t apologize to me, and it’s laughable that they aren’t apologizing for what happened, only for when it happened.”

A protest of the restaurant is planned for 1 p.m. Wednesday. Bonner said she will be attending.

“I’m appreciative of all the support I’ve seen in the community,” she said. “I never really expected my story of discrimination to get this far. I just want everyone to know how appreciative of the support I am.”

A protest at the restaurant originally scheduled for Aug. 11 has been delayed due to weather and will now take place Aug. 14 at 11:00.

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