BUFFALO, NY – A long time west side business, ensnared in a racial controversy, says it is reaching out to try and heal any wounds which may have surfaced after an incident which occurred on Wednesday.
John Washington is a community organizer for PUSH Buffalo, whose office is kitty corner from Guercio & Sons Grocery on Grant Street.
Washington says he has patronized Guercio’s on many occasions in the past.
However, he says that along with his lunch, he was served up with racial slurs by an employee who Guercio’s promptly fired after learning of the alleged incident.
“The woman who was making the sandwich called myself and a person I was with a monkey and a gorilla, made racist reference to the size of my lips,” said Washington, who is African American.
“She did so in a manner which appeared to be joking, but I didn’t appreciate it,” Washington said.
Nor did he appreciate what the woman allegedly drew on the sandwich wrapper, which he interpreted as being a monkey.
“This is the stuff that happens to me all across the city of Buffalo,” Washington told WGRZ-TV.
Instead of bringing the matter directly to the attention of Guercio’s management, Washington chose to post his account of things on social media.
"I think the reality is that if I would have said to the manager that this woman said something racist to me, I would have been confronted with what I'm always confronted with, and that is ‘you're the crazy angry black man whose obsessed with race’,” Washington said.
Upon learning of Washington’s claims, Guercio’s promptly fired the employee.
“You should not call people names…it's not right, and we do apologize. We don;’ stand for that," said Lisa Guercio during an interview with Channel 2 on Wednesday.
A woman identifying herself as the former employee contacted Two on Your Side, confirming that she was fired, but denying Washington’s account of the story.
She claims that she did not call Washington a monkey, and that the picture she drew on the sandwich wrapper was a smiley face with ears, and “not at all a racist image”.
Further, she claims Washington looked at the drawing and laughed, saying only that, ‘you over charged me’, before paying for his sandwich and leaving.
“I think he owes me an apology for lying and costing me my job,” said the woman, who added that she now fears leaving her home in the neighborhood.
The woman expressed a desire to tell more of her story, and while 2 on Your Side offered her the chance to do so on camera Thursday morning, she said she needed to first speak with her attorney, and did not respond to a phone message left on Thursday afternoon.
In a statement issued Thursday, Guercio's said it was “disturbed and upset” over the incident and re-iterated that the employee was immediately fired, and that “we do not condone or tolerate the type of behavior exhibited by our former employee.”
In addition to expressing a desire “to apologize personally to Mr. Washington”, the statement concluded by saying “We understand racism exists in this country but that is not who we are... we are in contact with PUSH Buffalo for the purpose of opening a public dialog because this is the perfect example of something that can only be healed by community.”
“The focus should be on race in the city of Buffalo,” said Washington. “Unfortunately this incident which happened at Guercio's could have happened at any business."
Gary Quatrani, who is also African American, is also a long time customer of Guercio's and was quick to come to its defense.
“I’m shocked to hear the allegations,” said Quatrani.
“There are definitely places in Buffalo where they will not give you service, or they'll turn their back on you, they will make you wait, but this is definitely not one of them. These are the nicest people in the world and an important part of a very diverse community who welcome everyone into their business,” Quatrani said.