Nathaniel Cooper had a situation on his hands. A group of noisy teenagers occupying a booth in the back of the Denny's restaurant he owns in Hyattsville was throwing food and talking too loud. It was late at night, and the waitress was nervous and afraid to continue serving them.
Cooper considered his options. He could kick them out. Or tell them to pipe down. Or he could walk over with a stack of applications, pass out pens and tell the nine teens -- seven boys and two girls -- that they looked like they had too much free time on their hands and could use jobs.
He handed out the applications. Situation defused. Nat Cooper, a former athlete from the neighborhood, had hit a grand slam, and it wasn't even breakfast time at one of America's most famous 24-hour diners.
Cooper, 37, said he bought into the Denny's restaurant chain to make a statement and perhaps even to make a difference, as he tried to do that night.
Here was an African American who wanted to own a piece of a chain of mid-priced restaurants whose brand name had become synonymous with racial discrimination after a series of highly publicized lawsuits earlier this decade.
Denny's, which is owned by South Carolina-based Advantica Restaurant Group Inc., settled the first of the suits for $54 million and has been fighting ever since to improve its reputation.
Cooper's friends thought he was crazy. Of all the restaurants the Wilmington, Del., business consultant could buy, why Denny's?
While complaints alleging systematic patterns of racial discrimination continue to be made, such as last week's Justice Department suit against the St. Louis-based Adam's Mark hotel chain, in Cooper's view the problem lies with individuals.
"There's no such thing as a racist company," Cooper told his friends. "You have people in the company that do racist things. We live in a racist world. You have goofy people."
It was a statement, all right. It was a statement about Nat Cooper.
Nathaniel Cooper grew up in the Palmer Park neighborhood of Prince George's County near a farm that three years ago sprouted a football stadium. Palmer Park was racially mixed when Cooper lived there. It is now predominantly black, like the rest of Prince George's County.
His parents still live in the same house where Cooper and his three sisters were raised. His mother worked for the U.S. Postal Service. His father was a truck driver who fixed cars on the side.
"I learned my business skills from my dad," Cooper said. "He was one of the best negotiators I've ever met."
Cooper said his father would charge for car repairs by adding on a little extra to the cost of the parts, a little more for the tools and a little more for his labor.
"There was markup on everything, but it was still cheaper than going to a certified mechanic," Cooper said. "I was 7, 8 or 9 at the time, and I didn't understand it then. But at the end of the day he'd bring the profits home."
Cooper worked as a mail carrier to put himself through Bowie State University, and after graduation, worked for several years for the Postal Service and then as a high school teacher in Oxon Hill.
Somehow he found the hotel industry or the hotel industry found him. He isn't sure.
He applied for his first hotel job at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, where he was sure he could land a management-track position.
"I thought I was going right into sales and marketing with the suits and ties, in the ivory tower with the big boys," he said.
Instead he was offered a job in housekeeping, which he took. "I didn't see the bigwigs for two years," Cooper said.
For the next 12 years Cooper clawed and climbed his way up, eventually running the sales departments at places such as the Christiana Hilton, Hotel Dupont and Brandywine Suites Hotel in Wilmington and the Courtyard Marriott in Rosslyn.
"I stopped selling and started building relationships," he said. "I became a force to reckon with in that industry. I had to convince you to come to my hotel and not the one down the street. When people started coming to me, that's when I knew I had arrived."
Last year Cooper decided to go into business for himself. He now runs his own hotel consulting business, the Ankh Group, named for the Egyptian symbol of eternal life.
Cooper sank $8,000 of his savings into the venture to get it started. He brings hotels customers -- mostly corporate clients -- and in return gets 10 percent off the top. If he doesn't raise their occupancy rates or their average daily rates as promised, he gets nothing.
It turned out that Cooper had just the skills he needed to push a restaurant chain that had suffered one of the worst public relations debacles in recent history.
In 1993, six black Secret Service agents charged that a Denny's in Annapolis had denied them service. A similar lawsuit was filed that same year in California.
Cooper had been a Denny's customer for years. "When I was a late-night partyer," he said, "Denny's was the only place to go."
He and his buddies would crawl into a booth at the Denny's in Greenbelt for late-night burgers and platters of eggs and ham.
He can't recall her name, but he remembers the woman who used to wait on him and his friends. She was white, in her fifties.
"You had a group of young black men, all football players," Cooper said. "We were intimidating. But we never had one incident. We never had one problem. We'd go in and have a good time and we'd leave. That was a late night at Denny's."
Cooper wrote a letter to the company and told officials what he had told his friends. He didn't believe there was such a thing as a racist company. He hoped the company would weed out the racist people in it.
The company sent Cooper a packet of material advertising a program that it was creating for minorities interested in buying a Denny's franchise.
