TAMPA — It's not entirely clear what happened at the Hyde Park Cafe on the evening of Aug. 13.
Was it a case of cultural disconnect? Could it be a plot involving "Bubba the Love Sponge" Clem?
Leonard Roberts II said he and two friends felt the sting of discrimination when they were barred from the trendy South Tampa club.
No way, said club co-owner Tommy Ortiz. He suggested Roberts is helping Clem pursue his own agenda, which includes a competing night spot.
"Absolutely not," said Roberts. "No. Are you kidding me?"
Somebody is lying — or maybe not. It could be a simple matter of different perceptions about race and prejudice.
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Roberts, 28 with long, flowing dreadlocks, is a self-employed Web designer with a blog called Burg's Eye View. Normally he is not one for the Hyde Park scene. "The clubs I go to in St. Pete cater to a more urban environment, a black environment," he said.
But his high school friend Matthew Bader, who is white, was celebrating his birthday. Bader, a South Tampa mortgage broker, had been to the cafe before. He liked the place. So he made reservations for 25 and sent Roberts a text invitation.
Wearing slacks and a purple collar shirt, Bader arrived ahead of Roberts.
All three people in Roberts' group were black, and they got there about 9:45 p.m. The woman wore a club dress, he said. Both men wore long white T-shirts. Roberts wore jeans and boots; the other man wore long shorts and sneakers.
They never made it inside. Dress code, they were told.
"Every place has a dress code," said Ortiz, the club co-owner. "Our policy is, long T-shirts that look like a dress are not allowed, work boots are not allowed, no excessively baggy attire."
Bader, aghast to learn his friends were stuck outside, went out and tried to get them in. The employees said the dress code started at 10 p.m., according to Bader and Roberts. When told it was not yet 10, employees said they didn't want to admit the group and chase them out later.
"My problem is that it was just blatant racism," Bader said.
Roberts' group left, but not before taking a picture of a white patron in plaid shorts and flip-flops — who was allowed in — for his blog post. "He looked as if he'd rolled out of bed and decided to go to the club," Roberts later wrote.
Bader stayed, he said, so he wouldn't disappoint the friends inside. Hours later, a manager tried to make amends.
"He kept asking, 'What can I do to make this better?' Bader said. "I said, the only thing you can offer me is more liquor, and I don't want to get drunk.' "
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Ortiz, 40, is of Puerto Rican heritage with waist-length hair that gets him stopped in airports. "I come from the ghetto," he said.
He listened with skepticism to Roberts' story. "That's about the silliest thing I ever heard, to be honest with you," he said. "We have every ethnicity and every race. We have two Latin nights. We have two urban nights. The majority of my staff is ethnic. Everyone who knows me just laughed at this."
There are no recorded complaints about the Hyde Park Cafe with the city's human rights office. In 20 years in the club business, Ortiz said, he has never been accused of racism.
That is, until last month.
Broderick Epps, who is black, said he was overcharged and embarrassed at Cheap, another Ortiz establishment. Epps works for Bubba Clem, and the incident became fodder for his radio show.
Ortiz finds the timing suspicious, especially with Clem now promoting his own club, Scene, in St. Petersburg.
Executive producer Brent Hatley denied Clem had any involvement in Roberts' complaint. "He doesn't have time to dillydally in things like that," he said.
Hatley did say that after the Aug. 17 radio show, his office was inundated with e-mails about discrimination at area clubs.
"I see it a lot, and the place I see it the most is in Hyde Park," he said. "If they don't want to let somebody in, they nitpick you about the dress code."
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Hyde Park Cafe is where American Idol finalist Jessica Sierra and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Al Reyes were arrested for drunken brawling. The dress code, judging by photos on the website, doesn't require women to wear much of anything. Picture spring break on the Hillsborough River.
For Ortiz, it's a balance between showing people a good time and tolerating mayhem.
And clothes matter.
After inquiring about Bader's party, he said his staff had e-mailed Bader details about the dress code, and told him by phone that sneakers are not allowed.
He insisted it is not about race, but about upholding an upscale look and atmosphere. "The more casually you dress, the possibility that you will be more ornery is likely," he said.
When asked about the white man in flip-flops, he said the shoes conformed to a summer promotion called Flip Flop Friday. That might explain why Roberts observed numerous patrons in "flip-flops so thin they appeared to be walking around on their bare feet."
Ortiz added that, while the dress code might work against certain urban fashions, it would apply equally to white skater types in torn, baggy clothing. Whenever possible, he said, his staff invites people to go home and change or return another time in proper clothing.
"I don't want to take away what he felt," Ortiz said of Roberts. "But the fact that he walked away feeling that way disappoints me."
It also disappointed city human rights supervisor Maritza Betancourt, who had a simple solution: Post the dress code clearly outside. "I've recommended it before, and it helps tremendously," she said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 624-2739 or email@example.com.