When a Spanish-speaking customer spoke Spanish to a Spanish-speaking employee, he was told Leon's doesn't do business in Spanish. He posted his experience to social media and soon the community was rallying around what critics called a racist — and illegal — employee policy. (Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, Joey Sanchez stepped up to the counter of Leon’s Frozen Custard, a 70-year-old Milwaukee staple, and listened to the customer in front of him place his order in Spanish.

The shop is located on the city’s south side, in a neighborhood with a large Hispanic population. Sanchez thought nothing of it.

Then he heard the server’s response.

“She whispered to him in Spanish, ‘I’m not allowed to speak Spanish to you,’ ” Sanchez told TV station Fox 6 Now.

Sanchez was shocked.

So when it came his turn to order, he, too, used his native tongue.

“I’m not allowed to speak Spanish to you,” Sanchez said the server repeated.

He posted his experience to social media, WISN 12 News reported, and soon the community was rallying around what critics called a racist — and illegal — employee policy. Customers on Twitter used the hashtag #BoycottLeons. And the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has even called on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to launch a federal investigation into the “English only” rule.

 

But Leon’s owner Ron Schneider has remained steadfast amid the uproar, staunchly defending the “English only” rule that he told Fox 6 Now has been in place for nearly a decade, noting that his wife and children are Hispanic.

“Hey, c’mon! It is America,” Schneider told the TV station. “We’ve spoken English for a long, long time.”

The owner said he worries the work flow would suffer and things would get “disruptive” if the business had to “become bilingual, trilingual or anything else.” Customers might order in a non-English language once and then expect the same accommodation forever.

“We can’t be the United Nations,” Schneider told WISN 12 News. “They got translators. We don’t.”

Schneider told FOX 6 News that if an employee spoke a different language to a customer, they likely wouldn’t be fired — but they could expect a chat with the boss.

The Wisconsin state director for LULAC, Arturo Martinez, said in a written statement that the organization had received “numerous requests” to investigate the language policy at Leon’s. He wrote:

“While many of us consider this as a community institution, it was surprising when we learned of their language policy, which is in clear violation of federal labor law. Upon reviewing the statements made by management in a video interview detailing Leon’s policy, we are requesting an investigation of this policy by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The law is clear on this issue and offers few exceptions. In the meantime, we encourage management to review their current employment policies with counsel to bring them into compliance. We are confident that in doing so, it will lead to a stronger business and a stronger community.”

Sanchez echoed that sentiment, telling reporters he felt a bilingual staff at Leon’s would only benefit business.

“I believe if I can ask for a product in my language and have somebody there that can speak it and understand me better, it’s going to be better for him,” Sanchez told WISN 12 News. “It’s going to attract more Latino customers and at the end he’s going to show a better heart about how he feels about the Hispanic community.”

Leon’s has been family-owned and operated in Milwaukee since 1942, according to its website. The shop’s custards are made fresh daily. It has been featured in travel guides and magazines and in several TV specials.

To those who call him a bigot, Schneider reminded news reporters that his own family is Hispanic.

“Let me tell you something,” he told WISN 12 News. “My wife is Hispanic. My children are Hispanic. Anyone that wants to call me racist on that basis, maybe we should settle it the old-fashioned American way in the alley.”