Promotion Effort Ends In Discrimination Suit For Downtown Eatery

By AMANDA BRONSTAD
Staff Reporter

Windows Steaks & Martinis, nestled on the 32nd floor of Transamerica Center downtown, boasts some of the best views of the city.

But a music promoter from Atlanta claims that the restaurant operators didn't like what they saw when he ran a jazz and rhythm and blues promotion at the restaurant earlier this year.

The promoter, Thomas Dixon, sued the restaurant on May 20, along with manager Guckenheimer Enterprises Inc., Transamerica Corp., whose parent company owned the complex, and former building manager Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., for racial discrimination and other claims.

Dixon said his five-week promotion was cancelled last month after a Jones Lang LaSalle executive told the restaurant's general manager, Richard Bonhama, "there were too many blacks in attendance," according to Dixon's suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia.

"Probably 80 percent of the people who showed up on that first Friday were African-American," Dixon said in an interview. "Richard called me the next day to tell me he received word from building management that the population that came to the function was not reflective of greater Los Angeles."

Spokeswomen for Transamerica Corp. and Jones Lang LaSalle in Chicago declined to comment.

Bonhama referred calls to Guckenheimer, which operates the food and beverage services at Transamerica Center. Calls to Guckenheimer were referred to Stephen Dennis, a partner at Thoits Love Hershberger & McLean PC in Palo Alto, who declined to address details of the suit, saying the "allegations of racial discrimination are false" and that much of the complaint is "just plain wrong."

Risky business

As the restaurant business has slowed over the past two years, operators have more frequently turned to promoters to run special events as a way to drive up traffic.

"I do see some higher-end restaurants trying it but not keeping it for a long time," said Albert Torres, a Santa Monica promoter of Latin music. "They see their clientele is over by 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., but they still have three more hours to bring in income. One way to do that is to bring in music. They're not experts in music, so they bring in promoters."

But as the lawsuit against Windows Steaks & Martinis highlights, relationships can prove thorny when promoters target an audience that may not match a restaurant's traditional patrons.

What's more, Torres said, restaurants often don't generate the kind of revenue they expect from these promotions.

They often work deals with several promoters before settling on one that brings the crowds they want, but rarely do the divorces result in accusations of racial discrimination.

According to his suit, Dixon, whose company operates Atlanta nightclub Taboo Bistro & Bar, first introduced himself to Bonhama last September. It wasn't until February that Bonhama retained him, the suit said, because restaurant revenues were down and a promotion was needed to boost sales.

The two had an oral agreement to have Dixon run events on Friday nights that would primarily take place at the restaurant's bar, the suit says.

The agreement wasn't committed to paper because the Transamerica complex was at that time under agreement of sale, the suit says. Oral agreements, while risky for the promoter, allow a restaurant owner to save money by canceling the promoter quickly while holding onto the patrons, Torres said.

Under terms of the arrangement, Dixon would keep the cover charges and any sponsorship income, while the restaurant upped its receipts from food and beverage sales, the suit says.

Bumped for Magic

The first promotion ran on the night of April 11, and the next day, the suit claims that an unnamed Jones Lang LaSalle executive told Bonhama "there were too many blacks in attendance."

A week later, after the second event, Bonhama sent an e-mail to Dixon complaining about rude customers, a broken mirror and "demographics not reflective of greater Los Angeles," the suit says. On May 1, Bonhama cancelled the agreement as of May 16, the suit says.

Dennis, the lawyer representing Windows Steaks & Martinis' operator, said Dixon's promotion was cancelled because there were reports of vandalism and "inappropriate conduct." Further, he said, the restaurant canceled the promotion after Dixon began complaining about another event that had been booked the night of his Saturday promotion.

That event, Dennis said, was for former L.A. Lakers star and local businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson, whose Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund had established a partnership with New Pacific Realty Corp. to buy Transamerica Center May 21. The Los Angeles Times reported that the group paid $100 million for the three-building, 1.4 million-square-foot complex.

"A prior commitment to an entity like the Magic Johnson Foundation seems real inconsistent with the notion that we are treating (Dixon) and his organization in some racially discriminatory way," Dennis said.

Dixon is seeking more than $2.5 million in damages on claims of racial discrimination, breach of contract and economic interference.

He claims he is not the first to experience discrimination at the site, alleging in the suit that Windows Steaks & Martinis management showed similar bias at an event run by the Highland Jazz Society.

Jones Lang LaSalle's manager of the Transamerica Center, Louise Van Bibber, called that claim "frivolous." She is not named as a defendant in Dixon's suit.

"Everything was fine," she said. "And everyone was well behaved."

Calls to Highland Jazz Society were not returned.

For the past three months, the Highland Jazz Society has hosted promotions on Saturday nights at Point Moorea, the lounge at the Wilshire Grand Hotel downtown, said Greg Schleicher, general manager of Point Moorea.

"I don't care who you are, or what your ethnic background is, as long as you're well behaved," Schleicher said. "After happy hour, it's pretty much dead downtown. They bring in a crowd."

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