A Rake’s Progress permanently closed in June, extinguishing its wood-fired hearth in the Line hotel because the novel coronavirus pandemic had depleted its business. Now former staff members at the expensive, locavore destination in Adams Morgan are alleging that it fostered a workplace described in a lengthy report by the Washington City Paper as “overwhelmingly hostile,” “toxic,” and “chaotic” for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) employees.
The restaurant, which heralded James Beard Award-winning chef Spike Gjerde’s expansion from Baltimore to Washington, arrived with considerable hype and a pre-opening visit from the Obamas in 2018. In City Paper’s report, sommelier Felicia Colbert says that she’s speaking out about her experiences at the restaurant to seek “restorative justice” for BIPOC workers who feel they were mistreated by white leadership at the high-profile restaurant.
The article, which can be read in full here, details claims from Rake’s staffers to allege several patterns that paint the Line DC’s second-story restaurant as another establishment in a string of progressive-presenting food businesses suffering from dysfunction behind the scenes. City Paper spoke with five former employees on the record who say it hired BIPOC workers for jobs below their qualifications; asked workers of color in key positions to perform duties above their pay grades; terminated employment for multiple Black workers for reasons the employees dispute or find lacking; and was led by an all-white management team who had tense interactions with members of a diverse staff.
Some of the specific allegations include instances of racism: Colbert, the sommelier, told City Paper that she complained to HR about a manager using racist language and describing the way that Black female staffers wore their hair as “unprofessional.” Gregory Allen, a Black former lead server who says he was only promoted to the position he was qualified for after telling management that they were exploiting his labor, alleges he was fired after being described as “angry.” An anonymous general manager, who identifies as Black, claims that he was fired for butting heads with the director of operations, who is a white woman. And in the kitchen, a white sous chef allegedly referred to a Black cook using the N-word.
When asked to comment on City Paper’s reporting, Gjerde said via email that he is working on a detailed response to the claims, but he disputes the story’s framing of the restaurant’s culture. “Creating an equitable culture in the workplace is extremely important to me, and I take any allegations stating that I failed to do so incredibly seriously,” Gjerde writes. He goes on to allege that the report “deliberately mischaracterizes the work environment at A Rake’s Progress and maligns the work of much of the team there.”
Gjerde also reiterated to Eater an assertion he made in City Paper’s story: that he fired the sous chef who allegedly used the N-word within 24 hours of learning of the incident (sources in the story say it took weeks for the sous chef to leave, and they were offered a chance to resign). Gjerde also claimed to City Paper that some of the employees who questioned the motivations behind terminating their positions were fired for inadequate job performance or resigned.
Andrew Zobler, the founder and CEO of Sydell Group, the Line’s parent company, tells Eater in an email the company is conducting an independent investigation, “but to date had not discovered any credible evidence” to back up the allegations in WCP’s story.
Sabrina Medora, the reporter for City Paper (and a previous Eater DC contributor), sent Eater the following message: “We reached out to Spike [Gjerde] to give him the opportunity to address points covered in the story, along with every single other person whose name was brought up by one of our sources. We incorporated responses and lack thereof accordingly to ensure the piece was well-rounded and accurate.”
When reached after the original publication of this post, Colbert, the sommelier, said by publishing Gjerde’s comments, Eater had “diluted the truth.” She says her experiences working at A Rake’s Progress led her to develop PTSD. Colbert called Gjerde a “bad person,” and she said publicizing his comments “is hurting me, not only me, but the Black community.”
Worked here/helped open this place for eight months. A Rakes Progress was an incredibly toxic work environment and I’m glad this is being shared. https://t.co/aUcmxhU7ay— max (@phillzcoffee) December 7, 2020
This post has been updated to include comments Colbert made to Eater