This Fourth of July weekend, the Portland restaurant industry only had eyes for one kind of fireworks: Those on the Instagram account of chef Maya Lovelace, who spent four days posting accusations of abuse, mismanagement and toxic behavior at some of the city’s best-known restaurants.
Starting Wednesday, Lovelace, the chef-owner of two Northeast Portland restaurants, began soliciting accounts via direct message, taking screenshots and sending them out to her nearly 8,000 followers and anyone else who cared to check in. The accusations, which were posted to the Stories section of her account, where posts disappear automatically after 24 hours, ranged from human resources mistakes to allegations of serious crimes. People in the local restaurant industry spent hours either actively logging on to see the latest testimonial or reading screenshots sent by others.
COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement each contributed to these anonymous workers sharing their experiences, Lovelace said. Restaurants are often high-stress work environments that require long hours within a strict hierarchical culture. Workers seek jobs at popular and well-reviewed restaurants and are often loath to speak out about verbal or other abuse. The current conversations around social justice, and the time for reflection forced by the closure of restaurants during the pandemic, contributed to the desire to speak out.
The posts soon fractaled in all directions, with restaurant owners at Olympia Provisions, Farm Spirit and Ava Gene’s issuing public apologies and statements, some of which were criticized in turn for not going far enough. Eventually, Lovelace herself came under fire for her alleged treatment of employees, including sharp criticism from the sole Black employee at her Southern restaurant Yonder. And it all played out in public view on Instagram.
For Lovelace, 32, the posts offered a chance for a public airing of long-festering grievances.”We all whisper about these things, we all talk about our traumatic experience in past jobs,” Lovelace said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Why do we keep it secret from the people who should actually have the power to change it, myself included? Couldn’t things be better if it was all out in the open?”
With the Portland food industry absorbing the shocking downfall of chef John Gorham and his Toro Bravo restaurant group, Lovelace thought she might get three responses. Instead she got hundreds.
“I was really overwhelmed really quick,” Lovelace said. “It just quickly built into this thing where it seemed like the only way to fix this is to get it all out in the open.”
Lovelace said she had three reasons for beginning her posts: To offer a platform where people could speak publicly without a fear of getting blackballed in the tight-knit Portland restaurant community, to allow outsiders to have a glimpse into the abuse prevalent in the food industry, and to “find a way forward for restaurants that is not cruel to the people who work in them.”
According to Lovelace, the posts drew a positive reaction of at least 5-to-1, though “the negative voices are just louder.” She says she has been called “evil,” “a Yelper” and “a little girl desperate for attention” in messages from both other Portland restaurant owners and anonymous accounts. The posts briefly stopped on Friday after Lovelace says she received a “nasty anonymous email from a secure Swiss email server from someone telling me I was about to be served with libel.”
Over the weekend, several prominent Portland restaurants responded to the anonymous allegations.
Olympia Provisions, a nationally recognized charcuterie and sausage company with several Portland restaurants, apologized on Instagram Thursday for hosting a “Mexican Fiesta”-themed staff party in 2015, an event that included a donkey, a nacho cheese fountain and culturally inappropriate costumes. Aaron Adams messaged Lovelace on Friday expressing remorse for not listening to employee complaints at his vegan fine-dining restaurant, Farm Spirit.
And on Sunday, chef and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Joshua McFadden of Submarine Hospitality responded to accusations of harboring hostile managers at both Ava Gene’s and the group’s former restaurant at The Hoxton hotel. Several current and former employees quickly criticized the post for not including enough personal reflection and for being too vague, with Sam Smith, the chef at Submarine’s Middle Eastern restaurant Tusk, calling McFadden’s “lack of accountability” disappointing.
Bar Norman sommelier Dana Frank, previously Ava Gene’s sommelier, wrote that people had “suffered over many years under your ‘leadership.’”
“Put as much effort into apologizing and repairing as you do into hand lotions and vibes,” Frank wrote.
In a text message Wednesday, McFadden said he takes “full responsibility for Submarine’s culture.”
“I’m grateful to the team members who have spoken up, and I am deeply sorry,” he wrote. “The past few months have been the hardest I’ve ever faced as a restaurant owner. The past week has been Earth shattering. I am putting the work in with the team to start to chart a path forward.”
