Why Culture ETX owners took a firm stand against antimaskers.

A week after election day, mask refusals came to a head at Culture ETX, much of the battle resuming over social media.

📷 Yasmeen Khalifa

Chef Lance McWhorter and Bailey McWhorter realized their dream to open their own restaurant in August of 2019. Culture ETX, located in downtown Tyler’s square, holds some unique titles among its locally owned restaurant counterparts, making it difficult to fit into any category.

It is chef-driven, but its atmosphere is edgier and less formal than typical fine dining. It is service disabled veteran owned. It prides itself in using locally sourced, high quality products and elevating standard classics, like chicken Alfredo, to stratospheric culinary heights.

More recently, Culture ETX has become a standout for other reasons. After a particularly harrowing Friday, Nov. 13 — when post election and pandemic tensions escalated — large numbers of belligerent antimaskers entered the restaurant.

Since the mask mandate began, Culture ETX has required masks for patrons when not seated. How far they would go to enforce it was put to the test one Friday the 13th.

Lance and Bailey sat down with the Loop to talk about their reasons for enforcing mask protocols; the reactions of some antimask patrons when challenged; the ensuing social media frenzy; and a call to treat those in the restaurant industry — from owners to bussers — with decency.

Lance began by giving some background.

“We moved here from the Oak Cliff area. We were at some of the best restaurants in Dallas, and we were looking around trying to find where we wanted to open our own spot.

We were visiting a friend at a [local] winery and a friend goes, ‘Hey man, come to Tyler.’ I remember Tyler from 10, 15 years ago as a place where people were frowned on for dancing. [Back then] you couldn’t buy a beer.

Kind of a curtain just hung over the whole town. But he said, ‘You know, it’s changed. We got two breweries inside the loop and downtown is looking like it may take off.’

Bailey and I were looking at an area that had growth potential probably five years out. We wound up being the first people really to do anything new on the square.

I just wanted [Culture ETX] to be something that celebrated culture: all the places that I’ve been to, the foods that influenced me and Bailey. There were no rules, no boundaries; no limitations or restrictions.

Historically restaurants don’t last their first year, let alone in a pandemic. It’s been crazy. But I think that the biggest part of surviving is a great fan base. There is this blossoming crowd in Tyler that is the 20-something through 40, even 50-something group.

Culture ETX’s unique vibe combines a laid-back, nontraditional atmosphere with high culinary standards.

It’s [Tyler residents] moving back. They’ve been in Austin or Dallas; they’ve been in California. Plus a lot of people are coming in for the medical stuff.

I make fine dining food; I make not-fine dining food.

I mean, I don’t doubt that we can cook the best steak in East Texas, but is it like sitting down in a leather chair and listening to Frank Sinatra?”

“No tablecloths,” Bailey chimed in.

“Exactly,” added Lance. “It’s way more raw and it’s way more unique.”

Bailey continued. “We don’t want the atmosphere to be fine dining. We want it to be, ‘Make yourself at home.’ We want you to sit and talk to everyone and have a great time while we provide you with some food.”

Lance and Bailey McWhorter take a moment behind the counter of their small, chef-driven restaurant on Tyler’s downtown square.

Lance launched into more recent events around the mask protocols.

“The antimaskers, a lot of them were the same ones who didn’t dig [the restaurant] from the get-go.

I’ve got zero beef with any of them, but look, you’ve never come to eat my food. You’ve never stepped foot in my restaurant. You’ve never met me. You’ve never talked to me, outside of getting in fights on my social media pages.”

The infamous Instagram post that set off a barrage of passionate comments both for and against enforcing mask protocols at locally owned, chef driven, disabled veteran service restaurant Culture ETX.

Bailey added, “[Lance] reiterated on an Instagram post, ‘Hey, please wear your mask. You know, we have to wear it, too.’ The mask mandate has not gone away since it came out.

If you go anywhere in Tyler, you can see that people have just stopped caring. So he reiterated, and then someone disagreed because they said it’s against their constitutional rights.

Someone we have never even met who follows us on social media started arguing back and then it escalated. We get caught in the crossfire obviously.”

