Larry Whitten has been having some very bad days lately since moving to
Whitten moved to
So when he laid down $2 million for the Paragon, (now the Whitten Inn, where you are supposed to be able to “Sleep like a Kitten…” he also laid down some new rules for the staff: No more hard-to-pronounce Spanish names.
In an attempt to make it easier for guests to pronounce the names of the Whitten Inn staff, Whitten decided that Martin would be Martin, not Mar-teen. Marcos would be Mark; Juan would be John and so on. He also ruled out employees speaking Spanish in front of him for fear they were talking about him. Seemingly a bit paranoid, presumably he didn’t go full Marine and initiate the rule if the staff were going to be talking about him, they needed to do it in front of him, in English, so he could comprehend.
In a community where Spanish language and culture have long been a mainstay, Whitten crossed the line in the eyes of his staff, their relatives and some community residents.
Soon the picket lines went up across the street and the Associated Press targeted the story. Whitten has now been labeled a racist and his future in
What was Whitten thinking? Not only were the changes he made insulting to his employees, but they were meaningless. I stayed at The Paragon Inn before Whitten purchased it and the least of the problems at the tired and worn property were the names of the employees.
However, I am sure Whitten does what every dog does to every new hydrant in an attempt to let everyone know who the Alpha dog really is. He put his money on the table – a lot of it – and wanted to put his mark on the property.
Molding your investment and creating an image that you can be proud of and that works for your customers and community is an admirable feat for any business owner. The rub arises when the new owner and manager quickly makes changes without surveying the demographics of an area.
Every new owner of every old restaurant in any close-knit community or neighborhood has dealt with it. I have heard it no less than a thousand times: “Oh, you’re new here. Well, let me tell you what you can’t take off the menu.”
And, of course, that is usually the first item on the radar screen of obsolete entrees or offerings. It never fails, the new kid on the block, no matter how old or experienced, is going to be put through community tests to see if they are going to be immediately accepted or if the hoops are going to be erected to subliminally jump through.
Whitten failed to read the market, the power of the workers and the fact that to make someone change their name is not only an insult and assault on them personally, but their heritage and family.
Essentially Whitten inferred his clientele didn’t like Spanish names and would prefer a more American setting. If the 64 year old hotelier paid attention, he would realize the Buffys, Muffys, Jonathons, Jasons, Jaspers, Ashtons and
I have a theory; the most important person on the baseball team is the bus driver. Without him the team can’t get to the game and has to forfeit.
In the restaurant business, the most important person on the staff is the dishwasher for without him, nobody eats or cooks and the restaurant stops.
Whitten made a drastic mistake when he went to that hydrant in the corner. The incident is a terrific example of having to deeply dissect every move we make when dealing with the public. Although we all think we own the restaurants, and hotels, and cafes we pay for, we really don’t. One wrong move is often a rallying call to a community or neighborhood to decide our future, whether it be for a day, a week, or forever in that location.
And just as quickly as Whitten laid down the law and the cash to allow him the privilege of running his business, he created a monster that nothing but a sincere, “I was a fool, I am sorry” gesture can begin to repair.