On Saturday, Lovelace’s posts turned to accusations that Departure, the rooftop restaurant at the Nines Hotel, had fostered its own toxic culture, that “Top Chef” finalist Gregory Gourdet had taken credit for dessert recipes that weren’t his and that female servers were forced to wear “sexy” — and pocket-less — purple dresses that left no room for wine openers or notepads and had servers feeling more vulnerable to harassment.
Those posts created a surprising juxtaposition: The white business owner of two Southern restaurants had just called out Portland’s most prominent Black chef.
“If everyone is supporting Black Lives Matter right now, this should have been done in a more constructive way,” Gourdet said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It was a one-sided airing of grievances, with lots of complicated intricacies and without a path for constructive results.”
He declined to address the specific allegations, saying front-of-house issues were handled by The Nines human resources department and that he preferred to resolve any remaining issues with former employees at Departure privately. He said he had rejected an apology from Lovelace.
In a statement Thursday, Meaghan Goedde, the COO of Departure parent company Sage Restaurant Concepts, said that “nothing is more important to us than the wellbeing of our associates, and we take allegations of harassment extremely seriously.”
“When these allegations were brought to our attention, HR was immediately notified,” Goedde said. “A timely, thorough investigation of each allegation was conducted both internally and by a third party, and appropriate corrective actions were taken as a result.”
Lovelace said she had posted messages in the order she received them without cherry-picking sensational posts or excluding those calling out people she thought of as friends, including Gourdet.
“When the things started coming in about Departure, I didn’t even think about race, which if I’m honest, might have been an issue,” Lovelace said. “But it felt like the weird thing for me to do was to not post those things just because he’s Black.”
On Sunday, Lovelace added a message to her timeline announcing that her Stories were “going quiet.” According to Lovelace, she has only posted a small fraction of the hundreds of messages she has received so far, with accounts touching on nearly every major restaurant group in Portland.
In the post, Lovelace wrote that over the past few days, “I’ve hurt people I care about deeply, I’ve helped folks speak their truth for the first time, I’ve received threats, and I’ve felt useful in a way I didn’t anticipate.”
In comments on that post, Gourdet accused Lovelace of taking on a “new savior” role, acting as “judge, jury, executioner and apology acceptor” for the Portland restaurant industry.
Meanwhile, several of Lovelace’s former employees began posting comments of their own, describing the “toxic work environment” they said Lovelace had herself fostered at Yonder, including allegations of bullying and microaggressions as well as mistreatment of the restaurant’s sole Black employee.
“It’s incredibly ironic for you @mayalovelace to be calling out other restaurants for toxic and hostile work environments when you need to take a hard, long look at your own,” wrote former employee Berlin Clark.
Angelica Rustali, another former employee, wrote that her time at Yonder was the “ultimate form of gaslighting — working for an employer TELLING YOU they’re trying to change the industry while perpetuating it.” Rustali also mentioned Lovelace’s treatment of the restaurant’s Black employee, who she said was ignored, exploited and overworked.
In a phone interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive on Wednesday, that employee, Nick Charles, said he applied for a job at Yonder in March of 2019 after following Lovelace on social media and “liking everything she was saying, building, preaching” about opening a restaurant that was “friendly to queer people and people of color.”
“I also enjoyed her cooking tremendously, and thought she was doing a favor to bring proper Southern food to the Northwest,” said the 32-year-old Charles, who was born in Louisiana. “It did remind me of home.”
But after working at Yonder for a year, including several months as the restaurant’s front-of-house manager, he says the experience didn’t match up with Lovelace’s promises.
During that time, Charles said he was underpaid, under-appreciated and eventually sidelined after returning from an illness brought on partly from working 60-hour weeks, in addition to a second job bartending that he kept because the pay was higher. His long days were necessary because Lovelace would often “be in the back Instagramming while we were trying to run the front of the house,” Charles said.
Seven former Yonder employees reached Thursday by The Oregonian/OregonLive backed Charles’ claims.
Charles said he lacked institutional support from Lovelace, including during an October incident when a group of young men who lingered past brunch service began using abusive language, including a racist slur, when he asked them to settle their tab.