Lance chimed in, “And they were leaving us fake reviews. I think it was more the election than anything else that really kicked off the mask thing. And me being me, I’m a pretty gruff ex-military guy. I will stand up for myself.

The original post basically just reiterated our statement on masks and it wasn’t abrasive. It was just a, ‘Hey man, you’re going to wear it.’ Probably construed as abrasive but on the internet, I constantly have to remind people that you choose the tone that you read it.

The flurry of social media comments propelled Lance McWhorter to post a video demonstrating how masks work using a spray bottle to mimic human aerosol droplets.

That was on a Friday. And when we opened back up on Tuesday, I did this little video.

I was like, ‘You know, everybody says, these [masks] don’t work. These things don’t keep you from catching the virus.’ At the end I walked outside and I held up the mask, maybe six, eight inches away from my logo on the the door. I spray from a bottle, and then drop the mask and there’s not a drop on the door.

From the beginning, our [our policy is] we ask you to wear a mask while you’re not seated. If you’re getting up to go to the restroom, if you’re coming in.”

Bailey explained further. “People like to argue, ‘Why do I need to wear it walking to my table or walking to the bathroom?’ Because when you’re standing up, you’re not directly six feet apart from the next table over. So why is it so hard to have common courtesy and maybe not breathe on those people?”

Lance recalled one night that became a tipping point at the restaurant.

“That Friday the 13th after the election, it was so bad. People were like, ‘I’m not wearing it, you’ve lost my business forever.’

It became this toxic thing, a polar shift in attitude and people were pushing back.”

“Ten people in a row versus the [past] one or two a day,” added Bailey.

“It was just a steady steam,” said Lance.

“There was one woman who I reminded to wear a mask. She said, ‘I don’t like this stupid mask thing. It’s not like there’s anybody here anyways.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not anybody: me working here, my crew, my servers working around you?'”

Bailey pointed out the connection between refusing to wear a mask and the discrimination she has felt toward restaurant workers.

“Classism is real in this town. One lady starting this whole thing said on Facebook to Lance, ‘Well, why don’t you get back to the kitchen?’ We’re just cooks, we’re just help.

The restaurant industry is taking such a big hit this year. Sure, maybe you have a right to not wear a mask, but we also have a right to keep our employees and ourselves healthy and safe.

You don’t respect us as people — that’s one thing. But respect our employees. Have the common decency to think about them and their wives and their families and their health.

Our industry people are all tired of being treated like garbage. You can be a dishwasher, you can be an owner, and they’re going to get treated the same by these extremely classist people. Any customer service business is usually seen as less than.”

As a chef with a vision for every plate, Lance confessed his surprise at some patrons’ level of aggression.

“The biggest shocker is, I feel like what we do is different than your ordinary restaurant. There’s an artistic quality to it. There’s a level of care and attention to detail. We do something that’s really good. And to me that’s worth something.

A lot of people don’t understand the pressure, the strain, the mental health issues of running a restaurant that has that level of care going into every dish.

And then watching people pick that apart because I have a mask policy. I think that COVID has really brought it to the surface. I think we’re tired of working so hard and in an industry that is allowed to be eviscerated.”

Bailey added, “If I could put a camera on one of our servers for a day and it was public footage streamed online, it would go viral. People don’t understand like how rude patrons are to the ‘lessers.’”

Lance said the majority of restaurant patrons comply with the mask mandate, and wonders how local or state enforcement could help for those who don’t.

“Maybe two out of 200 refuse to wear a mask and leave. Probably 15% I have to remind to put on their masks, and they do. That’s the problem with noncompliance and nonenforcement. The City of Tyler or the state, could they employ one person in each county to go around and do enforcement?

In July, I had a cook and found out that he was around somebody that tested positive. We didn’t even know for sure, but like we just locked the doors and said, ‘We’re closed for two weeks.’

It’s become this sociopolitical statement, instead of any sort of educated course of action.

There was an Open Up Texas protest on the square in May by the East Texas Freedom Alliance. While they were chanting, we were yelling back, ‘We are open!’

