The owner of a downtown Topeka restaurant says he banned a group of high-ranking Kansas House Republicans and Statehouse lobbyists for being disrespectful to staff and other patrons while dining at the business.
White Linen's manager and owner describe a boisterous scene that intensified in response to directives to the 12-person crowd to be quiet and the manager's decision to cut off the flow of alcohol to Rep. Blaine Finch, a Republican from Ottawa and speaker pro tem.
The altercation at the fine dining restaurant, which is two blocks north of the Statehouse, unfolded in the early evening hours of Feb. 27 after lawmakers wrapped up business for the first half of the legislative session.
“They showed up and just started drinking and drinking and drinking," said White Linen owner Adam VanDonge.
He said Finch was served five old fashioneds in a 90-minute span. Also in the group were House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, and lobbyists Dan Murray and Rachelle Colombo.
Kris Van Meteren, a former executive director of the Kansas Republican Party and adversary of Ryckman and Finch who works for Singularis Group, a political consulting agency, said the incident generated a lot of discussion in GOP circles.
“People expect better than that of their elected officials," Van Meteren said. "Is it newsworthy? I think it probably is.”
White Linen's manager, Cassidy Merriman, said she made an exception when she allowed the large group to dine that night. The restaurant only seats 25 and appeals to those seeking a quiet date night or anniversary celebration. Parties larger than six typically aren't accepted.
Merriman said the group was rowdy enough to upset those dining at other tables. One pair who left told Merriman they couldn't hear each other speak.
Merriman asked the group to lower their voices. After she left the dining area, a server reported to her that a person in the group was obviously drunk and giving a toast to everyone in the restaurant.
The manager, who has 10 years of experience in food service, said she asked Finch to step into the hall. She told him the toast was inappropriate and explained she wasn't going to serve him any more alcohol for a while. She encouraged him to drink some water.
"I was just doing what I had to do as a manager," Merriman said.
In the hallway, she said, Finch was polite. Back at the table, the mood turned. The servers could hear members of the large dining party cursing. A person with the party went into the kitchen and began yelling at the sous chef.
Merriman called the owner, who was at home.
"She's just bawling," VanDonge said. "She's in tears. She can't hardly talk on the phone."
VanDonge arrived as the group was leaving and confronted the lawmakers and lobbyists. They accused Merriman of being rude, VanDonge said, but "everyone knows she is not like that."
VanDonge said he got worked up about it. They were dropping "F bombs," he said, and disputed whether liquor laws applied to the situation. Someone said to his wife, a Washburn University law student, "I think it's cute you're in law school, but you're wrong."
Someone else asked, "Do you know who this guy is?"
"I'm just like, 'I don't care,' " VanDonge said.
He told them they were banned from returning.
Finch declined to explain what happened that night.
"I'm not aware of anything happening," he said.
Ryckman's spokesman, Eric Turek, said no one was drunk. Concannon said management was rude.
The incident compelled VanDonge and his wife to reiterate their alcohol policies in a Facebook post that evening. They will refuse to sell alcohol to individuals who are visibly intoxicated and not on their best behavior. They hope customers will understand their effort to maintain an inviting environment.
"We look forward to serving you," they wrote.
Concannon and Murray both replied in comments that no longer appear.
"Look forward to serving me?" Concannon wrote. "No way! #cassidycancel"
"The customer is always wrong," Murray wrote. "Would love to share the full story."
In an interview, Murray said nobody in the group behaved inappropriately.
"Absolutely not," Murray said. "I'm disappointed this is even a story."
VanDonge said he offered $50 coupons to other patrons who were dining that night. He and his wife support Merriman and her actions.
"They came into our restaurant and completely disrespected everyone," VanDonge said.
On a five-star scale, the restaurant averages a rating of 4.9 in Google reviews and 4.8 at OpenTable. On Yelp, every rating is a 5 except for one by Susan C. on March 2, who wrote: "Extremely rude management is not worth tolerating for the good food."
In a Friday news conference, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly was asked whether legislators involved in the restaurant clash should face some form of discipline.
"I believe in the separation of powers. That is the legislative branch," Kelly said.
Van Meteren, the veteran political consultant, said lawmakers should be forthcoming about the incident. If a proprietor takes action on social media, he said, it is a mistake to "duck the issue and say nothing happened."
“Nobody wants to see their elected officials behave inappropriately," Van Meteren said.