Fort Worth

Popular Fort Worth bar may be using dress code to discriminate, clubgoers say

Update: Varsity Tavern 'saddened' by complaints of discriminatory dress code enforcement

FORT WORTH — Sam Sayed was excited to show his out-of-town friends his hometown.

Sayed was born in Dallas, grew up in Arlington and lived in Fort Worth for six years before he moved to Philadelphia to attend graduate school at Drexel University. During his spring break, he invited his friends to DFW to show them where he was from and a good time, he said.

So last month, he said, he was not only horrified, but ashamed to find that his friend Stephen, a black man from the Bronx, was turned away from Varsity Tavern, a popular bar in the West 7th area, supposedly because he was wearing Jordans sneakers. However, Sayed and Stephen say Stephen was turned away because of his race.

Four other people told the Star-Telegram that they believe they were barred entrance to the bar, or saw someone denied entrance, because of their race when bouncers used selective enforcement of the dress code.

The manager of the bar declined to speak to the Star-Telegram on the record. The bar issued this prepared statement: “Varsity Tavern takes these incidents and accusations very seriously and we are in the process of doing an internal investigation into this matter."

A casual night

Sayed said he noticed people were dressed casually at the Varsity Tavern when he and his friends decided to go in. Others already inside were wearing sneakers. But the bouncer at the door who turned Stephen away cited the tavern’s dress-code policy, saying he couldn’t allow anyone wearing Jordans into the establishment.

They left.

About an hour later at a bar across the street, Sayed, Stephen and the rest of their group met another friend, Sean Gallagher, and decided to test their theory about why Stephen wasn’t allowed into Varsity.

Gallagher, who is white, put on Stephen’s Jordans and Stephen put on Gallagher’s Sperrys, a type of boat shoe. The group made its way back to Varsity and from a distance, Sayed and Stephen watched as a different bouncer let Gallagher into the bar without questioning his outfit or his shoes.

Stephen and Sayed got in line to get their IDs checked again. Come Stephen’s turn, the bouncer triple-checked his shoes before allowing him in, Sayed said.

“It ruined [Stephen's] whole night when he realized what had just happened,” Sayed said.

Once the group made it into the bar, Stephen and Gallagher switched their shoes. Stephen, who asked that his last name not be used, said a security guard came up to them almost immediately and asked Stephen how he had gotten in with Jordans. The guard told him he had to leave. They did.

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The Varsity Tavern in Fort Worth during a recent night. Max Faulkner

Connecting the dots

Stephen said that days before, he and Sayed went to Varsity while they were both wearing jogger pants. Sayed’s were khaki-colored and Stephen’s were black.

While Sayed was allowed to enter and Stephen wasn’t, Stephen said he didn’t think much of it then. He said Sayed forgot the bar also had a rule against joggers. Eventually, they went to the side door of the bar, where a bouncer would charge them “$20 per ‘infraction,’” Sayed said, and they were let in.

But it was the second incident with the shoes that upset Stephen.

“I was so out of it the whole night,” Stephen said. “I couldn’t interact or socialize. I was completely shocked and unprepared with how to deal with it.”

Outraged, Sayed posted about the incident on Facebook the next day. His post got over 200 reactions, 61 shares and 78 comments, some of which expressed similar experiences at the same bar.

“I was just so in my head,” Stephen said. “Is it really because of the Jordans or the person wearing them?”

Several people have left reviews on Yelp and Google with accusations of discrimination based on race at Varsity.

“In 2018, we shouldn’t have to encounter such a scenario,” said Oyinye Ejindu, a real estate broker who lives in Bedford. In June 2016, while he lived in Fort Worth, he was turned away from Varsity one night while he was wearing a T-shirt and Gap jeans, he said.

Ejindu said he was neither under- nor overdressed, but the bouncer denied him entry because he was wearing white tennis shoes. Meanwhile, the next person in line, a white man in cargo shorts, was allowed in, he said. Ejindu is one of at least 25 people who wrote a Yelp review about his experience at Varsity.

Arlington resident Nastassia Macharia said she and her husband, who was born in Kenya, had heard that Varsity had a strict dress-code policy. They knew the bar didn’t allow tennis shoes so her husband wore Timberland boots. He also wore a button-down shirt and jeans.

One night in February 2018, the couple waited in line with a group of eight of their friends. At the front door, Macharia’s husband was told he couldn’t go in because his boots violated the dress code. Macharia said they eventually got into the bar through the side door, where a bouncer who she said felt bad for them, allowed them in.

Upon entering the bar, Macharia said she noticed that there were white people around who were dressed even more casually and in tennis shoes.

Later, a security guard came up to the couple and asked Macharia’s husband how he got into the bar and told him he couldn’t be there because of his shoes. When Macharia’s husband calmly asked what the dress code was, the security guard said he didn’t have to tell him. The security guard physically pushed her husband to leave, Macharia said.

“There’s nothing about my husband’s demeanor that could have been a threat other than his height or his skin color,” she said. “At some point they have to figure out a way to turn people away.”

Macharia said she called the bar several times to complain but she was never able to reach someone from Varsity to talk about it.

