PORTLAND, Maine — National headlines, torrents of criticism from parents and threats of protest meant little to the line of hungry customers spilling out of Marcy’s Diner Thursday morning.
Controversy erupted last weekend after Marcy’s owner Darla Neugebauer screamed at a family whose young child wouldn’t stop crying for more than a half-hour and demanded the family leave. The toddler’s mother later complained on the diner’s Facebook page, prompting a profanity-laden tirade from an unapologetic Neugebauer.
The fracas has made headlines nationwide, spread like wildfire on social media and ignited heated debate about whether wailing children should be allowed to remain in restaurants, and whether Neugebauer was wrong to yell at the family. The mother, Tara Carson, wrote an OpEd for the Washington Post, where she claimed that her child’s cries had been muted, and that she would “never forget the look of fear on my baby’s face.”
But at the classic diner at the corner of Oak and Free streets on Thursday morning, a small crowd of customers waited outside for one of the establishment’s few counter seats or narrow booths. The controversy seemed distant and unimportant; there were still omelettes to be made and pancakes to be eaten.
Mandy Lacourse, a hostess and server who’s worked at Marcy’s since 1997, said most customers have been overwhelmingly supportive, although there have been horrible phone calls to the diner, from angry callers threatening to attack the staff or burn down the joint altogether.
“It’s been 90 percent support and 10 percent idiots,” Lacourse said, adding that people should know that when they call, they won’t be speaking with Neugebauer. “They’re just making employees’ lives more difficult.”
Lacourse said that the restaurant itself has been largely spared the outrage and criticism that’s dominated social media and mainstream headlines since the screaming incident was first reported by WCSH on Sunday.
“The people mouthing off are all online or outside,” she said. “They don’t show up here.”
Customers interviewed on Thursday said they were either unperturbed by Neugebauer’s antics or completely supportive. Cheryl Leatham said she had driven from her summer home in Kennebunk just to support Marcy’s.
“I have a child with a disability,” she said. “Bad behavior should not be acceptable by anyone at all. If you can’t handle the situation and your child needs to be removed, that’s what you should do.”
Jordan Stewart, a 22-year-old who lives in South Portland, said he’s eaten at Marcy’s several times since “the incident,” and was pleasantly surprised to see the place even busier than usual. He said regulars are not shocked or upset by Neugebauer’s attitude and behavior — they expect it.
“You come here one time and you know — she’s the atmosphere in this place,” he said.
Some parents had planned a protest at Marcy’s, saying they’d bring their children to the diner in protest of Neugebauer. According to media reports, the group canceled for fear of bringing more attention — and customers — to the diner.
“I would have enjoyed the income,” Neugebauer said Thursday as she poured eggs onto her small grill.
Neugebauer said she’s spoken with two reporters every day since Sunday and that it’s “sad” that a social media controversy about a tiny diner in Portland has become such a dominant story in the media.
“Facebook sucks. I hate it. I do, I truly do hate it, so I find it ironic that this s— happened due to the Facebook post I made,” she said.
When asked why she continued to use social media despite her disdain for it, Neugebauer looked behind her at the full lunch counter, the packed booths and the line of customers waiting outside.
“They say it’s good for business,” she said with a smile. “I’m gonna guess they might be right.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.