Cooper was impressed. The company seemed committed to fixing what had gone wrong. So he applied. And he waited. And he waited. And he grew angry.
He wrote more letters, accusing the company of using the program as a media ploy.
In 1997, Denny's new president and chief executive officer, John Romandetti, invited Cooper to its headquarters in Spartanburg, S.C.
"He sat me down and looked me in the eye," Cooper recalled of his meeting with Romandetti. "He said, `Why do you want to do this? We've been called a racist company.' "
Cooper said he told Romandetti what he told everyone else: that he didn't believe in such a thing.
"It was the best sales call of my life," Cooper said. "Everything I had ever learned [in the hotel business] I used in that 10 seconds."
Romandetti also remembers the meeting. "Nat was one of the most persistent human beings I have ever come across in my career," he said. "The program was well filled up when he applied. But he never gave up."
Cooper was in the third grade at Matthew Henson Elementary School in Landover Hills when a judge ordered the county to begin busing students to achieve racial balance in the schools. The decree marked the beginning of one of the most divisive periods in the county's history. The order was lifted only last year.
Suddenly there were white children in his classroom and on the playground.
"It was a great time for me," Cooper said. "They were just different. We didn't care. As a kid you would just play."
As he grew older, he became more aware of the politics of race, Cooper said, but it still didn't seem to matter much. He was an athlete. On the playing field, as on the playground, race mattered very little to him.
"They were good athletes," he said of the white players. "It mattered how well they kicked and threw the ball."
Cooper said that as an adult, he has learned to respect the difference between white and black people, to embrace the differences even. He said he doesn't consider himself colorblind.
"I'm still a black man," he said. "People are going to look at me a certain way. But if they have a preconceived notion about me, the issue is about them. It is not about me."
Everything Cooper learned about the restaurant business, he learned from Denny's.
The year-long training program puts potential owners to work in every facet of the restaurant business. On his first day in a Denny's in Dover, the general manager asked Cooper to clean the restroom.
It had been almost 10 years since Cooper had worked in housekeeping. He was now a successful businessman. He wore Armani suits and silk ties to work, played golf once or twice a week and hobnobbed with chief executive officers.
He looked at himself in the mirror in that restroom. He was wearing rubber gloves and a burgundy polo shirt. "I'm like, `Oh my God, what am I doing?' " Cooper asked himself. " `I don't know if I can do this.' "
But he did it, scrubbing the toilets, mopping the floor. Cooper also learned to cook. He waited tables. He washed dishes. He learned to handle accounts.
When he was finished with the program, Denny's helped him scout potential restaurants to buy. He finally settled on the restaurant where he trained as a general manager, the Denny's in Hyattsville. The company provided the financing for the purchase of the franchise and helped with the negotiations.
Seven minorities have graduated from the training program since its inception. Two are still in training; the program will end when they complete it.
Before the program, Denny's looked like this:
In 1993, Denny's had one franchise owned by an African American. In 1992, no minority firms had purchasing contracts with Advantica, which also owns the California-based El Pollo Loco and Carrows and Coco's restaurant chains.
Cooper is now one of 97 minorities who own 308 Denny's restaurants, and last year 18.5 percent, or $125 million, of supply contracts went to minorities.
Romandetti said the company, which has been cited by the NAACP for its turnaround, has made "incredible progress" and is no longer having problems attracting minority franchise owners.
"Clearly, the company has come such a long way," Romandetti said. "At the end of this we learned some very difficult lessons. The more honest you are about discussing what is wrong or right, the more quickly you can fix things."
It is early Saturday morning at the Denny's restaurant on Annapolis Road in Hyattsville. The restaurant is packed with night-shift workers on their way home, white and brown families with small children, a Bible study group and early risers who have a full day of holiday shopping ahead of them.
Dishes clatter in the back, and customers sip coffee out of signature white ceramic mugs. It smells like hot coffee, syrup and cooked ham.
This is Nat Cooper's restaurant. This is where he commutes most days, 120 miles each way from Wilmington, where he lives with his wife and two small children.
Cooper is seating customers and running the cash register on this particular morning. When he gets a break, he brings a pot of coffee over to a white couple seated near the window.
Doris Latta, 72, and Milton Beahm, 79, longtime Riverdale residents, have been coming to a restaurant at this location for the past five years.
They were his first customers at 5:05 p.m. on July 28 when the restaurant officially became his.
Cooper bought them T-bone steak dinners.
"He was very proud," Latta said. "And I was proud for him. He fits in with people. You feel as if you've known him forever."
Cooper, who has traded his clean-shaven corporate look for a goatee and gold earring, said he is just a local guy who made good.
"I tell them that I'm from Palmer Park, Maryland," he said. "Whatever you think you're going to show me, I've already seen. They accept me because I'm part of them."