Taco shop closes after employees say they were called racist names over mask policy

Two Los Angeles taco eateries temporarily closed after customers several berated employees over the county-mandated mask policy.
/ Source: TODAY

After working through the pandemic to serve guests and also keep them safe, employees at two Los Angeles taco shops say they have repeatedly been berated over the restaurant's new mask policy. Now the two locations have temporarily closed.

When stay-at-home orders went into effect March 19 in Los Angeles, Bill Kohne, the owner of Hugo's Tacos, quickly adapted their policies to keep the taco stands open. As the pandemic worsened, thousands of restaurants closed temporarily, or even permanently, due to the pandemic. Yet Hugo's remained open.

But in June, as Los Angeles began to reopen nonessential businesses, Kohne said his workers began struggling against a new challenge: Disgruntled customers were defying country-mandated orders and refusing to wear masks or face coverings.

Kohne shut down both Hugo's locations on June 28.

Courtesy Hugo's Tacos

"Its been a long four months for us," Kohne told the 3rd hour of TODAY Thursday. "There's a lot of pressure on an already vulnerable workforce, dissonant messages on how you can protect yourself and as business began to pick up right after Memorial Day, we found that the confrontations over this mask policy were also picking up.

"And they were becoming more vitriolic; they were becoming more personal: people screaming at the cashiers, mocking them by repeating what they'd say and straight up laughing in their face."

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The restaurant's employees, who are primarily Latino, logged their interactions with customers, which Kohne told NBC News included racial obscenities. One of Kohne's managers logged five incidents within just one hour on June 25.

To remain open, restaurants throughout Los Angeles County now have to abide by the Department of Public Health's order that requires customers and staff to don face coverings. If those rules are not followed, the restaurant may face a significant financial penalty. At Hugo's, the staff even provides disposable masks for customers to make it easier for folks who may have forgotten one at home.

"Long ago we settled on the rule, 'No shirt, no shoes, no service.' But today that rule is, 'No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.' But people are having a hard time with this and expressing it unfortunately on the cashiers who are doing nothing more than their job — what public health is asking us to do day in and day out trying to keep our guests and our employees safe in the workplace."

However, when it comes to dealing with customers who refuse to wear masks, Hugo's Tacos is not alone.

Since June, counties in states throughout the country have enforced similar face-covering measures to keep shoppers, diners and restaurant employees safe as areas reopen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still urging all Americans to wear masks when going outside if they are not able to safely socially distance from strangers. But in recent weeks, plenty of essential workers and servers have found themselves on the receiving end of customers' anger over policies out of their control.

At Costco, a customer shouted at an employee and called him derogatory names after being asked to wear a mask — part of a policy the warehouse implemented nationwide in May. The customer posted the video online to garner support, but his plan backfired when the employee was commended and even called a "hero" by actress Busy Phillips.

Similarly, an angry customer shared a Facebook post venting about a Starbucks barista who refused to provide service to a customer with no mask. The post went viral and many folks found ways to support the barista with extra tips, which reached over $30,000.

The owner of organic restaurant Goodonya in Encinitas, California, closed its doors June 30 to give staff a reprieve from health food seeking customers who castigated employees over mask-wearing policies, NBC 7 reported.

"People across the country are sharing stories just like ours of having these same kinds of confrontations day in and day out. Hopefully together, we can find a way to break this fever to make people realize that it's the small ask. It's part of public health code. Nobody's trying to take anything away from anybody. We're just trying to keep everybody safe," Kohne told TODAY.

Kohne will continue to pay his employees at both Hugo's Tacos locations their full wages until the restaurant reopens, which he hopes will be soon. Following an outpouring of support from customers asking how they could help employees who have suffered through varying degrees of abuse, Kohne told TODAY he started a GoFundMe page. By Thursday, the fund had raised $50,000; the money will be divided equally among the employees.

"It's a lot to put on an already taxed employee — to ask them to now become a counselor, a security officer and a playroom monitor," Kohne told TODAY. "We needed time to let our employees stop and check in with themselves and with their families again. We contemplate opening again very soon. This is a recharge not a retreat."