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Lily Chef Responds to Racism Allegations After Tipping Dispute With Customers

Customers at Lily on Clement allege virulent treatment after an argument over a built-in gratuity fee

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The interior of Lily on Clement including tufted red booths and black tables and chairs.
Inside Lily on Clement in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco.
Lily on Clement

On February 12, Derek Yang and Jinjing Bi went to Richmond District’s Lily on Clement for lunch. They got much more than they bargained for, however, when a disagreement about the restaurant’s gratuity model escalated: The couple alleges chef Robert Lam used racist language toward Bi and grabbed Yang’s phone, according to Yang’s account posted on his Facebook and Instagram, which has since been made private. For Yang and Bi, the encounter brings up questions about how hate and racism can sometimes manifest within the Asian American community, which Yang, Bi, and Lam all identify as a part of. Lam, for his part, claims that the couple’s sense of entitlement during a difficult pandemic moment for the restaurant pushed him over the edge.

The sequence of events, which both parties seemed to more or less agree on in interviews with Eater SF, unfolded as follows: Yang and Bi ordered a drink — Lam remembers it as a pina colada but Yang and Bi don’t recall getting anything with booze — and, according to Yang and Bi, the waitress failed to mention the condensed milk in the drink. Feeling the drink was too sweet and the overall dining experience was underwhelming, the customers wanted to tip 15 percent. They were unaware that, as stated at the bottom of the menu, Lily expects all customers to pay a flat 20 percent gratuity fee on their checks.

The disagreement about tipping is what all three agree escalated the situation; the dispute over the drink was a lesser issue since Lam was willing to take it off the bill. According to Yang’s social media posts, when Lam came to the table to offer to comp the drink and explain why the restaurant includes the gratuity fee, Yang replied that San Francisco is expensive for everyone, and the conversation turned into an argument. In a post to Facebook on February 15, Yang details specific remarks he says Lam made during the encounter, including one where Lam allegedly described Bi’s features using derogatory language.

“And we still didn’t dispute [the bill],” Yang says. “We still paid the whole fee. It was surprising and, frankly, terrifying.”

Lam confirmed the details of Yang’s account and said he regrets the language he used in the confrontation. He says he feels that the couple were acting from a place of privilege and that when he offered a concession – taking the drink that the couple was dissatisfied with off the bill – Yang further inflamed the conversation with his comment about the city being expensive, leading to Lam’s outburst. “It’s unfortunate I went there with my language. I regret that. I don’t hate anybody. I hate privilege and [a lack of compassion],” Lam says. “I only regret that I became the Picasso of profanity.”

This was the first time Yang and Bi say they have encountered that kind of flat gratuity fee, a growing trend in the Bay Area and across the country. The Snug on Fillmore Street has an extensive write-up of their approach, and Good Good Culture Club has a similar equity fee. Some customers have had a hard time adjusting to restaurants asking for diners to pay a consistent fee.

Following the commotion at their table, Yang and Bi called the police. Yang alleges that Lam followed the couple out of the restaurant and continued to taunt them; Yang also claims that Lam pushed him. The couple waited 15 minutes or so outside of the restaurant for the police to arrive. Officers did respond to the scene but did not take any formal action, though Yang says he feels the police were able to reduce the tension and help the conversation return to a more civil place.

In light of the rise in anti-Asian hatred in San Francisco and across the country in recent years, Yang says he’s particularly angered by the incident. This event is all the more complicated given that Lam, Yang, and Bi all identify as members of the AAPI community.

“There’s a lot of multigenerational hatred against the Asian community in the last few years,” Yang says. “We can’t stay silent. We just want the community to move forward. We can’t if we make these remarks against each other.” Bi says she feels that women within Chinese culture aren’t always empowered to use their voices, but going forward she wants to speak out. “I feel if I don’t do something, I don’t want my kids to think that being discriminated against is okay,” Bi says. “If Chinese people don’t speak out, and just let it go as a bad memory, then it only contributes further.”

Yang and Bi feel the footage of Lam snatching Yang’s phone speaks for itself, but took to Yelp and Facebook to share their experience. A Public Attention Alert has since appeared on Lily on Clement’s Yelp page, and posts on the restaurant’s Instagram and Facebook address the incident and explain the restaurant’s stance. Yang says, however, that the issue wasn’t the fee. “It’s about wanting our loved ones to feel safe and treated with respect,” he says.

Update: February 16th, 2022, 5:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the nature of the incident.

Lily

225 Clement Street, , CA 94118 (415) 742-5285 Visit Website

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