HARLEM — The co-owner of a French bistro in Harlem under fire for moving a group of black women out of their table to make room for white patrons has hit back at his accusers — saying a deputy Manhattan borough president and others tried to use their positions in the community to threaten to shut down his business.
Cedric Lecendre, whose eponymous restaurant Cedric opened at St. Nicholas Avenue near 119th Street five months ago, claims deputy Manhattan Borough President Rosemonde Pierre-Louis threatened to shut his restaurant down during a heated discussion Feb. 4.
"She told me many times, 'I'm going to shut you down, I'm going to destroy your business,' " Lecendre told DNAinfo. "She tried to use her influence. She tried to make this personal and political by threatening to get our liquor license revoked."
Lecendre said the war of words followed a heated discussion with some of the other women at Pierre-Louis' table. Those women included Joey Cole, Mignon Espy-Edwards and Lybra Clemons, according to a letter published in the Amsterdam News.
The group arrived at the restaurant at approximately 3:30 p.m. Feb. 4, eating and drinking until 7:30 p.m., when Cedric asked them to move to accommodate a group of four white women who had reservations, according to Cedric co-owner Fabrizio Khanlari. They agreed, and were placed at a table near the kitchen and the front door, where they continued to drink until about 11 p.m. Khanlari said.
"When we asked Cedric why we needed to move to a different table, he told us that the party of four had moved into the neighborhood, bought condos and they were 'regulars' and he knew them, which is why he felt the need to accommodate them," Cole, Espy-Edwards and Clemons wrote in a letter to the Amsterdam News.
"When we reminded him about our long-standing support of his restaurant, and our overall support in Harlem, he responded, 'I do not care about long-time residents of Harlem, I am running a business,' in a very loud and egregious tone," the letter continued.
The letter also said they were told of another incident previously in which a group of women of color arrived late in the evening only to be told the kitchen was closed. A short time later, a group of white patrons arrived and the "kitchen opened up to accommodate them."
The women say they are looking to "raise awareness about these troubling incidents."
Lecendre denied the allegations, saying that the women were asked to move only because the other group had reservations and they had been there for several hours and were no longer eating. Cedric co-owner Khanlari said another group of white patrons were also asked to change seats.
Lecendre sent a letter of apology to the women and said he was wrong for asking them to move. Khanlari also admitted to DNAinfo on Monday that Lecendre raised his voice during the encounter.
"This happens in the restaurant business. I've been moved myself. But if you don't like the situation you leave, you don't spend another three hours drinking there," Lecendre said.
He said the women continued to drink at their new table, consuming five bottles of red wine and four glasses of champagne. Several women rotated in and out of the group and the same five women were not present all evening.
"You don't know how glad I was to see Rose coming back because Rose knows me. She comes to the restaurant and she gets it," Lecendre said. "But then she saw her friend upset and she became angry."
Lecendre said that's when the threats came.
"To be very honest, if her friend hadn't called and she hadn't come to the restaurant this wouldn't have happened," Lecendre said of Pierre-Louis.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office declined to comment.
Pierre-Louis strongly denied the accusations in a statement, saying that she was a "proud resident of Harlem" who has long been an advocate and supporter of restaurants in the community. She noted the letter of apology that she and the other women received from Lecendre on Feb. 9.
"My objective in this matter was to play a positive role in resolving the situation. It is unfortunate that attempts have been made to distort this incident and, to be clear, I did not make any threats against this restaurant," Pierre-Louis wrote.
Lecendre said his business does not discriminate.
"We love it here, the people, the community, the energy and the history. I don't care who is black or white," said Lecendre. Khanlari has reached out to his customers to explain his side of the story. Despite the firestorm, he said, business has remained stable.
"I think the business will carry on because we have the community behind us," he said.
Debate about the incident raged on Cedric's Facebook page.
"This is the lesson in life when we don't take care of our business... We haven't learned a thing from Montgomery Bus Boycott. We spend our monies in these places and expect them to treat us with respect," wrote Clint Brantley.
Harlem artist Misha McGlown defended Cedric. In an interview, she said that the women may have a real grievance, but the response seems out of proportion.
McGlown said she is a patron of the bistro and that her daughter formerly worked at Cedric and reported no incidents of racial discrimination.
"This call for the greater community to shut them down is overblown. I don't feel like that's the appropriate response," McGlown said.
She said the energy should be used to tackle more serious community issues such as school closures.
A number of issues, from the look of a liquor store in Mount Morris Park with bulletproof glass that residents said did not fit in with the rising status of the neighborhood, to a discussion at a Central Harlem community board about what time new bars and restaurants should stop serving alcohol, are evidence of some of the recent friction that has occurred.
Longtime Harlem residents are also wary of how they will be treated by the many new bars and restaurants coming as the neighborhood gentrifies
"They are looking for this sort of behavior and they are not wrong because I'm looking for it myself," said McGlown.
"When a new place opens up I'm looking to confirm who this is for and am I welcome? Are people working there who look like me? How am I being treated?"