A former Gramercy Tavern server has filed a discrimination complaint against restaurateur Danny Meyer’s fine dining jewel — claiming that the restaurant mishandled a number of racist incidents, including managers asking her to keep quiet when another employee called her a “black bitch.”
Naomi Alexis, who’s worked in the industry for the past 15 years, landed a coveted server position at the respected restaurant in August 2018. She says she was excited to work for a company that appeared to prioritize life-work balance as well as career growth for its employees. But after just six months, she felt compelled to quit and file a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which will now investigate her claims, then help settle the case or send it to trial. Alexis resigned this past February; she claims that managers created a “hostile work environment” by allowing diners and other staffers to discriminate against her based on her race and gender, including that racial slur and another instance in which managers mocked her braided hair, according to the complaint.
The former employee tells Eater that she felt something was off from the start. When she walked into the restaurant for an observation trail, sort of like a work audition for restaurants, a host immediately assumed she was there for a kitchen position, she alleges.
“It was clear why the person was so confused that I was there for a front-of-house shift,” Alexis says. “There weren’t many people of color in the front of house.”
Parent company Union Square Hospitality Group has declined to comment. It’s the second discrimination-based complaint to hit Gramercy Tavern in the past month. In July, a former employee who identifies as gender nonspecific sued USHG for gender discrimination, claiming that managers threatened to fire them for not adhering to a male uniform.
Both incidents contrast with the reputation that USHG’s owner and founder has built over the past three decades. Meyer is best known in the industry as a champion of hospitality whose company was built upon an “employees first” mantra — his 20-plus restaurants are traditionally viewed as a safe haven in New York’s chaotic restaurant industry.
USHG is also one of the few high-profile restaurant companies to have made a public commitment to work on diversity issues: In 2017, Meyers created a Diversity Council “to keep diversity, equity, and inclusion top of mind,” with a goal for the company’s demographics to match NYC’s population by 2024. The company has a long way to go, especially within its salaried roles. Most USHG employees who earn a yearly salary, including restaurant managers, chefs, and office staff, are white, with only 11 percent being Hispanic and 3 percent black, according to a February 2018 demographics report obtained by Eater. By comparison, the city’s population is 29 percent Hispanic, 24 percent black, and 14 percent Asian, according to U.S. Census data.
Yet at Meyer’s upscale American restaurant Gramercy Tavern, Alexis and two other former employees claim that management does little to implement those progressive diversity ideals.
During her six-month tenure, Alexis claims that she received little to no support from managers when a racist diner refused to let her touch his silverware yet allowed her white co-worker to do so, according to her complaint.
She also details an incident where a staff member called her a “black bitch” in Spanish after she accidentally bumped into him; when she reported the racial slur to a manager and human resources, she was asked to keep the incident to herself, she alleges in the complaint. Her manager appeared more concerned about harming the longtime employee’s reputation than addressing the racist comment, her complaint claims.
“They handled it so poorly that at the end, it wasn’t even about this gentleman calling me a black bitch,” Alexis tells Eater. “When the GM [general manager] sat down with me, he said, ‘You can’t go around telling people this is happening.’”
Alexis was previously vocal about the lack of diversity at Gramercy Tavern with former general manager Scott Reinhardt, who left the restaurant in March after 22 years and is named in the complaint. Because of this, she claims she was invited to sit on the company’s diversity council, a group she says was charged with making suggestions that would improve Gramercy’s ability to recruit and retain people of color. But though staff are paid to participate in other employee development activities like wine tastings and round-table discussions, Alexis found that the restaurant wasn’t allowing staff to clock in during diversity meetings. According to an email obtained by Eater, Alexis told Meyer in January that not paying for the council’s “very important work” was wrong and undermined the company’s supposed commitment to diversity.
USHG began paying the council members shortly after, according to another email obtained by Eater.
“It was an insult and a waste of my time to ask me to participate in a diversity council that had absolutely no sense of urgency in addressing issues that were affecting me every day as a person of color working in that business,” Alexis says.
Alexis quit soon after that, following an incident in February in which two managers mocked her braided hair, with one asking what kind of “magic” she used to get it styled that way and another saying her hair would be discussed during their team meal, according to the complaint. She was so frustrated and upset that she quit that same day.
“Discomfort doesn’t even cover it,” she says. “Hair is an absolute proxy for race. I felt like the only black woman on the dining room floor; isolated, irritated, wary, anxious, and tired of being othered.”
Despite USHG’s sterling reputation, it’s not the first time the company is accused of mishandling employee complaints. Several staff members came forward last year alleging that the company tolerated and protected people who behaved inappropriately at North End Grill and Gramercy Tavern for years.
Other former staffers who identify as racial minorities at Gramercy Tavern also allege to Eater that the restaurant has fostered a culture of favoritism, where white managers mainly promote other white staffers while making it nearly impossible for people of color to advance. Former server Iris Matos, who worked at the restaurant from 2016 to 2019, tells Eater that she held onto the same position for nearly three years without a promotion, docked for things such as being two minutes late to a shift. Meanwhile, Matos claims she witnessed a white colleague get promoted after just five months. Another ex-staffer, who worked there from November 2017 to November 2018 and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution in the industry, similarly alleged that those who didn’t fit the restaurant’s preferred “homogeneous model” were going to be “labeled an issue” by upper management.
“There was an established kind of model that they wanted everyone to abide by,” she tells Eater. “It became abundantly clear that it was a racial issue.”
Though USHG has talked about the diversity council in the past, it’s not always touted as a resource for staffers. Neither Matos nor the other former employee were told about the council’s efforts.
“The diversity program was nonexistent,” the anonymous ex-staffer says. “There was never any talk about inclusivity, [or] promoting diversity in any way.”
For Alexis, filing a complaint with the human rights commission was about shining a light on her experience and the lack of diversity at USHG. While there’s a known pay and racial gap between front- and back-of-house staffers within the restaurant industry — white employees overwhelmingly fill the highest-paying jobs, according to a report by UC Berkeley — Meyer’s company has been one of the most vocal about changing that, at least here in NYC. Yet according to Alexis and Matos, these efforts are nonexistent behind Gramercy Tavern’s doors.