How to grapple with problematic progressive restaurants

Issue 204: A conversation with journalist Hannah Black about a Minneapolis restaurant whose outward values did not line up with its treatment of workers

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The allegations regarding Minneapolis restaurant Gandhi Mahal are very much at odds with its public persona.

The restaurant has long been praised for its aquaponics/environmentalism/low-waste initiatives, and owner Ruhel Islam publicly supported protests that resulted in his restaurant catching fire in May. To the NYTimes, he said, “We can rebuild a building, but we cannot rebuild a human.” And in a Washington Post op-ed, his daughter quoted him saying, “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.”

Yet at the same time — in the same building — former employees allege that Islam and other managers created a toxic and predatory environment for workers, particularly women. The restaurant is actually under investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights for sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation.

As we saw in the wake of the protests against police brutality here in Minneapolis, in Louisville, in Kenosha, and elsewhere, it wasn’t entirely uncommon for food brands to jump on the activist bandwagon without taking meaningful action to back it up. But I think Gandhi Mahal is different in that they were perceived as walking the walk and not just putting out hollow statements. So how do we grapple with institutions like this, particularly in the food world, that are simultaneously active in community progressivism and also sites of discrimination and pain?

Today I’m sharing a conversation I had via email with journalist Hannah Black, who talked to former Gandhi Mahal employees and worked on reporting the story for the local alt-weekly City Pages.

Can you share more about the process of reporting the story of allegations of a toxic workplace at Gandhi Mahal? How did you hear about the story and begin to piece it together?

I first found out about the allegations because another reporter who also contributes to the Minnesota Reformer, Jared Goyette, was looking for someone to collaborate with, so our editor connected us. Jared was initially contacted by one of the former Gandhi Mahal employees who experienced and witnessed the alleged sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation that took place. This woman is close friends with the woman we call “Ava” in our story, who filed the complaint in May 2019 with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Jared forwarded me a statement Ava had written that outlined this months-long pattern of abuse, mainly from the fellow manager we call “John.” It was really shocking and was of course a compelling story because this restaurant has such a reputation of promoting progressive and humanitarian causes in Minneapolis.

From there, we first spoke with Ava’s lawyer to find out more about the case, and we set out to interview more of these former employees who were supporting Ava and who had maybe also experienced sexual harassment and retaliation at Gandhi Mahal. There ended up being seven people who were willing to speak to us on the record and use their full names, which I really commend them for — that's not an easy thing to do, and I think it made the story even more impactful than it already was. Over a few months we pieced together this timeline of events from their stories and emails they provided us and were eventually able to tell a pretty comprehensive story of what allegedly happened to Ava and other former employees.

What was most surprising to you as you were talking to former employees there, especially given the restaurant’s reputation for social justice and for solidarity during protests?

My biggest sort of “oh, sh*t” moment was when we were on a group Zoom call with several of the former employees we interviewed and they began to talk about some of the more egregious things they experienced. We spent two hours on that call and it was just one thing after another: how John would allegedly get drunk during every evening shift and be really inappropriate with servers, his habit of giving cash and expensive gifts to employees (a few of them actually went and found jewelry he gave them and showed it to us), and how one of the servers witnessed John taking photos of Ava via security camera footage, just to name a few examples. I had never eaten at Gandhi Mahal or heard much about it before the George Floyd protests, so I didn't have any pre-existing feelings about the restaurant, but it was a close-to-home example of how a business or organization can stand for all of these great things and still potentially harbor this darkness and do damage to people within the organization.

Thinking about the idea of outwardly progressive institutions that may not uphold those values internally, what questions should journalists (and the public!) be asking upfront that were perhaps not asked of Gandhi Mahal? Especially of restaurants and the dining industry, where, as you point out in the story, sexual harassment occurs with alarming frequency?

Every time a story like this comes out, there are inevitably people who share it and hint at or explicitly say they had similar experiences at another restaurant or institution in the community, and I think we as journalists need to pay attention to those accounts and other times people share their experiences, even if it's an incomplete picture at first. Of course some people aren’t going to want to talk to a reporter, and that’s totally understandable, but when reporters hear rumblings about shady things happening, I think it’s important to attempt to talk to people who may have been affected. Maybe it turns into a story, maybe it doesn't; but our larger society has spent a lot of time dismissing or ignoring the experiences of people in the service industry because these people don't necessarily have a lot of power or maybe we expect sexual harassment to happen in a restaurant setting. Also, asking questions about how restaurant employees are treated isn’t always going to lead to useful information, especially if your only source is the owner or someone else in charge, but asking those kinds of questions at least gets you closer to learning how equitable that workplace is.

I think it’s important we’re able to hold multiple ideas in our heads at once — in other words, Gandhi Mahal has done a lot of good in the community over the past 10+ years, but it’s also possible that the restaurant's leadership could have been complicit in and turned a blind eye to harassment and discrimination of its employees. Both can be true, and that’s the case for any organization, and we should keep that in mind — not in a cynical way, but in a way that doesn’t blind us to potentially toxic behaviors happening behind the scenes.

You've written previously about other restaurant/business owners whose operations were affected by protests; what kinds of community initiatives have you seen to support restaurants and other businesses? What do they need right now?

One of the largest community initiatives I’m aware of was organized by the Lake Street Council, which to date has raised about $10 million to help rebuild Lake Street. Lake Street was one of the areas most affected by the initial demonstrations in Minneapolis that resulted in property damage, and it’s also home to many immigrant- and POC-owned small businesses. The Lake Street Council has already given out $5.5 million in grants to businesses. There were also countless crowdfunding efforts that popped up from individual businesses and neighborhood groups — it was really just this beautiful outpouring of support from within Minneapolis — and from across the country and world — to help people who were struggling or affected in some way.

I don't want to speak for all of the affected business owners, but the ones I've spoken to most are still working to get back on their feet — some didn't have insurance at all, and some are still fighting with their insurance companies to get their expenses covered in any meaningful way. Many had already been struggling for months because of COVID-19. But the monetary and emotional support they've received from their communities and from strangers has meant a lot to them.

You've also covered local government for newspapers in the area, so I'm curious how (if at all!) you view stories like the Gandhi Mahal one as being public policy issues or having resonance on that beat, too?

I think stories like this certainly have the potential to be public policy issues, especially when we talk about things like the rights of service industry workers, or how easy/difficult it is to file a complaint against your employer and if any action is ever taken. It seems that often people go to journalists with these stories because they've been ignored by public officials or are caught in some lengthy, bureaucratic process, and that's an issue. In my opinion, public policies should protect people with the least amount of power, and that often includes people working in restaurants and other service industry jobs.

Don’t forget to follow Hannah Black on Twitter @hannahcblack, and take time to read the full article on Gandhi Mahal here.