‘We can’t be the United Nations’: Milwaukee frozen custard shop defends ‘English only’ policy


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.



If it is a privately owned business, the owner has the right to refuse anyone service for any reason, nothing the law can do about it. Things like this have been tried in the past by angry customers, the most recent was a restaurant where the owner did want kids or babies to come in, even with their parents. Many people threatened to sue and were upset for about a week over it, but in the end, it was a private business.


If the woman working behind the counter could actually speak Spanish, why not let her speak in Spanish to the person with money in his hand wanting to buy ice-cream?

We can’t just be kind to people?

My Dad couldn’t speak English well. He worked in a grocery store and made the effort to accommodate his customers who spoke English, Italian or Spanish.


The owner of course is within his rights to do this but it would seem a very silly thing to do if a) your business is operating in an area where many people speak Spanish and b) many of your staff are fluent in Spanish and can understand what the customer wants. It seems a great way to alienate local customers. When I go shopping in my local area if I started complaining about customers speaking in foreign languages to staff in shops it would take me all week to get to buy a bottle of milk and I’d probably annoy so many of the local shopkeepers they would no longer serve me. It strikes me as rather petty as do remarks such as ‘We can’t be the United Nations’.


The story is very odd.

(1) A rule by the owner that says that Spanish-speaking employees are only allowed to speak English to their customers. Why have such a rule?

(2) The Spanish-speaking customer in question is fluent in English. Why not just order in English?

I don’t understand the concept of forcing your staff to only speak English. Doesn’t that limit your customer base?

I don’t understand why someone would request custard in a language that isn’t part of the standard speaking language in this country given the person ordering could speak English?

What is the goal here?


I’m sorry, I don’t understand. You quoted me, did you mean my Dad’s story is odd, or the story in the OP is odd?

My Dad worked in NY and since it was a specialty grocery there would be many people visiting, often tourists. It was good business to accommodate his clientele.


This seems to be about the employees, not the customers. Can a company forbid someone from speaking in their native tongue? I honestly don’t know but a privately owned business can’t refuse service for any reason. You can’t turn someone away for being black for example.


You say that and you’d think you’d be right but just have a look through the threads here about private businesses wanting to not make cakes or greeting cards or whatever for a homosexual couple getting married. Plenty of people here are happy to argue that you CAN turn someone away from your private business for being gay. Which isn’t all that different from being black, or a woman, or Spanish, or whatever. Either a private business can discriminate, or it can’t.

Some people (not meaning those commenting on this particular thread…I mean the site in general) apparently want to have their cake (for a wedding or otherwise) and eat it too.


In a customer service situation, the owner or manager is potentially liable for anything that the employee says. It is very common for stores to get complaints that claim someone was mean or used bad language, when in fact the person was polite and properly professional. How can the manager defend his employee if he didn’t understand what was said, and what the normal behavior of the employee is when speaking Spanish? Also, employees can only testify that the other employees were polite and professional if they can understand what was said.

There are some phrases and words in Spanish which are totally innocuous in one Latin American country, and totally insulting or obscene in another. Some of them are food-related. So there’s another problem.

There is also a tendency for some customers (okay, it’s usually criminal types, but sometimes it’s even respectable grandmothers) to be more nasty, threatening, and abusive in their language toward employees, if they think that the employee can understand them but that nobody else can. It’s a sad part of human nature, but it happens.

Reading the article, I see that the owner referenced the business principle of standardization. This is pretty common as a worry for businesses doing food. Everybody would like to give people special stuff, but generally it is frowned upon. What if the other employee or the other location can’t make the ice cream spell out words, or do latte pictures? The customers will complain and feel bad. So it’s better just to do the standard thing. (Of course, in this case the customers complained anyway, which is usually the case. Most people are reasonable and want to be happy, but some people love to complain and make a big deal out of things.)

So rules like this are pretty common. Even in call centers that provide Spanish speakers, one is usually prohibited from speaking Spanish unless one is an official member of the Spanish-speaking call center area, so that liability rules and management will be able to cover you or discipline you for whatever you say. (The thing to do is to transfer people to the correct call center area, or in case of a minority language, to contact the interpreter service which provides an official go-between.)

Finally, many English-speaking customers are shy of ordering from someone in English, if they hear the person before them ordering in Spanish. They assume in their heads that the person taking the order doesn’t speak English, or doesn’t speak it well. They may try to speak Spanish (usually badly) because of this, or they may just go away.

