Dark Day at Toopees

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a friend and his fiancée decided to stop by Toopees Coffee Company & Catering [1830 West Alabama, (713)522-7662] for a leisurely brunch. Toopees is normally a relax-and-kick-back place, a gathering spot for the Montrose lesbian community, but just as friendly to straights. But that afternoon, he reports, the place felt oddly strained. Like the eerie calm before a storm.

A table of customers near the door complained irritably that they'd been waiting two and a half hours to complete their meal. A leisurely meal is one thing, thought our friend; almost three hours is quite another. He commiserated, but he sat down anyway.

Conspicuously absent were the normally neighborly twentysomething women dressed in black T-shirts labeled "Waitstaff." Instead, a flustered middle-aged hostess wearing high heels fussed around the room. Toopees had never had a hostess before, and certainly not one like this. "She was just soooo oversolicitous," he says. "She was, like, manic. It was unnerving."

Owner Norman Salvato: "I just don't understand all the commotion."
Owner Norman Salvato: "I just don't understand all the commotion."

Suddenly three waitresses appeared from a huddled conference in a back room. They marched to the middle of the restaurant and announced to the room at large that they were quitting. Leaving. Like, right now.

In stunned silence, the customers watched the young women walk out the door. "We all just sat there wondering, Now what?" says our friend. "The service was already so slow, but I mean, what should you do? Walk out in sympathy?"

After their dramatic exodus, the women lingered in the parking lot, still upset and seemingly reluctant to leave. "This isn't about quitting, this is a protest," explained Kristi Rae, one of the waitresses who walked out. Everything changed, the former staffers agreed, when longtime owner Caroline Burum sold Toopees to partners Norman Salvato and Mike Shipper.

"It's not just that she sold it, but she sold it to two men we didn't even know," says Sheila Harris, one of the staffers who walked out. "She didn't even talk to us about it; some of us wanted to try to buy it ourselves. We felt betrayed."

"But I don't think this is a gay-lesbian issue," Harris quickly adds. "The place wasn't exclusively for gays and lesbians. I mean, I'm not a lesbian, but it was a wonderful place to work and open to everyone. I just think it was irresponsible of Caroline to sell it to people who would change it completely."

Salvato initially promised staffers he wouldn't change a thing about Toopees. Then he took down all the paintings of female nudes and replaced them, Harris says, with pictures of "kitty cats in hallways, and palm trees and sailboats."

"This is art censorship," declares Rae, who describes herself as a "flaming lesbo" and a songwriter. "Those guys just decided, no more female nudes, Mike doesn't approve of them. So they made the artists take them down."

Another change that stuck in the staffers' collective craw: Salvato and Shipper hired a weekend cashier, also male, to maintain exclusive control of the cash drawer. "Well, before, things were pretty casual with the money, like the drawer was never balanced or anything," admits Rae. "So I can see where they might want better control. But the new guy basically guarded that cash register and made us feel like we couldn't be trusted. In the two years I worked there, I'd opened the restaurant, I'd closed the restaurant, I'd basically run it whenever I was needed. I quit my full-time job to work at Toopees. And now I can't put my hands in the register to make change for a customer?"

"We would never steal from Toopees," chimes in Kathy Goodwin, at 19, the youngest of the waitresses who left. "How could they think that? It would be like stealing from your home or your family."

Even the lighting has changed. "It's, like, really dimly lit in there at night now," Rae points out. "Maybe Toopees is supposed to become a regular restaurant, like with fine dining, but I think they're keeping it dark to chase the students out. We used to have people studying in the evenings. Now they can't see to read."

Salvato remembers that Sunday well -- September 26, only nine days after he and Shipper bought the cafe from Burum: "I had just taken over the restaurant, it was my first Sunday, it was packed with customers; it was just a very frustrating day." Salvato begged the young waitresses not to leave. "It wasn't personal, they were efficient and dependable people, but they had issues and wanted to make a statement, and I admire them for their commitment to their cause," he explains earnestly. As it turns out, three prospective employees were waiting at the counter before the afternoon was over.

Salvato, who now spends every day in his new cafe, is baffled by the uproar that has ensued. "I just don't understand all the commotion over this," he says with a groan. "I don't want to drastically change Toopees into something else. I bought it because I liked it the way it was. I haven't even changed the menu."

After all, Salvato points out, Burum herself started Toopees' slow transition from a coffee house to a restaurant. "And as a business owner, I have to make a profit," he says. "It's a restaurant. People can't just sit here all day reading and studying and not spend any money. And the feminist artwork, well, some of it just really isn't appropriate for a restaurant."

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