A Sarasota man says he was denied service, told to leave the popular Bahi Hut Lounge and had the police called on him Friday evening because he was wearing a red Make America Great Again hat in support of President Donald Trump.
The bar’s owner, after some initial confusion over why the customer had been asked to leave, said it was because an employee enforced the business’ no-hats policy, although the man who was kicked out said at least one other person in the Bahi Hut was wearing a hat that night and was not asked to leave, and an Instagram search for the bar turns up multiple photos that appear to show people wearing hats inside.
The dispute became public after the customer contacted state Sen. Joe Gruters, head of the local and state GOP, who shared the issue on social media.
Mark Marlow, 51, said it was his first time at the Bahi Hut, which is one of the region’s most beloved bars and has been open since 1954.
Marlow — who works in Fort Myers for an engineering firm but has lived in Sarasota for five years — said he went to the bar around 8:30 p.m. with his girlfriend, a longtime local resident who suggested the place. Marlow’s girlfriend, Gina Martin, confirmed everything about his story.
After sitting down at a table and waiting for a few minutes, Marlow said he was approached by a bar employee and told he would not be served and should leave.
“I was not drunk, I was not loud, I was not using profane language, I was not creating a scene — nothing,” Marlow said. “They said it was just because of the hat.”
Marlow’s reaction: “I just shook my head. He kind of turned around and walked away.”
After another few minutes, the same bar employee came back and allegedly told Marlow: “‘I can see you’re not going to go peacefully; if you don’t leave I’m going to call the cops.’ I told him to go ahead and do that.”
After roughly another 20 minutes of sitting at the table without being served, Marlow said he finally decided to leave, and just as he was walking out the door officers from the Sarasota Police Department arrived. The police told Marlow that the business has the right to refuse him service.
“Sarasota Police Department was very professional; they were very nice,” Marlow said. “I have no issues with them.”
An incident report provided by the Sarasota Police Department indicates that officers responded to a call at the Bahi Hut at 9:53 p.m. Friday.
The caller did not want to make a full report, but the incident report says the call was about someone being asked “to leave” and that the person asked to leave “is in the back of bar at table.” Marlow said he was sitting at a table in the back of the bar.
The incident report describes the suspect as a white male who is 50 years old and 6 feet tall, weighing roughly 220 pounds and having a beard that is gray and black. That description fits Marlow.
Marlow’s name is not on the police report, which says the nature of the call is about a “suspicious person.”
After thinking about his Bahi Hut experience over the weekend, Marlow went on Google and searched for “Sarasota Republican Party.” He wanted to complain. He found a number for Gruters, who also serves as the chair of the Sarasota GOP and of the Republican Party of Florida. Marlow had never met Gruters or spoken to him before.
After talking with Marlow, Gruters took to Facebook Monday morning to blast the Bahi Hut.
“Local Sarasota resident, Mark Marlow, was denied service from the Bahi Hut on Friday night and was asked to leave as a result of his MAGA hat,” Gruters wrote. “As a community, we should reject these type of actions, as it will lead to more division and hostility on both sides. We live in the greatest Country that has ever existed and this behavior should be considered unacceptable.”
Gruters’ Facebook post had been shared 366 times as of Monday afternoon and generated 350 comments. Marlow also went to the website for Fox News and submitted his story as a news tip but has not heard back.
Bahi Hut owner Jim Beck said the business does not tolerate discrimination of any kind.
“The management and owner strongly believes in nondiscrimination,” Beck said, adding: “MAGA hat is as welcome as anybody else in the bar. If somebody takes an exception to it, please leave.”
He initially said, based on second-hand information, that there had been some kind of conflict between Marlow and other customers, or a complaint about him. After delving into it further, he said he was told that the employee was simply enforcing a policy on customers not wearing hats in the bar, and that he had enforced the policy on another person wearing a hat that day.
“I don’t know what to believe at this point,” Beck said. “Right in the foyer as you enter the bar it says no hats. He’s saying what he told the gentleman very politely, very nicely, was no hats.”
Asked if he supports the no hats policy, Beck said “I support no discrimination … we’re trying to run a business; it’s supposed to be for everyone.”
“I don’t know what to make of it, what to do,” Beck said. “The policy’s written right there. It’s engraved in wood paneling. I can’t beat them up for following the policy.”
Marlow said there was no conflict between him and any other Bahi Hut customers. If somebody complained about his hat, Marlow said they didn’t complain to him directly, and he added that such a complaint should not get him kicked out of the bar.
“Given the fact that 50 percent of the population does not support Trump I imagine there was somebody in the bar that found offense with my hat, but that doesn’t excuse the behavior,” Marlow said.
As for the bar having a no-hats policy, Marlow said another person in the bar was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers hat and they even jokingly swapped hats at one point. So he doesn’t believe that explanation, either.
“There were other people in the bar wearing hats,” Marlow said. “If they had told me there was a policy against hats I would have followed the rules. That option was never given to me. It was we will not serve you; you need to leave.”
Martin said she found the entire experience embarrassing and humiliating and also said she does not believe that the bar employee was simply enforcing a no-hats policy. Martin said the employee repeatedly said “you’re not welcome here” and never explained there was a no-hats policy. She confirmed that somebody in the bar was wearing a Steelers hat.
Beck later called Marlow, who said Beck apologized profusely and was “very, very nice to me.”
“I feel bad for the owner, I think he was put in a bad light by his employee,” Marlow said.
Trump is a highly polarizing president, and his critics sometimes have been aggressive about confronting his supporters, and vice versa.
Conservatives were incensed when Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant because she works for the president.
A group of students from Kentucky wearing MAGA hats recently achieved notoriety — and sympathy from the president — for a clash near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Gruters said any business that denies service based on someone’s political beliefs “just creates more division.”
The incident at the Bahi Hut was not heated, Marlow said, and other than being asked to leave he was treated respectfully. He said that some patrons seemed to sympathize with him. Some gave him their drinks, which happened to be the same thing he drinks — Crown Royal whisky and Coke.
Asked if Trump — who has been accused of discriminating against Hispanics, Muslims, transgender people and other groups and sowing intolerance — has contributed to the confrontational nature of today’s politics and a lack of respect for other’s views, Marlow said Trump is very “intolerant on some issues” but that doesn’t excuse the way he was treated.
“I feel like I have a right to wear that hat in public just as much as somebody can wear gay pride or Dreamer Act shirts or things I might not necessarily wholeheartedly endorse,” Marlow said, adding: “Society as a whole should be able to peacefully disagree and no one should feel threatened.”
© 2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.
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