“They called me a servant, they said I was doing this for white owners, all this stuff,” Charles said. “I stood my ground, I backed up Maya, but they didn’t back me up in return.”
Charles checked into the hospital with an infected throat abscess later that month.
When Charles returned to work a week and a half later, he sensed that “everything had changed.” He was soon asked to share managerial duties, taken off salary, eventually demoted to server and given a pay cut that he wasn’t aware of until obtaining a pay stub just before COVID-19-enforced layoffs in late March, he said.
Charles also felt singled out for his outgoing nature. According to Charles and other former employees, Lovelace asked him “not to laugh” at work several times, saying it prevented her from thinking.
“Why wouldn’t you want to promote people having fun in a restaurant?” Charles asked. “To stifle the only Black person working for you in that way just seems off-putting.”
When Guy Fieri visited the restaurant for “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in January, Charles says he was told that he would be highlighted on the Food Network show, but that he “couldn’t laugh during the shoot.” Two hours before he was supposed to show up, Lovelace texted him and said without explanation that he was no longer needed.
“I was hurt by that,” Charles said. “I like Guy Fieri. I watched his shows when I was in the hospital. That was something that was really big for me.”
And Charles thinks Lovelace didn’t do enough to highlight the Black influence on Southern food at her restaurants, particularly the fried chicken-focused Yonder, with little mention of the role enslaved Africans played in bringing ingredients and dishes to the New World. The restaurant’s fried-chicken sandwich, The Intimidator, is named in honor of the late Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt.
“I don’t think that Black culture was ever really celebrated in that restaurant,” Charles said. “If you claim to be a champion of this food, you should show the true history, not a white-washed version.”
In a follow-up interview Thursday, Lovelace said she had built Yonder in part as a home to people who had experienced trauma in restaurants. Some of those employees, she said, felt anxiety around Charles, who was known for greeting customers with a bellowing “Hello! Welcome!” Lovelace called Charles the “loudest person I have ever met.” She said she may have asked him to be quieter on other employees’ behalf, but “never ever asked him not to laugh.”
Several former employees, including Charles, disputed Lovelace’s account.
“I understand the racial implication or the stereotype that Black people are loud, but that was not at play here,” Lovelace said. “Nick was a force of unbridled joy at Yonder. I remember telling him how happy I was that he was putting his joy out into the room. But we’re not welcoming people to Chili’s, stop. That is not how we want to greet our customers.”
Lovelace said she was “mortified” when she learned about the brunch group’s verbal abuse of Charles. She said the reason she texted Charles on the day of the “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” shoot was because the production crew had told her there were already too many staffers in the shot.
Lovelace called the critiques of the way Yonder’s menu is presented “fair,” and said she has ” struggled with my position as a white woman cooking Southern food.” She said she’s done her best to tell a fuller story at Mae, the back-room supper club, which was named for her Appalachian grandmother.
“This is the food of my culture, too, the food that I was raised on, and that has brought me joy since I was a kid,” Lovelace said. “It’s an amalgam of African, Native American, Irish, Scottish and German influences, all of this stuff mashed together.”
“The biggest lesson to learn in all of this is that we failed to make our staff comfortable enough to make these accusations to us,” Lovelace said. “So they needed to be able to say things publicly to force us to be in that conversation with them. I appreciate that, because it gives me a chance to learn and be better. I wish that the other folks who are receiving these kinds of allegations would view them in the same way.”
According to Charles, Yonder employees have been talking in a private group text about their work experiences during the COVID-19 shutdown, but they wouldn’t have gone public if Lovelace hadn’t begun her series of Instagram posts last weekend. At first, he thought the posts might be “a good thing,” helping lead to a culture change in Portland restaurants similar to the one he and other Black Lives Matter protesters have been seeking from police. A Portland Monthly story Tuesday that didn’t mention critical comments employees posted to Lovelace’s timeline earlier that day “tipped us over the boiling point.”
“It felt so hypocritical that she was accusing all these people anonymously, but she couldn’t look in the mirror and see that she’s caused a lot of hurt,” Charles said. “It felt like it was more of a play to boost her own status while taking others down. You can’t do it one way and not expect it to come around the same way.”
“You’re not a savior, you’re only trying to save your own ass,” he said.