San Francisco Institution Swan Oyster Depot Was Called Out for Racism. Will It Change?
There’s general consensus about what happened around lunchtime on Friday, August 20, at Swan Oyster Depot: After waiting in line for about an hour and a half, a trio of customers started to place their order with Jimmy Sancimino, one of four brothers who operate the classic seafood counter on a busy block of San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood. Sancimino walked away before Tin Dinh, a Vietnamese immigrant and San Francisco resident, and his group finished ordering, so they requested additional items with a different employee. That’s when Sancimino, annoyed with the customers for not ordering all their food from him, gestured at Dinh’s group and repeatedly yelled “dim sum” to another member of the Swan Oyster Depot team.
Erik Wideman, who was working at his family’s restaurant that day, told Dinh and his group the restaurant’s staff uses the phrase when a customer tries to order with more than one employee.
“I felt very caught off guard,” Dinh says of the experience, which he perceived as being called a racial slur. “We just wanted to get our food and go.” Though Dinh has lived in San Francisco for eight years, August 20 was his first visit to Swan Oyster Depot, a family-run business that skyrocketed to national prominence in part for being one of the late Anthony Bourdain’s favorite destinations in the city. Dinh’s sister was visiting, and because the experience seemed exciting and worthwhile, they didn’t mind waiting in Swan’s often-long line. “The last thing I want is to make trouble,” he says. “But when he mentioned the word dim sum that’s when it crossed a line for me.”
Dinh posted about his experience at Swan Oyster Depot in his Instagram stories on Friday. But over the weekend, he says other people reached out to him to share their own negative experiences at the restaurant. That’s when Dinh, a graphic designer, decided to create a 10-slide Instagram post detailing his experience.
The slides — designed in a bright cornflower blue with visual features like arrows and quote overlays on photos from the restaurant — explain why Dinh felt his experience at Swan Oyster Depot was problematic and cited other people’s negative experiences at the restaurant, using bold text to underscore important information. Screenshots of one-star Yelp reviews of the restaurant were collaged to support his case that Swan Oyster Depot has a history of racist behavior toward its nonwhite clientele. In the final slide, he outlines two call-to-action points with numbers — one, for Swan Oyster Depot to apologize for using racist language, and two, for the restaurant to follow appropriate COVID-19 safety regulations to protect its staff and future visitors. Dinh, who holds a master of fine arts degree, says engaging in the kind of PowerPoint activism that’s become inescapable on Instagram is similar to what he does in his daily work. “My approach to design is not to just create something pretty but to tell a story in a thoughtful, mindful way,” he says.
This approach — taking complex social issues and breaking them down into a handful of easy-to-digest and highly visual graphics that can be shared widely on social media — has become the de facto way for influencers, artists, and celebrities to engage in discussion about sensitive or controversial topics, even as some are criticizing the practice as a way to make anti-racism work easier for white people to understand and participate in. It’s impossible to know how many accounts have shared Dinh’s post, but as of Wednesday afternoon, it’s received more than 11,000 likes and garnered more than 700 comments.
Dinh and the restaurant’s owners disagree about whether or not the language used is problematic: Dinh wants the Sanciminos to acknowledge that even if staff use the term “dim sum” as shorthand for when a customer attempts to order with more than one employee, doing so still falls in the realm of racist, harmful behavior. “All I’m asking for is accountability for their words,” he says. “It’s not just the intent, it’s impact. That’s where we all need to think about it and really have a conversation.”
In a phone call with Eater on Tuesday, Kevin Sancimino, who works at the restaurant alongside his father Steve Sancimino and uncle Jimmy, said Dinh’s experience — having a server walk away mid-order and then get visibly upset with a customer — was “unacceptable.” But he defends the usage of the term “dim sum,” saying it’s not a racial slight but “part of what you might call our patois … This is something we say referring to what a coworker or customer is doing. Like, ‘Hey, what? Are you doing dim sum on me?’” Since Dinh’s Instagram post, Sancimino says the restaurant has received angry calls and threats; on Monday, Yelp froze Swan Oyster Depot’s page after people began flooding it with one-star ratings.
But racial microaggressions — the subtle and often-overlooked racially biased messages sent to people of color, often by white people unaware of their own privilege — shouldn’t be brushed aside. That’s why Dinh is demanding Swan Oyster Depot not only apologize but also make an effort to understand the problem with the restaurant’s practice of using the term. “It’s one thing to say sorry when you’ve been caught but it’s another to understand why,” he says. Dinh says he felt even more motivated to speak out because of the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans, an unfair view of AAPI communities as a monolithic group of successful and agreeable immigrants who experience racism less often than other minorities.
“That’s a narrative I think a lot of Asian youth can relate to but I also think that because we have a voice, because we have the same tools … it’s that much more important to speak up about these kinds of incidents,” he says. “I’m not trying to be a role model for speaking up but I’m trying to show that it’s really important to use your platform. We need to call out these behaviors or else they’ll keep happening.”
Dinh’s far from alone in the belief that restaurant owners and chefs and the industry at large should be called out for issues ranging from unhealthy work environments to systemic racism in fine dining. In 2020, lauded Chicago restaurant Fat Rice toppled after current and former employees “flooded social media with stories of mistreatment.” Now more than ever, customers expect accountability and change when problematic behavior is brought to light — though it remains to be seen if the social media callouts will result in meaningful change.
Kevin Sancimino is adamant: “Swan Oyster Depot is not a racist organization.” He says the restaurant, which his grandfather purchased after World War II and has been open for more than a century, wouldn’t have survived the pandemic if it weren’t for its diverse customer base — “the minorities and the foreigners alike” appreciate the restaurant’s old-school vibe, he says. When asked if the restaurant will stop using the phrase that offended Dinh and his group on Friday, Sancimino says it hasn’t been uttered at the restaurant since, although it also hasn’t been communicated to staff that it’s unacceptable to do so. For his part, Sancimino says he’s rethinking some of the other nicknames and language he uses when working at the restaurant. The small restaurant can feel like an “assembly line coal mine,” he says, and customers can overhear almost everything the staff says to each other.
Sancimino says he’s upset at the “overblown” “media circus” resulting from the allegations of racism at his family’s business and worried, at least a little, about what it means for Swan Oyster Depot’s longevity. “Swan is an absolute anachronism. It’s trapped in time,” he says. “I often wonder how long will this be in existence.”
Dinh says he feels that the restaurant didn’t have any malice but insists the behavior is problematic and that an apology is appropriate. If the tables were turned, he says he’d feel obligated: “It would be my responsibility as a decent human being and business owner.”