(The same thing is true of certain strong English accents spoken by extremely American or extremely white people, so it’s not a hatred of foreignness or a form of racism. In fact, a lot of minority people exhibit the same reluctance. It doesn’t seem to be a function of education level, either; it’s just something that worries some people and doesn’t worry others.)

Shrug. It’s hard to know what other factors may be playing into this.

Probably there are countries and US neighborhoods where bilingual ordering is common, but the US doesn’t have any normal across-the-board business procedures for such a situation. Experientially, most foreign-language-speaking neighborhoods only last a generation or two in the US before becoming all-English, at which point the inhabitants usually move out and are replaced by new immigrants speaking new languages. The only exception to this are places like the Southwest or the parts of Maine right next to Quebec, where you’re not dealing with immigrants but rather with long-time inhabitants.


I believe they try to do that in Quebec.


While I agree the owner can have any employee rule he wants, he is ultimately swimming up Niagara Falls; and is only giving up customers, and probably employees in the future as well.

But if it’s worth losing business to him, he has that right.

Is there no other place there to buy this product?



To keep the national language as english debate going probably. People are going to interact in their native and most comfortable language also though, nothing new imho. The Bodegas around the county in spanish speaking neighborhoods been around forever show this also.

The United States, contrary to popular belief, has no official language. Federal legislators have proposed laws to make English the official business language of the United States, and every year that legislation dies.



A company can forbid their employees from speaking a non-English language while they are working. I am not sure if they can prohibit it while the employees are at lunch in an employer provided lunchroom, an HR type would have to answer that.

How an employer treats their employees does not generally follow the rules for treating their customers. Generally a business cannot refuse to sell one customer something they sell other customers. Yes, businesses, especially in the food industry, can refuse service to people not wearing shoes or shirts or who try to bring animals into the store, but I think this is really a health code issue.

Customers and employees are two different critters and can be treated differently.


“Policy” has been abandoned:




Well, he got a lot of free advertising out of this silliness.


It gets into gray areas, a privately owned business does have the right to refuse anyone service, some companies I have even seen a sign posted that states this in big bold letters, even though they cannot refuse service based on race, essentially they could if they wanted, as they do not have to give a reason for denying service, even if they had to, they could say one thing when it was actually due to something else.

Its similar to employers not having to give an applicant reason why they were not hired, Ive worked as a manager before and seen this first hand, if the manager does not like the person they are interviewing for whatever reason, they will find ‘some reason’ not to hire them, and even if it came down to them being pressured on why they did not hire… the reason they give, may not be the real reason.


Spanish people who are living here in American need to learn how to speak the English language and bravo to the store owner who has the guts to have this particular requirement.


I apologize for the confusion. I quoted you because I was (in a sense) elaborating on your comments.

The story in the OP is odd.

I agree with you. It seems odd to me that the owner would not want to accommodate his clientele.

I also find it odd that this incident even occurred. I mean, everywhere I go, people request their product or service in English. I mean, I know the place mentioned in the OP and have visited the establishment myself. Everyone orders their custard in English. Why would someone who speaks English request the custard in Spanish in the first place? It’s just odd all around.


Is there some particular requirement that states you must learn English to learn to order frozen custard if the shop assistant understands Spanish and can quite happily cope with your order in that language?

Learning how to use English in wider context is an essential skill but if the store is in an area with a large number of Hispanic people and staff speak Spanish my only concerns would be that the customer got the right order, feels happy and pays before leaving… Presumably in a British context my wife and her friends are ‘wrong’ when they go to Russian or Polish shops and talk to the owners or staff in Russian, Polish, Ukrainian or other Slavic languages when buying or ordering food. It should be noted most of my my wife’s friend and she herself speak English at a fairly high level and had to learn to do so in most cases as the majority had to learn it to gain citizenship here and sit the ‘Life in the UK’ tests if they wanted to become British citizens. That doesn’t mean they should suddenly abandon their own native language and I’m glad to see my wife’s friends teaching their kids the other languages as they grow up as it gives them an educational head start over the kids who are their peers.


In my area I have been seeing signs posted that says service will be not be given if one is talking or texting on a cell phone. If you want to order, you must end the call. I wonder how long that will last.

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