What particularly disturbed Macharia about her experience at Varsity in February was that the DJs were almost exclusively playing rap and hip-hop music, genres that are historically of black origin. One of the rooms, she said, is known as the hip-hop room, where murals of Notorious B.I.G., Aaliyah and Tupac cover the walls.

Public accommodation laws

Bars, lounges and taverns are all classified as places of public accommodation, according to the City of Fort Worth Human Relations Ordinance.

Section 17-48 states that it is unlawful “to discriminate against, withhold from or deny any person, because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, transgender, gender identity or gender expression any of the advantages, facilities or services offered to the general public by a place of public accommodation.”

The same section also states that it is unlawful “to refuse admission to or to expel from any place of public accommodation any person for alleged noncompliance with a dress code, personal conduct restriction, or identification requirement unless such place of public accommodation has previously posted a notice specifying the details of such code, restriction or requirement in a conspicuous, clearly visible location at each public entrance to the place of public accommodation.”

Varsity has made over $13.1 million in alcohol revenue since it opened in December 2015 (until February 2018), making it the highest-earning bar in the West 7th area and the entire 76107 ZIP code, according to data from Next up is Reservoir, which made a little more than $6.3 million during the same time period. Reservoir has been open since November 2012.

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The Varsity Tavern has made over $13.1 million in alcohol revenue since it opened, according to data from Max Faulkner

Chris Mayers, a 39-year-old DJ from Miami who has been living in Keller for the last three years, said in his experience, the management of a club or bar will do whatever it needs to maintain its image.

“These club owners have a set idea of what they want to be,” Mayers said. “They say, ‘If we have to let a black person in, they have to look like X,Y,Z.’ ”

Mayers went to Varsity with his girlfriend in August 2016 because he was looking for DJ work. He had heard that Varsity was a popular bar.

Wearing a black shirt, black pants and black shoes, he said that as he approached the front of the line, he got a sense that the bouncer, who was also black, wasn’t even going to look at his ID.

“He looked me up and down for like 45 seconds and said ‘no all black,' ” Mayers said. “We turn around and start walking out and I hear him say, ‘I wasn’t talking about you, I meant your clothes.’ ”

Mayers, who now DJs at Dublin Square in Fort Worth, explained that a bar’s management will often put a bouncer of color at the door to enforce whatever policy is decided, making it more difficult for people who are denied entry to claim discrimination.

To this day, Mayers has never been inside Varsity and given what he knows about it and its hip-hop room, he said he doesn’t plan to go there again.

“That experience told me that I don’t want to work for those people,” he said. "I’m not going to play black music exclusively for non-black people ... It’s just another form of cultural appropriation. They love what the culture brings but (expletive) the people.”

Filing a complaint

Angela Rush, the City of Fort Worth Human Relations Unit administrator, said the Human Relations Unit is not investigating Varsity for possible public accommodation violations because no complaint has been filed.

Results of an open records request show that no formal complaints of discrimination based on race or gender have ever been filed specifically against Varsity. Human Relations Unit communications officer Veronica Villegas said that no formal public accommodations complaint has been filed in the city of Fort Worth since 2015.

The Human Relations Unit is a division of the City Manager’s Office that has the authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodation. It operates much like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and has a contract with the EEOC to investigate and resolve employment discrimination claims.

However, the Human Relations Unit can only investigate an alleged violation if a formal complaint has been filed, Rush said.

The process to file a complaint is fairly simple.

An individual must call the office of the Human Relations Unit to schedule an appointment to file a complaint in person. If the person can’t make it to the office, the unit will meet the person at a more convenient location. Then the individual and the Human Relations Unit representative will draft a complaint, and the individual will sign off on what the complaint says.

The case is then assigned to an investigator, and notices will go out to both the respondent and the complainant, notifying them that a complaint has been filed. The investigator will contact both parties and collect the relevant information to the case and statistical data about the organization.

“Then based on the preponderance of the evidence we will issue a reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred or a no reasonable cause ...," Rush said. "In public accommodations we will sit down and try to work out whatever the issues are.”

Rush said the Human Relations Unit had received a couple of emails regarding concerns of discrimination in the West 7th area but even after responding to those individuals with the relevant information about how to file a formal complaint, no one has filed yet.

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People stand outside the entrance to the Varsity Tavern in Fort Worth. Max Faulkner

Informally, however, the city has been working with the West 7th Restaurant & Bar Association about the concerns it has heard.

“The last conversation with them was that they were working on a dress code policy [for the general West 7th area] and that they were going to run that by the city,” Rush said. “We have not seen that at this point but that was all being done informally because we don't have anyone that has formally complained.”

A local let-down

Dea Priest, a 30-year-old woman who grew up in Fort Worth and now lives in Arlington, said she has avoided the West 7th area since her husband, a black man, was turned away from Varsity in November 2017. She called it an all-around "bad vibe."

She had heard that Varsity had a reputation from a few people, which was confirmed when they walked up to the door.

"There wasn't even a line," she said. "I could see the guys sizing up my husband before we even took our IDs out."

When her husband was told that his Jordans, which were black, weren't allowed, the couple noticed that the next person in line, a white man, was wearing the same shoes in white, and was allowed in.

Priest and her husband didn't get into Varsity that night. On their way home, she said, she cried thinking about what had happened.

"It messed me up more than it did [my husband]," Priest said. "He expects it, which is sad."