For three generations, Lumi Gardner's family has operated their popular Fuki Sushi restaurant on El Camino Real in Palo Alto. Last Sunday, the native Palo Altan experienced a tirade of racial hatred she never imagined would happen in her community, she said.
A customer became enraged when a server said the restaurant wasn't accepting cash due to the pandemic. He began shrieking at the server, a petite woman, just 5 feet 2 inches tall, who has worked there for more than 30 years, Gardner told Palo Alto Online. Gardner told her employee that she would step in.
"This is un-American! It's illegal for you to not accept cash," he shouted repeatedly, Gardner wrote in a Facebook post, describing the incident.
"I said I would happily accept cash, simply because I wanted to avoid a possibly dangerous situation. He proceeded to scream back at me 'I don't understand you (through your mask). You are un-American! Where were you even born? Did you even go to school here? You are not American! Go back to your country! You don't belong here! We don't want you here!'"
"I'm like, 'What?!' I don't want to justify that question with an answer," said Gardner, who is of Japanese descent. "To have somebody say that to you is one thing; to have somebody scream at you is something else."
The man, who was in his 50s, attempted to leave without paying. He returned, ranting and screaming, and he claimed he couldn't understand her because of her mask. He threatened to sue her for running an illegal business, she said.
"I tried to record the entire ordeal out of fear that he would become violent, but my entire body was shaking from shock, fear and anger. He eventually paid with cash and stormed out of the building," she said.
Gardner followed him out to her parking lot to ensure that he didn't damage her property, she said.
"He proceeded to drive over to me, getting uncomfortably close to me. He took out his phone and recorded me while he continued to yell and scream at me about how he was going to sue me, wisely choosing to not express his racist beliefs while on camera," she wrote in her post.
"It was an experience to say the least," Gardner told Palo Alto Online on Friday night. "It's still going on. I got a threatening call last night," she said.
Gardner's story came to light after Menlo Park City Council member Ray Mueller posted her comments about the incident on his Facebook page. After hearing about the situation from a constituent who was eating at Fuki Sushi and witnessed the abusive tirade, he contacted Palo Alto Vice Mayor Pat Burt. Mueller and Burt went to the restaurant to express support for Gardner, Burt said by phone on Friday. He and Mueller worked to make Gardner, who was still in shock over the incident, feel supported and validated, he said.
"Fuki Sushi is a third-generation restaurant. It's a treasured institution," he said.
Burt said he contacted Palo Alto Mayor Tom DuBois and City Manager Ed Shikada, and Shikada brought Police Chief Bob Jonsen into the loop. Palo Alto Police spokesperson Con Maloney said on Friday that the department is investigating the incident, but he could not comment further.
Burt said he wants to do something about addressing this incident and others like it through an event that would potentially involve East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. He would like the event to support the three communities in an affirming way rather than being reactive.
"Here's what we are as a community, and if there are outliers, we're going to stand up to them," he said.
"We need to keep standing up. This isn't the community we know. It's not a reflection of our community, but sadly, it's a reflection of our time," he said.
For Gardner, the experience was angering as opposed to humiliating. She attended Fairmeadow Elementary School, which she said was "pretty diverse." The family moved to Los Altos and she went to Los Altos High School. She's been working at her parents' restaurant since she was 13 years old. This area and Fuki Sushi are what she has always known and loved.
"I feel I chose to raise my family here and my children here. Where we live, it's unique and it's special. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. Every day I come in here and I do my best to take care of people and I do it from my heart. I train our people the same way — that's how you can feel joy every day," she said.
But the pandemic and recent volatile political rhetoric have been stressful and upsetting for many people, she said.
"I just hope people can treat people with kindness. I think it's the only way. I really mean that. I don't want this poison to infect or spread in our community," she said.
Gardner said the man didn't make her feel like an outsider. It makes her mad that anyone would feel entitled to think of treating anyone in that manner.
While the man was berating her in front of her staff and in the parking lot, her busboy was watching. She felt concerned for him and her other staff members — people she said are gentle and kind.
"It breaks my heart that (the customer) would do that to someone else and they would not have the confidence to call that out. Most of my team is Asian and I saw that it really struck them hard. They are raising their children here. I could see they felt the same kind of anger that I felt. Their children are American-born," she said.