Most diners would expect to have their meal comped if they notice a single insect in a restaurant.
So one can imagine how diners at two locations of the Byron burger chain in London must have felt to find thousands of locusts, crickets and cockroaches crawling suddenly scurrying across the floors and slithering up the walls Friday night.
The insects weren’t the result of poor hygiene practices, though. They were placed there by a crowd of activists furious at the restaurant for complying with the British government and assisting in the arrest of 35 of its undocumented workers.
On Monday, the protests continued as about 200 gathered outside a location in Holborn with chants and signs.
It all began a few weeks earlier.
The Byron Proper Hamburgers chain is popular, boasting more than 35 locations in London alone and many more throughout England and Scotland. Its menu is filled with American diner-style burgers, some with a gourmet twist. Patties topped with dry cure bacon, roasted bell peppers and guacamole can be paired with a salted caramel milkshake, spiked with bourbon if one feels so inclined.
It doesn’t sound like the sort of place that would breed such strong emotions. It also doesn’t sound like the sort of place that would be involved in a government-run sting operation.
But that’s exactly what happened.
The chain had employed several immigrants who were in the country illegally, to which it claimed ignorance. England’s Home Office, the country’s chief law enforcement ministry, brought this to the chain’s attention, and the two set up a sting operation to arrest said immigrants.
According to the Guardian, an email from the chain’s head office was sent to managers, informing them that food safety training would be required from all employees on July 4. It reads like any common workplace email. Here’s an excerpt:
“In order to remain compliant and show that we are going above and beyond the expectations it is imperative that all our restaurants complete refresher Think Pink and updated food safety training. This will start from next week with a phased rollout across restaurants. The expectation is that all management team and BOH must attend including KPs.”
The training didn’t exist, though. When the employees arrived, they were greeted by officials of the Home Office, who arrested 35 of the chain’s employees from Albania, Nepal, Brazil and Egypt, ITV reported.
Of those, 25 were deported or left the U.K voluntarily, the Guardian reported.
“There were 20 of us there, all from Byron. At the beginning, I couldn’t believe what was happening. But then, when I realised they were going to deport us, I felt so bad,” one former Byron chef told the Guardian. “They were destroying everything I have done. I worked hard, I paid taxes and Byron did this to us. It is immoral. They were happy to employ me for years doing really hard work that no British person would do.”
In a statement, Byron claimed it was “unaware” that “any of our workers were in possession of counterfeit documentation” and that it “cooperated fully and acted upon the Home Office’s requests” because it had a “legal obligations to do so.”
About two weeks later, the story began being reported.
Fury rippled through social media.
Using the hashtag #BoycottByron, some users poured vitriol on the company’s name.
One user, who called the fake meeting a “morally reprehensible act of entrapment” invited those defending the chain to “take a long walk off a short bridge.” Another tweeted, “Exploit them then deport them: that’s the Byron Burger way.”
Fewer people defended the restaurant but some did. One promised to “pay them regular visits for doing what is right.” Another tweeted, “So a company cooperated with the immigration authorities. Not sure I see the problem.”
One tweet: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but are people actually trying to boycott a company for helping deport ILLEGAL migrants? #boycottbyron”
(Some confused (or joking) users wondered why everyone was suddenly angry with Lord Byron, the 19th century English poet who led the Romanticism movement.)
The Twitter outrage soon led to real-world protests.
The most incendiary of these protests came Friday evening.
The news editor for Huck Magazine Michael Segalov tagged along with a group of activists — including members of the London Black Revs and the Malcolm X Movement who had sent him a text the night prior reading simple “Dear Journalist, this is a tip-off. Info for tonight: 8000 crickets. 2000 locust. 4000 Cockroaches. [sic]”
That’s exactly what they had.
They proceeded to release the swarms of insects into two of the chain’s locations while they were open. Diners’ meals were rudely interrupted by a shimmery mass of insects crawling across the floor, so numerous they looked like a moving carpet.
One person tweeted, “Surely there’s a better way to protest than to resort to that? I can’t help but feel it devalues their argument.”
In a joint statement posted to Facebook, London Black Revs and Malcolm X Movement took responsibility for the insects. It read, in part:
“London Black Revs and the Malcolm X Movement have taken affirmative against the Byron restaurants chain in response to the despicable actions in the past weeks having entrapped waiters, back of house staff and chefs in collaboration with UK Boarder Agency. … As a consequence, we have released many thousands of live cockroaches, locusts and crickets into these restaurants.”
As Segalov wrote,”it’s a way of shutting down the restaurant.”
But the insects also contain symbolism. Segalov noted to The Washington Post in a phone interview Tuesday that “the immigrants have been referred to as swarms.”
The ones released into the restaurants were literal swarms.
As one unnamed protester explained to Segalov, “People often refer to migrants in disgusting terms. [Columnist and TV celebrity] Katie Hopkins called them cockroaches in an article just a few months ago. We want to show these people what cockroaches really look like, and we’ll unleash them on places like this if they don’t change their ways.”
In the Facebook statement, the activists skirted around the fact that the ones who would have to clean up the insects (and lose wages in shutting down to do so) were the staff. It read:
“We apologise to customers and staff for any irritation, however, with the growing climate of racism and xenophobia, a line must be drawn and we say, enough is enough. No one is illegal.”
The restaurant was also forced to close its Holborn location early on Monday, as protesters gathered outside amid a heavy police presence.
One protestor read a statement from a chef, who was allegedly deported without being able to see his pregnant wife. According to the Metro, the statement read, “It made me feel like I never had before. My heart was completely broken about everything. We were a family but they took some piece of me. I can’t do anything but pray.’
A statement Byron provided to The Washington Post noted, “All teams that were due to work in restaurants that were closed due to recent events have received full pay for these shifts, and been recompensed for loss of tips too.”