One member went to their East Texas Freedom Alliance page and started blasting me publicly. But I was like, ‘Okay, you’re going smash a service disabled veteran owned small business, an actual protected category.”

Bailey shared her philosophy more.

“We’re all people at the end of the day. With COVID, you don’t get a pass.

Do we want you to wear a mask? Yes. Do we also support you not wearing a mask? Yes, but not in our business.

We’re part of the mind-your-own-business group.

A bathroom sign like no other in Tyler offers a message that, like mask requirements, has received backlash.

We support people’s rights to make their own choices. But everyone needs to put their foot down on treating people like garbage, especially people of color and the whole LBGTQ crowd. Someone left a bad review because of our bathroom signs.”

Lance added, “The bathroom man sign and bathroom woman with a skirt sign are half and half [at the restaurant]. And then it says, ‘We don’t care. Just wash your hands.’ We have two bathrooms with that same sign. 

I think we always stick up for people being themselves. And I think that’s all that I ask as a chef and as a restaurant and business owner. Just let me be me.

If you don’t like it, cool, walk on by. Because if you do say something, then you invite me to stick up for myself and I’m a little more here than what you’re used to.”

Bailey expressed her feelings about balancing kindness with protecting the business.

“There is a prominent staple of Tyler restaurant-wise. What is their slogan? ‘Be kind.’ So be kind but also, ‘We will fight you.’

Restaurant chains kinda messed everything up, like, ‘Make sure the customer is always right. Do whatever it is to make them happy.’

Patrons have a right to choose where they go. My people have a right to protect their families and their employees and their businesses.” 

Lance talked about what’s going well for Culture ETX and how he hopes to see the Tyler’s downtown grow.

“What’s keeping me in Tyler right now is my lease and my customers that appreciate us. There’s plenty of them and they fill the seats week in and week out. 

We’ve got enough clientele to stay here forever, and they deserve the world. Honestly, they’re the reason I get out of bed and go to work everyday. People have worth and value whether you see them as your peers or not.

There are categories protected by the government: race, creed, religion, gender, sexual orientation.

Patrons say, ‘It’s discriminatory for you to say that I have to wear a mask in a business.’ No, it’s literally me exercising my rights to my property.

Now, if I’m discriminating against you because you’re gay or Black or disabled or Native American, or if I’m making some sort of policy that violates who you are as a human being, then yes, there are statutes in place to protect you under that situation.

Having been in two wars and having traveled around the globe, there are Americans who have never had to live under true hardship. They’ve never had to live under authoritarian regimes.

They choose these ridiculously low bar hills to die on, you know? I think at the end of the day, the conversation is just about being honest and having the balls to just stand up for what’s right.

I guess I’ll just be damned if I’m just going to let somebody walk over me. I’ve sacrificed a lot for this country, but I won’t sacrifice my own spirit.

Bailey and Lance McWhorter pause against Culture ETX’s art-laden wall.

I want to see five more Culture ETXs on the square.” 

Bailey chimed in,”I want five more chef-driven restaurants in Tyler. Tyler deserves it. Tyler needs it.”

Lance added his perspective about downtown after serving. in Baghdad, Iraq.

“I drive to downtown every day and downtown Tyler reminds me of Baghdad. I lived in Baghdad a lot longer than I lived in some other cities.

Downtown I notice these brown buildings with dilapidated windows and paint falling off, asbestos dripping out. The old theater backside is burned down and open to Broadway Ave. And buildings abandoned on the square, like Jake’s and HGII.

We’ve got people that are trying to make Tyler cool. They’re trying to bring culture.

So what would I want to see from Tyler in the next five years? Ten more of me, 10 more Baileys. Ten more people willing to come here and do something and push back.”

Bailey was reminded of the mission of local restauranteurs.

“All of us, we’re the little people trying to make the community better. Our job is to make sure that people have a good experience, have something to look forward to on their time off, their weekends.”

Lance reflected and summarized what’s most important to him throughout this experience.

“I think the video that I put out is important. It shows how masks actually work. I think it shows it very well and that that’s worth sharing.

But I think that this conversation today has turned into a larger conversation of common decency and treating people that are in the service industry and small businesses with respect.”

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.