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Clarification appended; updated Aug. 9.

Two popular West Philadelphia restaurants are closed this week to grapple with allegations of racism that surfaced after an employee was fired. Ownership maintains the accusations are untrue.

Protesters with duct-tape over their mouths have been gathering in front of Baltimore Avenue spots Clarkville, a pizzeria, and Local 44, a beer destination, over the several past weeks.

Holding signs saying “this business is owned by racists” and “protect your community,” the group indicated in a statement posted to GoFundMe that their actions were meant in solidarity with the terminated staffer. On a separate GoFundMe page started Tuesday, the former staffer identifies himself as Kachusha “Chuey” Munkanta.

The restaurant’s owners, longtime Philly publicans Leigh Maida, Brendan Hartranft, and Brendan Kelly, say the firing was not in any way racially motivated. They tell Billy Penn they have reached out to the protesters in hopes of coming to an understanding — but that hasn’t happened.

Instead, nearly the entire front-of-house staff walked out of both establishments: 16 out of 25 total employees quit last Saturday, according to Maida.

“Their stated effort is that they want to ‘bring us down,’” Maida said of the protesters. “So they started targeting our staff.” The group has been using signs with the restaurant owner’s names, she added.

The protesters, meanwhile, say they’re reacting to pattern that’s been established over time. Attempts to contact members of the group for comment were unsuccessful, but their public statement accuses Clarkville of fostering gentrification and describes “a history of racist behavior, disrespect, and an ingrained culture of inequality exhibited by owners and management.”

Maida pushed back hard against these allegations, while acknowledging she and her partners could be more intentional about whom they hire to work in the restaurants.

“We’re trying to figure out ways where we can widen the labor pool so that instead of just accepting resumes based on the Craigslist ad that I slap up there,” she said. “How will we be more proactive about finding candidates to work here that more closely reflects the racial makeup of the neighborhood.”


Unjustly fired vs. ‘terminated for cause’

The current tumult began on July 16, when a Clarkville staffer was fired. Four days later, the protests started.

Maida said the fired staffer was up for his regular 90-day review, and was “terminated for cause and for standard reasons, nothing out of the ordinary.”

Protesters counter that Munkata, who is black, was fired unjustly. They claim he was the third person of color let go over the past three months, and allege the restaurant has also fired people in the past “for being too gay.” Maida told Billy Penn these allegations are “absolutely untrue.”

Munkanta started a GoFundMe campaign seeking $10,000 to help him “figure out my insurance and healthcare” in the wake of his termination. Munkata wrote the firing was “a hit financially and a gut punch to my mental health.” On the campaign page, he also also accuses Clarkville and Local 44 management of yelling at a Muslim staff member for praying on the clock, an occurrence Maida also denies.

Owners reached out to the disgruntled group to try to foster a dialogue, Maida said, but were rebuffed. Comments on social media suggest the outreach may have felt patronizing instead of sincere.

On Tuesday, a lone protester identifying himself as Munkata posted on Instagram that a white woman “mediator” called the cops claiming he assaulted her.

Video obtained by Billy Penn shows several police cars appeared at the scene, although no official reports were filed at that address. One witness told Billy Penn they did not see the protester assaulting anyone.


No lawsuit, yes racial bias training

There are internet rumors that the restaurant owners are suing the protesters — but that’s not true, according to Maida. Instead, they’re asking for an injunction.

“We’re petitioning the court for an injunction, that we’ll request that they are not allowed to use our names personally on their signage and their flyers … And we’re also asking that they be kept 20 feet away from the building in their protest,” Maida said.

She also indicated a desire to use the situation as a “moment of growth.”

On Wednesday, management of the two establishments will attend a mandatory training session on unconscious bias. Staff, including the 16 people who resigned, was also invited to attend.

“This is the start of the conversation for us,” Maida said, “[and] not the only step we’re taking toward being stronger, better employers.”

Over the past decade, Maida, Hartranft and Kelly have previously owned several other restaurants in the city, all of which have been sold or closed down. After Hartranft co-founded Memphis Taproom in Kensington in 2008, he joined forces with the other two partners, and their ownership group at various times ran Resurrection Ale House in Graduate Hospital, Coeur in Bella Vista, and Strangelove’s in Center City. That last was sold in February of this year, according to Maida.

Both Local 44 and Clarkville are on track to reopen Friday at 4 p.m.

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...