Imagine Benjamin La Count's surprise to find himself suddenly persona non grata at the Fu Kim restaurant in Webster [1333 West Bay Area Boulevard, (281)332-4336]. La Count describes himself as one of Fu Kim's most faithful customers since it opened seven months ago, dropping by at least once a week for the "all you can eat" $7.95 lunch buffet, usually with business associates and friends in tow.
"I must have brought them at least two dozen new customers," says La Count during a recent interview. "And I was happy to: It was a win-win situation. The food was as good as the service, we got to eat all that we wanted, and they got a lot of new fans."
All that abruptly changed the first week of September. La Count arrived at lunchtime, as usual, only to be told by the restaurant's assistant manager, Doan Huynh Li, that he, his wife and his physically disabled guest could not sit at their regular table in the front of the restaurant. They now had to sit at a table of Li's choice, an isolated table at the very back of the restaurant, a long, long way from the buffet line.
La Count protested, pointing out that the table would be too far from the buffet for his handicapped friend, who must balance her walking cane with a full buffet plate. Li insisted, citing "customer and waitstaff complaints" and the "large piles of food debris" left behind by La Count and company as the reason for the less-accessible seating.
"Look, I'm a big, boisterous guy, I'm 100 to 150 pounds overweight, and so is my friend," La Count readily admits. "But we have fine table manners. We may eat a lot, but we are not pigs. And we certainly don't dump food on the floor. That's just ridiculous."
La Count, who describes himself as a mild-tempered man, was offended but willing to compromise. He suggested a different table, still close to the buffet but behind it in a darker area less visible to other customers. "If Doan's real reason was to hide us from her other customers," says La Count, "she'd have let us sit back behind the buffet table in the dark. But she wouldn't. We had to sit exactly where she wanted, or else leave. It was her way or the highway. So we left."
Li disputes this portion of La Count's story. "I simply asked them to sit somewhere else, not so close to the buffet table," says Li. "We had many complaints from other customers about their eating habits. I never said he was 'disgusting,' I just asked him to move to another table, and he refused."
The real reason for the sudden cold shoulder, La Count speculates darkly, is that Li thought he ate too much. She decided he was an unprofitable client, he says, no matter how many new customers he brought with him. Fu Kim might consider him a "buffet skimmer," he admits, one who concentrates on the most expensive items on offer, scooping up the high-dollar delicacies before other customers can get to them.
"It's true, we eat mostly crab and sushi," explains La Count. "But we always made sure there was enough left for other customers. If Fu Kim doesn't want us to eat it, if they're losing money on stuff like crab and sushi, why don't they just stop putting it out on the buffet?"
Li counters that it isn't how much he ate, but how he ate it.
La Count is convinced that Fu Kim's treatment amounts to discrimination on two counts: against him, as an overweight person, and against his friend, as a handicapped person. After trying to complain to the restaurant -- his numerous telephone calls were ignored, he says -- he contacted the Better Business Bureau, the Texas Attorney General's office and, of course, an attorney.
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"My attorney says I don't have a case," says La Count. "It'd be different if it were a matter of skin color, but he says Texas is 30 years behind the times when it comes to discrimination against the obese. My handicapped friend, now, she does have a case, and if Fu Kim doesn't respond to us, she's going to pursue it."
"We didn't refuse him service, and we didn't ask him to leave," says Li emphatically. "And I can't comment on whether his friend is physically disabled or not, I just don't know. Sometimes she used a cane, but she could definitely walk."
The funny thing is, La Count would love to return to the Bay Area Fu Kim. "I really do like their food, you know?" he says. "And it was a good place for me to conduct business and meet with clients. If they'd just apologize to me, publicly, and maybe buy me a lunch or two, I'd be happy to go back."
Li, who is now working at the downtown store, Fu Kim Grand Palace, sticks by her guns. "A restaurant has the right to seat its customers where it thinks best. I talked with the manager and the owner, and we believe we were within our rights in this situation," she says. "We do not feel an apology is necessary."