A restaurant in Deming, New Mexico is facing backlash after displaying a sign reading "Blame China" outside the doors of their establishment.
Restaurant operators Bob and Kimberly Yacone told TODAY Food that the sign is not meant to be directed at Asian people or the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, with Bob Yacone, who is also the executive chef, stating that people who called the sign racist were "undereducated."
The restaurant, Forghedaboudit Southwest Italian, has been closed for about eight months due to staff shortages. Kimberly Yacone said that the sign went up a week ago, after customers kept approaching the restaurant while her husband was doing some work at the closed location.
"They kept getting angry with us that we were closed, and that we weren't open, and my husband basically said 'Hey, don't blame us, blame China," Kimberly Yacone said.
"It's nothing to do with Chinese people or Asian Americans, that's just ridiculous," said Bob Yacone.
"This sign simply replays the Trump administration’s tactic of dodging blame for its failures by playing to racial antagonism toward Asian Americans," said Peter Simonson, executive director at the ACLU of New Mexico, in a statement to TODAY. "We’ve seen how signs like this inspire hate and violence against the Asian community. Instead of contributing to these kinds of divisions in our country, we should be pulling together to defeat the virus."
When asked why the sign suggested blaming China instead of the U.S. government or people who didn't return to work, Bob Yacone said that he was "not going to blame any employee" for the crisis, which he "truly" believes was created by the Chinese government.
"If China never was working on this in their lab and it never got out of the lab in China, we'd never be in the situation that we're in right now," said Kimberly Yacone, referencing an unconfirmed theory that the coronavirus was man-made. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that it's "extremely unlikely" that the virus was made in a lab, instead saying it likely emerged in bats.
Amid the pandemic, restaurants have had difficulties staffing their establishments adequately. Some owners, including the Yacones, blame increased unemployment benefits. Bob Yacone also blamed the administration of President Joe Biden, even though the increased unemployment benefits began under former President Trump in March 2020.
"The government decided to let people stay home and pay them to stay home," said Kimberly Yacone. "That's what makes it tough when you're giving out extra benefits on top of the benefits, and then you don't even have to prove why you quit your job and the employer can't even go in and fight it. All they have to say is that they, they were let go because of COVID. ... It's not just us. It's everywhere."
Bob and Kimberly Yacone said that they had had trouble staffing the Deming location of their restaurant even before the pandemic, because of the size of the town and its distance from other major cities. Another location in Las Cruces, which was opened during the pandemic, has been open five days a week.
Bob Yacone said that employees at the restaurant do make above minimum wage and criticized people who suggest a "rhetorical flashpoint" like the amount workers are paid.
"They have no clue what we're paying," he said, clarifying that servers make on average between $13 and $15 per hour. According to PayScale, the average hourly wage in Deming is $12.97, and the state's minimum wage is $9 per hour.
According to data gathered by investigative news outlet ProPublica, the Deming location of Forghedaboudit Southwest has received two loans under the government Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan program created early in the pandemic to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on payroll.
The first loan, which was approved in April 2020, granted the establishment $43,509, for payroll; according to the database, that loan was disbursed. The second loan, which was approved in February 2021, granted the establishment $60,913, with $60,908 designated for payroll. The loan status is "not disclosed," and was granted during the time when the Deming location was closed. According to the database, the person who applied for the loan listed five jobs at the restaurant.
A third loan was granted to Kimberly Yacone, for $38,725 designated for payroll. The loan information provided by ProPublica indicates that the loan money was used at the Las Cruces location, which did stay open during the pandemic.
Kimberly Yacone declined to give details on employees as indicated on the loans and said that the restaurant's accountants had done "everything by the book."
"We did receive those loans and those loans also (go) towards the mortgage, electric, water and gas as well," said Yacone, though according to the ProPublica database, the restaurant applied for the loans for payroll use, not utilities. $1 of the second loan was earmarked for utilities. "We still have bills to pay, including property taxes on the building, so the money is being (used) appropriately."
The Yacones said that they have received both "hate mail" and "an incredible amount of support" after displaying the sign.
Online, they appear to have taken down their Facebook page, and TripAdvisor has suspended users from posting reviews of the restaurant due to "an influx of review submissions that do not describe a first-hand experience."
On Yelp, reviewers criticized the sign and the Yacones, calling the sign racist and divisive.
"We've seen how signs like this inspire hate and violence against the Asian community," wrote one reviewer. "Instead of contributing to these kinds of divisions in our country, we should be pulling together to defeat the virus."