Whether the Koreans, many in their 70s and 80s, were right or wrong to spend their days at the restaurant, arriving as early as 5 a.m. and paying as little as $1.09 for a cup of coffee during their daylong stays, seemed not to matter much to the small but vocal group protesting against McDonald's before an assortment of television cameras and photographers. What seemed to nettle the Korean community most was the perception that in asking police officers to remove the group, the business had been rude.
"You call the police on your grandmother?" Ms. Colligan said.
Officer Hee-Jin Park-Dance from the Community Affairs Bureau of the Police Department works out of Flushing. She said: "In Korea or any other Asian cultures, the elder is treated like gold. When you see an elder you get up, you give a seat right away. It's a sign of respect." In policing the area, she said, "you need to know your community."
Elected leaders were drawn into the imbroglio: A conference call was swiftly arranged between State Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat, who represents Flushing and was the first Korean-American to have been elected to the Legislature, and the owner of the franchise, Jack Bert, Ms. McComb said.
(Read more: Where's the beef? Industry at crossroads)
More than discomfort is at stake: Staff members at the franchise said the ever-present older people caused the business to lose money. The patrons sat far longer than the 20 minutes requested on signs posted in the restaurant. Other customers asked for refunds, unhappy that there were no seats at which to eat a Happy Meal.
"I'm sure you can imagine any business would find this situation to be difficult when customers prevent other customers from enjoying the restaurant," Mr. Bert, the franchise's operator, said in an emailed statement.
Even among the community's champions of business, like Young Jin Kim, the chairman of the Korean American Business Council of New York, there was little sympathy. "Respecting elders is particularly serious and important," Mr. Kim said. That reverence can supersede business interests, he said.
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Behind him, beyond the glass and golden arches, several older men sat watching inside the McDonald's, sipping coffee.
—By NYT's Sarah Maslin Nir and Jiha Ham