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Former Lebanon Cook: I Was a Target of Racism

  • Former line cook at The Fort @ Exit 18 in Lebanon, N.H., Juan Smart, of White River Junction, Vt. explains what happened to him while working at the restaurant during an interview in West Lebanon, N.H. on Sept. 12, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Juan Smart and his girlfriend Mary Bessette, of White River Junction, Vt. during an interview in West Lebanon, N.H. on Sept. 12, 2018. Smart is a former line cook at The Fort @ Exit 18 in Lebanon, N.H. He says a co-worker wrote a racist message to him at the restaurant. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Fort @ Exit 18 in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 21, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, October 01, 2018

Lebanon — When Juan Smart told his friends in Connecticut’s biggest city that he was going to move to the Upper Valley more than a year ago after falling in love with a woman from White River Junction, they warned him that he was likely to face racism in rural northern New England.

Smart, a 46-year-old black man from Bridgeport, Conn., brushed off their warnings at the time, but now thinks they may have foretold the sort of experience he says he had while he was working as a line cook at The Fort @ Exit 18 on Heater Road in Lebanon. Smart has been working in restaurants for 30 years and says he’s never encountered anything like it.

In a complaint he says he filed with the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights, the Civil Rights Unit of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Smart alleges that a co-worker at The Fort left a message for him on a kitchen whiteboard on the morning of Aug. 20 that read: “R U just f—ing stupid/ How many times have you been told & shown how to clean flat tops. F—ing start doing it right you dumb f—ing (N-word).”

The message was erased by the time Smart, who worked the second shift at the truck stop near Interstate 89, arrived for work, but Zachary Bartocha, then a server working the morning shift, took a picture of it with his cellphone. Bartocha, a Lebanon resident, later shared the photo with Smart.

Smart said he confronted The Fort’s owner Bob Hazlett about it.

“Then I went to the owner and manager and showed them the message, and they told me that (the message’s author) apologized to Bob the owner and he erased it from the board and Bob told me I should let it go,” Smart said in his complaint.

Reached by phone in late August, Hazlett declined to comment other than to say: “The guy who’s responsible for it has been fired.”

He did not clarify who he thought was responsible, aside from saying that he did not fire the person Smart and Bartocha identified as the message’s author. (The first name of a co-worker was at the end of the message).

Following the incident with the message, Smart said, he quit, and Bartocha said he was fired.

The message’s alleged author, who still was working at The Fort at least as recently as last month, declined to comment.

The message wasn’t an isolated incident, said Smart, who worked at The Fort for four months. His complaint alleged that other members of the restaurant staff made racist comments about him.

In a mid-September interview at the Valley News, Smart said he simply tried to ignore the comments.

“Chefs are supposed to have tough skins because of what goes on in kitchens,” Smart said.

Besides, he liked cooking and needed the paycheck.

But ultimately, he said he felt he had to quit “for my sanity.”

Smart has made a point of teaching his children not to use the word, even as slang, he said. The context of the message, Smart said, made it clear that it was not meant in any way other than as a racist insult.

Smart also said he could not have been confused about who the message’s intended recipient was.

“I’m the only black person there,” Smart said.

Now, Smart, who has returned to his former employer Dunkin’ Donuts for a lower wage, says he thinks it would be appropriate for the message’s author to be held accountable.

“I don’t want money,” Smart said. “I want (the person who wrote the message to be) fired.”

The state attorney general’s Civil Rights Unit, which was created late last year to lead enforcement of the state’s anti-discrimination and civil rights laws, has received a complaint and is reviewing the matter, spokeswoman Kate Spiner said in a mid-September email.

Ahni Malachi, executive director of the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights, could not confirm or deny the existence of a complaint or an investigation, she said in a phone interview. The commission’s rules prevent her from discussing any complaint or investigation, she said.

In general, New Hampshire employers are required to prevent racial discrimination by their employees toward other employees, Stephen Tower, a staff attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said in an email.

“Failure of the employer to do so is just as much a violation of the Civil Rights Act as if a manager had participated in the discrimination,” Tower said. “If the employer has been made aware of the discrimination and has not responded in a very serious manner to resolve it (which does not require firing the other employee, but must be more substantial than just telling offenders to stop), the employee facing the discrimination can file a complaint with either the state Human Rights Commission or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

Bartocha, who is transgender, also said the message came within the context of a work environment that was not respectful to people who are different.

“The Fort’s never really been a shining beacon of political correctness,” Bartocha said in a phone interview last month.

For example, Bartocha said, a manager once called him a “female impersonator,” and some female employees had called him a “wannabe.”

But, Bartocha said, “The money’s good there.”

Like Smart, he said, “I just decided to develop a thicker skin.”

Among all of these insults, however, the message to Smart struck Bartocha as particularly egregious.

“I didn’t even think pockets of racism like this existed,” he said. “It’s 2018. This diner’s still stuck in the ’60s.”

Like Smart, Bartocha has found employment at other Upper Valley eateries since leaving The Fort. But he misses the tips.

He was training at Lui Lui in West Lebanon and working as a server at Wicked Awesome BBQ in White River Junction last month.

But because he was in training, among other factors, his income was reduced to the point that he had to borrow $450 from a friend to prevent his car from being repossessed. Though he was able to keep the car, he still had to walk and use Advance Transit because his registration had expired and he couldn’t yet afford to renew it.

“Hopefully that will all be on the upswing here soon,” Bartocha said.

In what appears to be an unrelated incident, Lebanon police are investigating a burglary that took place at The Fort on Aug. 26, the Sunday after Bartocha and Smart allege the message was written.

The burglar, described as a white man with facial hair and a thin build, is believed to have stolen a large safe containing an undisclosed amount of cash.

Bartocha said police searched his car and home, but found nothing. Smart said he was bringing his daughter back to North Carolina at the time of the burglary.

Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said his department is “aware” of the racial discrimination incident at The Fort restaurant, but has no information that it is connected to the burglary that police are investigating.

He said he could not confirm that his officers had searched Bartocha’s property because the investigation into the burglary is ongoing.

The experience with the message at The Fort has left Smart feeling like a future in cooking is unlikely.

“I’m definitely blackballed by now,” he said.

It’s also left him uncertain about what other people in the Upper Valley are thinking when they see him.

“I don’t know what’s really in people’s heads now,” he said.

But Smart has made friends in the Upper Valley. Some have taken to Facebook since late August to voice their concerns about the message, and one post of a photo of the racist message has been shared 98 times.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.