As protests against systemic racism grip the nation, employees are holding a prominent local restaurant group's feet to the fire.

Had the incident been caught on video, it probably would’ve gone viral.

It was May 30, the first Saturday after protests against racism and police brutality had begun to roil Downtown Columbus. At the same time, the city’s restaurants were beginning to come alive after a mandatory Covid-19 hibernation. A Black staff member at Northstar Café in the Short North was stationed near the patio, working curbside carryout duty. Sitting on the patio were two customers having a private but loud conversation within earshot of the employee. Their words—which Northstar co-owner Kevin Malhame describes as “maliciously racist”—scared her.

“They were talking about how George Floyd had deserved to die. They said that all the protesters needed to be shot, and then they started using derogatory terms, and she overheard all this, and it made her uncomfortable,” says Zach Vargas, a former lead culinary partner (aka kitchen manager) at the Short North restaurant, who later spoke to the employee about the incident. (To protect the employee’s identity, we are withholding her name. She was contacted for this story but did not respond.)

The employee requested to move inside, and she did. When the managers on duty heard about it, they decided their hands were tied. Since the customers had not threatened the staffer to her face, they weren’t asked to leave.

***

In mid-March, Northstar Café and restaurants across the state were thrown into a fight for survival when Gov. Mike DeWine banned dine-in service because of the surging coronavirus outbreak. In the immediate aftermath, Malhame estimates that Northstar’s parent company, Organic Trails Cafés (which also owns Brassica and Third & Hollywood), was losing more than $50,000 a day, leading it to furlough about half its workers and cut the pay of its executive team. Then, the leadership sprang into action, streamlining its curbside carryout operations while continuing to provide meals for its staff. It also announced Northstar’s first-ever drive-in brunch at its Easton location.

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On March 22, Kevin Malhame, who owns Organic Trails with his wife, Katy, and brother Darren, donned roller blades and hand-delivered orders of ricotta pancakes and mimosa kits to parked customers, adding a bit of levity to the unprecedented situation. The brunch encapsulated the best of Northstar: excellent service, community-mindedness and business savvy. The event conveyed: “We can do this, together.”

The feel-good vibe didn’t last. By early June, Northstar would become the target of vitriol from multiple directions.

Once national protests spread to Columbus over the brutal killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police on May 25, Northstar’s previously unadvertised, 50 percent discount for police, firefighters and paramedics became a flashpoint inside the company and out. Several Columbus businesses offer deals for first responders, and Northstar’s discount was put in place 16 years ago “as a way to express gratitude,” Kevin Malhame says.

Some of Northstar’s employees began petitioning upper management and the owners to suspend the discount indefinitely as a show of support for the fight against police brutality.

Initially, the owners listened, and the discount was suspended on Wednesday, June 3. A day earlier, Northstar had announced a $5,000 donation to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp and posted a message on Instagram that said: “We stand with the Black community. We stand against police brutality. We stand committed to amplifying the voices of our Black colleagues and working alongside them to dismantle systemic racism in the restaurant industry and in our communities. Your pain, your voices and your lives matter.” (It should be noted that a Chicago restaurant chain called The Goddess and Grocer posted those exact words on Instagram the day before.)

News of the suspended discount began to blow up on social media (the comments have since been hidden on Northstar’s accounts), and some locations received complaint calls, especially at the Westerville location, Vargas says. Ending first responder discounts at Northstar’s Westerville location, in particular, was bound to strike a raw nerve. It was only two years ago, on Feb. 10, 2018, that two Westerville police officers, Eric Joering and Anthony “Tony” Morelli, were murdered while responding to a domestic violence call. It was an excruciating moment in Westerville history, one that made national news and sparked an outpouring of community mourning, symbolized by ubiquitous blue ribbons and the hashtag #WestervilleStrong.

By around 5 p.m. on Friday, June 5, Northstar had reversed itself and reinstituted the discount. A memo that went out to staff the next day from Darren and Kevin Malhame said their decision to end the discount had been made “too quickly out of emotion” and that “we inadvertently hurt some in our community.”

“When they went back on that, it felt like I was stabbed in the back or betrayed,” Vargas says. “They regretted listening.”

Asked weeks later about the reversal, Kevin Malhame said: “The change was poorly considered, and we just feel like in this climate, it was going to be volatile either way, but we certainly do not support police brutality, racism or injustice of any kind.” He added that he and Darren have family members who are first responders.

