Mission Chinese is being sued by four former employees for unpaid wages and for being “a hotbed of racial discrimination” — the staffers allege that black people were treated badly and that management retaliated against employees who spoke up about discriminatory behavior and poor working conditions.
The LES hotspot was “very, very often a toxic environment,” according to the former employees — “jarring” considering the restaurant’s reputation as a progressive, hip, and queer utopia.
“I purposely took [this job] because I was tired of working in hostile environments, with favoritism and verbal abuse,” Erin Lang, who worked as a server and captain from April 2016 to December 2017, told Eater. “This place was exactly that.”
The suit, filed Thursday by attorney Maimon Kirschenbaum, claims that management discriminated against black staff and ignored complaints about hostile behavior, such as a kitchen staffer burning the arm of a black employee with a spoon dipped into hot oil. The restaurant, along with chef-owner Danny Bowien and managers Jane Hem and Adrianna Varedi are named in the suit, which the former staffers aim to make class action.
Mission’s attorney Rob Ontell responded in a statement: “In nearly a decade of operations, Mission Chinese restaurants have continually invested in our staff and their training to ensure we provide a culture of acceptance and opportunity. It is disheartening and frustrating that any former staff person would choose to file a suit based on this unwarranted and inaccurate description of our business practices.”
Lang, a queer black woman, alleges that she was denied promotions and saw her shifts reduced because of racial discrimination, especially after Hem became an assistant general manager in October 2016. The suit claims that Hem often directed racially charged comments at Lang — saying that she wouldn’t want to be with Lang “in a dark alley,” mocking Lang by using “hip hop” slang, and suggesting that Lang’s dreadlocks looked like “Grinch’s fingers.” Hem also complained that Lang was too “aggressive” and didn’t smile enough, the suit alleges.
Lang also alleges that she worked as a captain in 2016 but was removed in March 2017 after Varedi claimed that the position was being eliminated — but by November 2017, Mission Chinese had hired a new captain who was not African-American.
When Lang confronted Hem about the racially discriminatory comments and the captain position, Hem “became irate,” the suit alleges. Hem, who is an Asian woman, “raised her sleeve and shouted at Plaintiff [Lang], ‘How dare you?! I am blacker than you!’” according to the suit. Hem later explained the comment was an attempt to “level” with Lang as an “Asian lesbian,” the suit claims. Lang quit the restaurant in December 2017.
The three other former staffers on the suit, who are not black, did not personally experience racial discrimination but claim that they witnessed it. They also allege that management turned a blind eye to bad behavior and retaliated against employees — including themselves — who complained.
In January 2017, Ilana Engelberg, who worked as a server from August 2015 to December 2017, went to then-director of operations Greg Wong with several complaints: Kitchen staffers referred to a Latino employee as a “wetbacks”; a chef said he couldn’t wait until all Latinos are deported after Donald Trump was elected; another chef called a black kitchen employee “a fucking idiot”; and staffers burned that same black kitchen employee with a hot spoon. Though Engelberg did not witness the spoon incident, she later saw the employee’s injury, she tells Eater. Wong “promised that the restaurant would look into and correct the situation,” but the employee who was burned was eventually fired, the suit alleges.
The four staffers in the suit — Lang, Engelberg, former server Bayley Blaisdell, and former food runner Zayn Shaikh — went to human resources together in late November 2017 to discuss issues at the restaurant, including discrimination and poor work shift practices, the suit and the staffers say.
Shortly afterward, the work environment worsened for all four employees, the suit alleges, with harassment and retaliation ranging from “kindergarten-like behavior to downright nasty behavior.” Another staffer witnessed Hem and Varedi saying that they would “turn up the screws” on the four for complaining, the suit says.
Engelberg alleges that although she had never previously been disciplined, she was written up after showing up late due to subway delays related to the Port Authority pipe bomb attack in mid-December. She was also reprimanded for “bogus” things like pouring a customer’s wine “slightly above the break,” the suit claims. Blaisdell, a former server, who also says that she had not previously been reprimanded, alleges that after the HR meeting, she was written up for drinking on the job although it was actually a pour to taste wine for a customer, “consistent with restaurant policy,” the suit says. She was later allegedly written up for plates that were not stacked correctly, the suit says.
By the end of December, Engelberg quit, and Blaisdell was suddenly terminated for “taking a tone with management,” the suit says. “Around all the stuff that happened with Erin, it kind of spun way out of control,” Engelberg tells Eater.
Shaikh, who worked at Mission as a food runner from July 2017 to January 2018, alleges that retaliation came in the form of withholding a promotion. Hem and Varedi had repeatedly said Shaikh would be able to move from a food runner position to a server position, which pays more, the suit alleges. But after Shaikh’s complaints, management hired other servers and did not promote Shaikh.
When Shaikh asked Hem if the lack of promotion had to do with the discrimination complaints, Hem denied it but then mentioned “how upset the accusations of race discrimination made her and attempted to influence Plaintiff Shaikh to defend her in any ensuing investigations,” the suit alleges. Shaikh quit in January of this year.
The suit also alleges the restaurant didn’t pay the full legal wage, saying that staffers were paid the tipped minimum even though they spent more than 20 percent of their shift doing work that didn’t earn gratuity. They also claim that the restaurant deducted half hour breaks from pay even though they were not allowed to take breaks more than a few minutes, according to the suit. They are asking for unspecified damages.
Shaikh, who uses gender neutral pronouns and is South Asian-American, says that Mission’s reputation of being a queer- and person of color-friendly restaurant felt like a capitalization on their identity rather than the reality of the work environment. For instance, although Varedi was made aware of Shaikh’s preferred pronoun (“they”), Varedi continuously referred to Shaikh as “she” or “girls,” the staffers say.
With shows like Mind of a Chef and a myriad of positive press, the restaurant and Bowien have been hailed as modern and liberal bastion in the restaurant world. It’s that image — built in part by former executive chef Angela Dimayuga, who left in October — that particularly perturbed the former staffers, they say. (Dimayuga, who is not named in the suit, declined to comment.)
Shaikh ended up feeling like their identity was being used. “I’ve come to understand that restaurants can treat people very poorly. The reason we’re coming for Mission is that they have this outward image,” Shaikh told Eater. “They benefit from this image and they benefit from the identities of their employees. I cannot let them make money off of me.”
Bowien is named in the suit because the staffers allege he was aware of the discriminatory and illegal wage behavior but did nothing. Although Lang now has a new job, she says that she’s still grappling with the way she was treated at Mission Chinese.
“That whole experience was humiliating for me. It was emotionally taxing,” she says. “I want people to know this is the kind of environment we worked in. They’re promoting one thing and doing another. It hurts.”