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Black diner owner's 'I don't bite' sign sparks soul-searching about racism in UK

Martha-Renee Kolleh is fed up with people walking out of her diner in Wakefield, England, after they see the color of her skin. Gabriel Szabo / Guzelian

LONDON -- A diner owner has triggered soul-searching about racism in Britain after putting up a sign informing customers she is black and doesn’t "bite."

Martha-Renee Kolleh, 46, said she was so fed up with people walking out of her restaurant when they spotted the color of her skin that she put up the notice in the establishment's door last week.

“I am a black woman and always will be,” it reads. “If you are allergic to black people don’t come in. But if you prefer quality wholesome meals come in. I don’t bite!”

The sign on the door of Yeanon Cafe in Wakefield, England, reads: "I am a black woman... If you are allergic to black people, don't come in." Gabriel Szabo / Guzelian

The mother of three said as one family of potential patrons turned around to leave her Yeanon Café in Wakefield, Yorkshire, she heard them say: “I think we’re in the wrong place.” 

“I thought I’ll just put this there and then they don’t have to look at me and go, ‘oh no, this is a black woman,’” she said. “My children and I were joking about it.”

Kolleh, who moved to Britain 11 years ago to escape the war-torn west African republic of Liberia, admitted she was trying to make a serious point about racism in the small town in northern England.

“My frustration built up over a long amount of time,” she said. “It upsets me. I don’t want to move. I just want them to accept me for who I am and give me a try. I mean if they say the food is not good enough, fair enough, but I think that a lot of the time they are leaving because of racial prejudice.”

She tested her theory by employing a white member of staff to serve customers, while she waited out of sight. 

“She did really well,” Kolleh said. “One Saturday when she was serving we made almost £100 ($150), but then the next week when I was on my own I only about £20 ($30)." 

She added: “I can’t be running a business like this. My family try and make our customers welcome but none of them deserve this kind of behavior towards us. I can’t see any other reason for people deciding they don’t want to eat here. I’m a businesswoman, I pay my taxes. I need local support.”

Kolleh's member of parliament said she was “shocked and dismayed” to hear of her experiences.

“There is absolutely no place for any form of racism in Wakefield,” lawmaker Mary Creagh said. “I am sure the local community will rally round to support her and her business.”

Kolleh's sign was front-page news Thursday in the UK's Metro newspaper's with a headline reading "I don't bite! Sign in a cafe that tells a sad story about racism."

The Independent's coverage was headlined "England 2013: Cafe owner puts up notice for customers who may not like her race" while the Daily Mail opted for "I'm black, get used to it!"

Hundreds of people offered support on the cafe's Facebook page, according to the Independent. One local customer said that she would spread the word about the “wonderful food” served there.

“Was so saddened to find out about your troubles and the need for the notice you’ve put on your door,” she wrote. 

In the wake of the response, Kolleh said Thursday that she plans to take down the sign from the door and store it inside her diner, which serves English and Afro-Caribbean food.

“I think I’ve made my point,” she said. “I don’t want it taken out of context, but I hope people get the message.”