Concern voiced on social media about how the Flight Restaurant treats African-American customers and employees later became a Memphis City Council issue and led to the ouster of a co-owner. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Russ Graham, co-owner of Flight Restaurant & Wine Barat at 39 S. Main St. and Monroe, has been forced out of the business in response to allegations of racism and sexism at Flight and some of its sister restaurants.

Flight came under fire in recent days when former employees took to social media to claim that management instructed them to seat black customers in areas where they couldn’t be seen by white patrons entering the facility.

The former employees also said the restaurants’ owner, Flight Restaurant Group, was very selective about who was hired, employing very few black people and those they did hire worked in the kitchen area.

Co-owner Tom Powers said the company is bringing in a human resources firm to evaluate policies, procedures and standards to ensure the company is taking care of employees.

And, Flight Restaurant Group will be conducting an investigation to figure out if there were any violations that needed to be addressed.

The complaints went viral on social media, prompting a flood of comments condemning the alleged practices.

Protests ensued in front of Flight Restaurant and at the new restaurant, Porch & Parlor in Overton Square, owned by the same group.

Tuesday’s (June 16) Memphis City Council meeting – held virtually on YouTube – included a resolution presented by Councilman JB Smiley Jr. to address the matter.

All Memphis City Council members co-sponsored Smiley’s resolution and voted to support a hold on all city contracts with Flight Memphis, LLC, pending an investigation.

Flight pays the city to use curbside parking near its restaurant as a valet parking area in what is called a ramping agreement.

Minutes before the resolution was read, Smiley received an email from Powers, the co-owner of the restaurant group.

Smiley read the email to councilmembers and the public, stating that Flight Memphis, LLC, decided to buy out co-owner Russ Graham who “will no longer be an owner, affiliated with, or an employee of any fashion with any of their restaurants.

“We are committed to ensuring that our restaurants are inclusive and provide a comfortable and welcoming environment to all,” Powers said.

Smiley said, “The voices of the people, the voices of this council have been heard and have been taken seriously by Flight Restaurant.”

Smiley advised the council not to back down or take similar accusations lightly.

“What we have the chance to do here is set an example, set a precedent for any organization – for any entity – that has been accused of serious accusations of discrimination against black and brown people.

“Telling black and brown people – telling me, telling my brothers, telling my sisters – to go upstairs is the same as telling us to go to the back of the bus. This is year 2020. I’m assuming that this body, and the administration as well, will not allow or will not engage in business with any entity that has shown discrimination against black and brown people.”

Smiley then read a statement from the city’s chief communications officer, Ursula Madden, on behalf of the administration’s response to the allegations. Madden referred to the allegations as a “rumor” pending an investigation.

“I think we’re much past ‘rumors’ at this point,” Smiley said following Powers’ response.

To Smiley, Madden’s statement seemed “tone-deaf,” lacking any type of regard for those who felt discriminated against.

“We will not sit idly by while we’re intentionally engaging with entities that have been accused of allegations such as these.”

“You don’t buy an owner out like that unless there is something serious going on,” said Councilman Worth Morgan.

“As for me and my family, there are other places to eat.”

“We take this seriously,” said Councilman Jeff Warren, who stressed the importance of the investigation.

Protests denouncing racism and injustice continue nationwide following the torturous killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, MN.

Upscale restaurants in Chicago have also reckoned with demonstrations demanding accountability and reform following recent allegations of racism.

(To see the full Memphis City Council meeting for Tuesday, June 16, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnMN8Dw6cGs.)