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Published: Thursday, 5/17/2007

Eateries obliged to defuse diner feuds, experts say

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

While acknowledging that the news of two women starting a brawl inside a local eatery on Mother's Day was a bit surreal, longtime Toledo-area restaurateur Tom Cousino said he's seen it all, and there are some tried-and-true ways that could have defused the situation.

Mr. Cousino, owner of restaurants including Navy Bistro and Tango's at The Docks, said yesterday he didn't know enough about what happened during the fight Sunday at the Golden Corral restaurant, where five people were arrested, to know if the business did the right thing.

But he said disputes among customers should be handled quickly and without hesitation to keep things from spiraling out of control.

Witnesses told Toledo police Christine Lewandowski, 56, who was sitting at a table with her mother, Sophia Lewandowski, 90, repeatedly complained about a crying 1-year-old child at the table next to theirs.

The mother of the child, Sylvia Harris, 24, is accused of hitting Christine Lewandowski after Ms. Harris said she was threatened with a knife and Christine Lewandowski called her child an animal.

The incident started a brawl involving as many as 15 people lasting about 10 minutes and forcing the eatery to close for nearly two hours and remove over 100 patrons.

"It sounds like it was a volatile situation," Mr. Cousino said. "I think it's more of a sad commentary of where our culture is, especially on Mother's Day, where we should be honoring our mothers. I think as soon as you're aware of a volatile situation or potential volatile situation is the time to rectify it, before it turns into an embarrassment."

Karen Maier, vice president of marketing for Frisch's Restaurants Inc., which owns the Golden Corral at 5730 Opportunity Drive in West Toledo, said the company has no comment.

She said the company took care of customers inside the eatery at the time, but declined specifics on what was done for them. Ms. Maier, who was reached at the corporate office in Cincinnati, said she did not know about security at the restaurant, which opened in September, 2004, or if anything was being done differently.

Susan Brown, associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University who kept up with the incident through media reports, said confronting someone else's child or children is a risky proposition. She said a good analogy of that incident could be made with road rage.

"Children are a very sensitive issue because parents, in part, see children as a reflection of themselves," she said. "Some people might say if you have a complaint about a patron at a store or restaurant, you should speak to the manager instead of speaking directly to that patron because it's a sensitive issue.

"[With road rage], if you want to engage another driver, you do so at your own risk. This might be another domain where we see an illustration of what level of risk that might entail."

Toledo police struggled to untangle the conflicting stories of the incident. Some, like Thelma Oliver, who was seated next to the Lewandowski table with her parents, said she saw Christine Lewandowski motion with her steak knife toward the Harris family in a threatening manner before the fight, backing Ms. Harris' story.

Another witness, Walter Schlegal, who said he sat near the feuding families, claimed yesterday the knife incident never happened.

Mr. Cousino said restaurant management must maintain control of its establishment at all time. He said unruly children as well as angry customers must be dealt with.

"I do think when parents take their children out, they need to supervise them," Mr. Cousino said. "It's not necessarily fair to allow children to take over and ruin everybody's good time. It's our space, and we run our space. The guests don't run our space. If you give up that ownership in your environment, that's the beginning of the end."

Mark Glasper, spokesman for the Ohio Restaurant Association, said restaurateurs and their employees are urged to take educational courses on how to handle unruly customers. He said the training recommends that employees contact the manager immediately if there are signs of a conflict, then call the police.

"You never, ever want the employees of the restaurant to confront the problem," Mr. Glasper said. "That would only serve to get them in harm's way. For everyone's safety, you want to get the customers from the situation and make sure innocent bystanders don't get involved or get hurt in the situation."

Staff writer Christina Hall contributed to this report.

Contact Clyde Hughes at:

chughes@theblade.com

or 419-724-6095.



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