Weight to Be Seated

Dispute over dining coupon feeds obesity discrimination claim against The Vine

How do you feed a hungry man?
If that ravenous fellow happens to be six-foot-one and weighs nearly 400 pounds, you don't try to cash in on a dinner special offered by The Vine, an east Phoenix saloon.

Not that Phoenix salesman Wayne Craig, the diner in question, has much choice anymore. Following a brouhaha over his recent attempt to use a discount dining coupon at the pub, Craig was eighty-sixed from the restaurant at 2808 East Indian School. In the wake of his ouster, the 35-year-old salesman is now contemplating a weight-discrimination suit against the eatery, a Cheers-style sports bar with several other locations around the Valley.

According to Craig--and Vine management won't talk about it--the trouble began when he and a business associate tried to use the coupon one night late last month. The coupons, which had been distributed on car windshields throughout the neighborhood, offered two-for-one meals, with patrons footing the bill only for the higher-priced entree. The coupon carried no stipulations except that diners could use only one coupon per visit, a proviso excluding Buffalo wings, and a November 30 expiration date.

A Vine regular since the restaurant opened earlier this fall, Craig estimates that in the two weeks prior to the fracas, he'd used the coupons three times without incident. But after eating dinner there on Wednesday, October 28, Craig claims he was confronted by a shift manager named Tracy, who accused him of "abusing" the coupons.

"He didn't say 'excuse me' or anything else," recalls Craig. "He said, 'We're not taking a coupon from someone like you anymore. You were in here for lunch and now you're using another one again tonight. We're not going to allow that.'"

Although Craig pointed out that he hadn't eaten lunch there that day--and that even if he had, he wasn't violating terms of the coupon--the manager reportedly remained adamant.

"He said, 'I'm not going to let anyone like you take advantage of my bar,'" says Craig. Asked whether the phrase "someone like you" was a reference to Craig's obesity, the manager allegedly just smiled, according to Craig.

"He won't take a coupon from me but he'll take one from other people I'm sitting with?" asks Craig. After pointing out that the practice constituted "discrimination--pure and simple," Craig reports that the manager answered, "I don't care." Then he told a waitress to cut Craig off at the bar--even though he was only drinking iced tea.

After a heated exchange (Craig admits he told the manager he was "lucky he was on the other side of the bar"), the manager allegedy tore up Craig's dinner check and ordered him off the premises.

"The way I was treated was rude and humiliating," says Craig, who actually wound up getting a two-for-none. "Nobody should be treated like that."

Craig's account of the brouhaha matches that of his dining partner, a local businessman. "The weird thing was, right before all this happened, one of the waitresses gave us a whole stack of coupons and a menu to take back to the office," says Craig's guest, who requests that his name not be used. "Obviously, up to that point, there wasn't any problem."

Baffled by the strange turn of events that had turned him from a loyal customer into a pariah, Craig fired off a letter to The Vine's corporate headquarters, requesting an apology and an investigation into the food fight. Instead, he learned that the shift manager had filed a police report against him--nearly a week after he'd been thrown out of the bar.

"It's pretty clear to me that they're just trying to cover their asses," says Craig, who's currently shopping around for a lawyer to handle a discrimination case against the pub.

Vine management had no comment about Craig's claims. Two employees at the restaurant, including the general manager, say they've been told not to discuss the incident. Operations director Mike Flege also declined to comment.

Too bad the shift manager didn't clam up from the git-go, says one industry observer.

"There's so much competition out there that if you've got to use coupons to draw customers into your restaurant, why in hell would you not let people use them?" wonders Valley restaurant consultant and food writer Elin Jeffords. "You don't embarrass a customer like that unless he's making a scene. In the [restaurant industry] it's all about public relations--and from a public relations standpoint, this is the worst. The few dollars they may have saved in the short run by doing something this stupid is going to cost them lots more in the long run."

For his part, Craig still finds the whole thing, well, hard to swallow.
"I'm overweight, I'm a pretty big guy," he says. "Sure, I've got a nice big gut on me, but I'm not a big fat slob. I've got as much right to be in there as anyone else."

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: dwebb@newtimes.com

 
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