Despite presenting itself as a progressive employer within the hospitality industry, the widely praised group that owns Rose’s Luxury has overseen several incidents of sexual harassment, hostility, and cultural insensitivity in the years since it burst onto the national scene in 2013, according to an extensive report DCist published today.
The outlet spoke to 17 former employees of the group, gathering allegations that Rose’s Restaurant Group had improperly handled an instance of a customer sexually harassing a server; had enforced a loose dress code that led a manager to “oversexualize” an employee’s body; had plated dishes tied to Asian, Caribbean, and African-American cultures in ways that felt insensitive to employees; had threatened to revoke health insurance coverage as retaliation for performance; and had asked employees to sign nondisclosure agreements as part of layoffs.
In his responses to DCist throughout the report, chef-owner Aaron Silverman says he is responsible for building a workplace where the events described should never have taken place. He tells the website that Rose’s Restaurant Group has instituted harassment training for managers and set up “multiple channels” for employees to report complaints.
“I am beyond devastated to learn about new allegations where employees were put in unsafe positions,” Silverman says in a statement sent to Eater. “That can’t happen. Period. We are looking into these allegations with a focus on supporting our people and gaining insight to prevent this behavior from ever occurring.”
The DCist report follows an Instagram post from Rose’s Luxury on May 31 that expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, which drew criticism from commenters. The backlash led Silverman to post a letter online June 12 admitting to “past failures” and acknowledging the group has been “part of the problem.”
All three restaurants in the group won Michelin stars in the tire company’s 2020 guide for D.C. That includes Rose’s Luxury, which garnered instant hype with creative plates like its signature spicy pork and lychee salad and a former no-reservations policy that led to notoriously long lines. It also encompasses Pineapple and Pearls, an ultra-luxe tasting menu destination, and cafe and wine bar Little Pearl. Silverman, who worked under celebrity chefs David Chang and Sean Brock before his ascendance in the District, won the James Beard award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2016. A 2015 Eater interview with Silverman described Rose’s Luxury as “the hottest restaurant in America.” In 2014, Bon Appetit named it the No. 1 Best New Restaurant on its national list.
Thea Merl, a former server and sommelier at Rose’s Luxury, says in the report that when a customer groped and shook her “behind,” a general manager took her off the table but continued to serve the customer instead of kicking them out. Silverman tells DCist he was not aware of the incident, but it was handled “incorrectly” if everything occurred as Merl described. At the time, DCist reports, the employee handbook at Rose’s stated sexual harassment would not be tolerated by employees, managers, or third parties at the restaurant. Janine Copeland, another former server, says she witnessed Merl getting harassed.
Rose’s Luxury worked to create a casual, cool atmosphere by allowing servers to dress with minimal restrictions, but the lack of a set policy reportedly created uncomfortable scenarios for employees. Copeland tells DCist that former manager Michael Richmond was “oversexualizing” her body on multiple occasions when he asked her to put on a bra or cover her nipples with Band-Aids that he supplied. Silverman tells DCist he was not aware of that situation, but it would be “grounds for termination” if he encountered it today. Merl also tells DCist that Silverman said she “looked like a cab driver” when she showed up to work in a dashiki.
“The comment was inexcusable and I am so sorry for making it,” Silverman says in a statement sent to Eater. “It doesn’t reflect my values and I understand how important it is that I personally hold myself accountable for creating a positive environment for our team.”
Under Silverman’s watch, the kitchen at Rose’s Luxury put out several dishes that led employees to point out disparities in how the restaurant plated food from different cultures. DCist’s report includes a screenshot of a fried tofu dish served in a ubiquitous, white Chinese takeout box. While pasta arrived at tables in decorated bowls, employees said that fried chicken came on a ceramic plate that was meant to look disposable, and “Island Wings” were presented in a plastic basket. Silverman tells DCist the company has recently learned that dishes like these have been “perceived as culturally insensitive.”
DCist also shared an allegation of two physical confrontations from a kitchen employee at Pineapple and Pearls who did not want to be named. The employee says that former sous chef Jonny Black grabbed his bicep and squeezed “really, really hard” on at least two occasions. Black denied he assaulted a coworker. He told DCist that he comes from a background of “intense” kitchens, that Silverman met with him to tell him to tone down his aggressive behavior during his time there, and that he has changed. Silverman tells DCist the company never received complaints about physical abuse from Black.
The new report also detailed claims that Krystal Mack, a former employee at Little Pearl, has made on Instagram as early as February 2019. Mack lost her job with Rose’s Restaurant Group months after reporting an allegedly racially insensitive joke that former chef BJ Lieberman directed at another kitchen employee. She has said she feels like she was laid off months later as retaliation, and she shared paperwork on social media that required her to sign a nondisclosure agreement to maintain health coverage after she left. Mack’s initial complaint led to a human resources investigation. Rose’s Restaurant Group tells DCist the company covered her health insurance even after she declined to sign the NDA. The company tells DCist that several employees were let go in late 2018 “due to poor financial performance” at the restaurant, with layoffs “solely based on employee performance” and “shift availability.”
Silverman tells DCist the group has offered five such separation agreements in its history, and hasn’t extended one in more than a year. He says he appreciates now how NDAs could be problematic.
Copeland, the former server who felt sexualized by her manager, tells DCist that in the restaurant industry, the draw of health coverage and other benefits was strong enough to keep her and several other Black women from leaving Rose’s Luxury.
“I know if I worked in any other restaurant that had a similar stature, I would’ve been going through similar stuff, and that’s why we stayed,” Copeland tells DCist. “That’s why we excuse it away, because at least I have benefits and a fucking gym membership to wash down this bullshit.”
Here is the full text of the statement Silverman sent to Eater shortly after the original publication of this story Wednesday evening:
“It’s essential that we create a positive, inclusive, and safe environment for all employees and guests. That is our responsibility. Any inappropriate or hostile behavior that occurred is unacceptable.
I am beyond devastated to learn about new allegations where employees were put in unsafe positions. That can’t happen. Period. We are looking into these allegations with a focus on supporting our people and gaining insight to prevent this behavior from ever occurring.
While we’ve taken disciplinary action, we needed to do more to create a positive, safe, and inclusive environment – and to better listen to and engage with the team. That’s why we began revamping all of our HR and company-wide policies in early 2019, implementing procedures to swiftly address inappropriate behavior, while working toward fostering a culture where everyone feels welcomed and heard. Principal among these efforts was engaging outside experts to create a new policy where all complaints of misconduct are documented, investigated, and met with clear disciplinary action. In the last several months, we’ve also accelerated long overdue work around diversity and inclusion, investing in several anti-bias trainings for staff, engaging in a racial equity assessment and implementation plan led by a DEIB advisor, as well as creating new pathways for employees to share their experiences and honest feedback.
This effort is far from over and it’s critical that we continue to make significant progress. We need to do better and I need to do better. We hope and expect to be held accountable.”
Update: Wednesday, August 5, 6:25 p.m. This story has been updated to include responses Aaron Silverman sent to Eater.