Karmiela White, a four-year employee at Northstar’s Liberty Center café (outside Cincinnati), wasn’t happy about the discount, but she says the issue rarely came up on her shifts. “I believe that there are a lot of professions in our community that deserve to be celebrated. Black Lives Matter movement aside, it feels unfair to celebrate one profession over the other. So, when the discount was reinstated, it felt like they were taking more of a stand than they were by just letting the discount sit as it was,” she says.

After Northstar’s flip-flop on discounts, Vargas, a five-year employee who had already put in his two weeks’ notice for unrelated reasons, quit a week early in protest. Meanwhile, employee Ryan Clift organized a staff walkout at the Short North location for Saturday, June 6.

***

A team meeting was called the morning of the walkout. In a video of the meeting posted to Facebook, Darren Malhame, his hands behind his back, addressed the Short North staff: “Our action was not thought out clearly,” he said, in reference to the company’s decision to suspend the discount. “And there are many people on all sides of this who are really, really scared right now for their lives, for their families.” Then, an employee cut him off. “I was the one that was threatened on your patio, and you did nothing to protect me,” she said, her voice starting to crack. “I’m done, I’m leaving.” She then walked out of the restaurant, her colleagues following her.

About 15 percent of the company’s 576 team members walked out that day, according to Kevin Malhame, including staffers at Third & Hollywood, Northstar Westerville and Northstar Liberty Center.

White, who is active in the Black Lives Matter movement, decided to lead a walkout of about 15 employees at Liberty Center in solidarity with Columbus staffers and the Short North employee who had felt threatened. “I personally could feel the emotion behind what she was saying [in the video],” White says. “As a fellow Black woman, I felt her pain. Because I’ve been in situations like that. Not at Northstar ever, but in other situations … where I felt uncomfortable because of my race.”

The staffers who walked out were praised on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit by some who claimed to be former employees of Northstar, Brassica or Third & Hollywood and derided by other commenters who wished them “good riddance.” Praise from former staffers was also accompanied by criticism that the company was placing profits over its staff, and this was just the tipping point.

Briana Gunter, a Black employee who worked at Northstar’s Easton location and was laid off in March, says she felt supported at the individual level while working there and had a good rapport with one of the partners, who is white. “He and I would have discussions about racial things, and we could be open. I felt understood,” she says. But the company’s show of support for Black employees was slow and lacking during the protests, she says, especially when compared to its outward response relating to the pandemic.

“For you to project this image to the community that you’re all community-based and team-based—but which community?” Gunter asks. “I’m part of that community. I’m Black, and you can’t even stand up for me with a hard stance and say that we’ll protect you as an employee, we care about you? Which community are you for?”

A similar sentiment was shared by Tiffany Ima, a former Third & Hollywood team member who posted a video on Instagram TV in response to the walkouts. “I know that they’re not intentionally just sitting around plotting to come across as racist,” Ima said in the video, referring to Organic Trails’ upper management. “I know that they actually care, but my thing is: I think they, in general, are putting more of a focus on the community and the guests versus listening to the employees.”

***

The week following the staff walkouts, on June 11, the Malhame brothers sent an internal memo to employees outlining steps the organization pledged to take in addressing its “urgent needs.” They included listening, learning, supporting, investing and communicating.

“We want to be really great as a company at responding to difficult situations,” Kevin Malhame tells Columbus Monthly. “We can do better taking care of people of color in our organization. We can do better training our leadership and management team, and doing those things is going to help us be a healthier, more vibrant company and community.”

Malhame says the company had invested nearly 100 hours in “listening sessions” at its restaurants during June. In addition, he says the restaurant group needs to improve training across the board.

“We are moving swiftly down that path,” he says. “We’re going to have everyone on our leadership team go through unconscious bias training, training related to diversity and inclusion, and anti-harassment training that’s specifically oriented around racism.”

When asked about the Short North patio incident on May 30, Malhame acknowledges the company failed the employee. “I want to highlight that we failed to prepare for that moment. We, as a company, our training around that kind of harassment and that kind of situation wasn’t adequate,” he says.

“What I’ve shared with Darren and Kevin, specifically, is my fear that this is going to be a momentary thing, and it’s going to be fleeting,” White says. “I have been with this company for a few years, and I’ve grown to love them. My mother passed away a couple of years ago, and they were super supportive of me and my father. … That’s part of the reason why I want to stay here and do what I can from the inside and make sure that these steps are being taken. So that other women of color who come into the space looking for a job that’s going to be fulfilling and accepting and supportive, that they have that.”