Word ricocheted around the Korean enclaves of Queens, then onto the Internet, where it was picked up by Korean news media and sent in translation to the homeland. The situation inspired television news reports, an animated parody and on Thursday culminated in a summit on a Flushing street corner calling for a boycott: all because a McDonald's had appeared to disrespect several older Korean people who treat a neighborhood branch of the fast-food chain like their living room.
"This really is difficult," Lisa McComb, a spokeswoman for McDonald's, wrote in an email.
"The restaurant has welcomed these guests for a long time," she said, but the endless table sitting "has led to uncomfortable interactions with the McDonald's workers."
Some seniors spend hours at a McDonald's in Flushing. Workers say they drive away business. Group members say they should not be rushed.
On Thursday afternoon, several Korean community leaders hand-delivered a letter to a manager of the McDonald's franchise at the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards, outlining their outrage that, over the past several months, the management has called 911 to oust older men and women who sit for hours hovering over a single cup of coffee. The dispute was reported by The Korea Times and this week by The New York Times.
(Read more: McD imposes 20-minute time limit)
"Senior citizens should not be treated as criminals," said Christine Colligan, a leader of the Korean Parents Association of New York, as she stood outside the restaurant, her voice rising. "They should be respected."
That morning, Ms. Colligan had contacted her sprawling network in the Korean community urging a "worldwide" boycott of the fast-food restaurant for the month of February. In a letter, she attacked what she saw as "stark racism" by McDonald's: "We will teach them a lesson," the letter said.
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.
(Read more: McDonald's removes worker site after fast food flap)
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