Saturday afternoons are always busy at New York Grilled Cheese. Hungover people line up for greasy sandwiches stuffed with bacon and fried chicken. Customers spill out of the tiny pink storefront on Wilton Drive and congregate in front of the sex shop next door.
This being Wilton Manors, America’s second gayest city (after Provincetown, Massachusetts), the crowd tends to be open-minded and inclusive — which is why Mia Patryck, who has been working at the restaurant as a waitress for a year and a half, was shocked to hear a woman who was angry about the long wait in line loudly calling her a "he-she" and a "tranny."
In the past, customers have asked Patryck, who is transgender, for another server — but not in Wilton Manors. "It's extremely hard for transgender people to find employment anywhere, especially in restaurants where they’re worried you’re going to scare the customers away," she says. "It means the world to me to work here because I've been told to my face before, 'You're transgender, so you can't work here.'"
Although she was hurt and upset to be called "tranny," she tried not to show it. "I was just focused on keeping my composure," she says. "I can't break down and cry in front of customers — I want them to have a good experience here." Her manager confronted the woman and asked her to leave, and Patryck took a five-minute break outside to collect herself, then got back to work.
Leor Barak, the restaurant's owner, was devastated to learn what had happened. "It really hit me in the gut because I put her in that situation," he says. "The worst part was that people just stood by and didn’t speak up. If you’re a gay person and you see her being attacked, [you need to realize] that could have been you."
A few days later, a woman wrote a one-star review for the restaurant on Facebook, claiming that her waiter — whom she referred to as "he" and "him" — had been rude. Patryck recognized her as the same woman who had been calling her names. A second woman chimed in: “This place was delicious. But I wouldn’t go back. They only have transgender restrooms.”
So Barak politely schooled them.
"New York Grilled Cheese is proud to support LGBTQ individuals from all backgrounds, employees and customers alike,” he wrote to the first woman. “We strive to create a safe, gender-neutral space so our patrons and staff feel comfortable and happy. Here’s a quick lesson. Your sex is determined by biology. Nobody can choose their sex. Your gender is determined by your personal identity. All Americans are free to choose their gender."
To the second, he answered, "We believe every person is born with dignity and humanity, and that includes their gender expression. We practice that belief by creating welcoming and inclusive spaces... We are sorry to hear you won’t be back simply because of this reason. We hope that one day, you will change your mind about singling out transgendered folks."
Both women seem to have since deleted their posts and hidden their Facebook pages. They could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, screenshots of Barak’s response were picked up by the Florida Agenda, New Now Next, the Huffington Post, and Yahoo! News and shared hundreds of thousands of times. Suddenly, over the past week, New York Grilled Cheese has been flooded with five-star reviews from people around the country.
"Love seeing this company stand up for its beautiful employee who faced transphobic abuse from an ignorant customer," one woman wrote. "Keep doing you. When I'm next in Florida I'll make sure to visit."
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"Thank you for standing up to bullies and intolerant people," another said. "This world is too negative and we need more positive people like you. Life is too short to waste on hate."
Despite getting hundreds of messages of support, Barak says there hasn't been a noticeable uptick in business. Disturbingly, though, the restaurant has gotten threatening phone calls from people saying that they are going to lynch Patryck — which the owner reported to the police.
Others have threatened to boycott the eatery, though it's hard to imagine that any of them were really regular patrons of a restaurant that proudly displays rainbow-striped posters declaring, "LOVE IS LOVE." Barak thinks it's more likely to affect sales at the store's new location in Boca Raton, which tends to be more conservative.
"I may get a pinch in business, but that's not going to stop me," he says. "My employee's dignity is something that I'll stand by."