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Union Square Hospitality Is Overhauling Its Diversity Program After Widespread Staff Complaints

In one case, over 200 employees signed a letter pushing the company to make changes

Restaurateur Danny Meyer attends Tribeca Talks: ‘David Rockwell: How Does a Space Tell A Story’ during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studio on April 20, 2015 in New York City.
Union Square Hospitality CEO Danny Meyer
Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

As daily protests and rallies against police brutality and systemic racism shake the city, leading NYC restaurant group Union Square Hospitality has been reckoning with its own history of racism and inequality within its restaurants.

More than 200 current and former staffers pressed USHG leadership in internal emails and a group letter to show public support for the Black Lives Matter movement and to take action to address the systemic racism that runs through its own company, the company confirmed to Eater. The employee-led action drove CEO and famed hospitality figure Danny Meyer to announce several steps that USHG was taking to publicly address racism and structural inequality within the company.

According to Meyer, the company will be dismantling its current diversity and inclusion programming to rebuild a new program from the ground up, a move made after multiple staffers asserted that the restaurant group’s existing structure wasn’t working. USHG has hired an external diversity and inclusion advisor to guide the company on bias training moving forward, and it will be donating all revenue from the first week of reopening at each restaurant to racial justice nonprofits, among other steps.

The restaurant group, known for standbys like Union Square Cafe and fine dining destinations like Gramercy Tavern, has long been considered a leader in hospitality, and Meyer has made his career on an “employees first” mantra.

Staffers were disappointed to find the company slow to respond in a critical moment where a show of support, particularly for the company’s BIPOC staffers, was most expected. USHG — which caters to a wealthy, largely white customer base in Midtown and lower Manhattan — has a history of failing to appropriately address racism in its restaurants, staffers say. Multiple black employees brought up examples of racist interactions with both staff and customers in a recent company-wide call, such as a situation where the company reported a young Hispanic employee to the police for stealing money — but quietly let go a white staffer who faced the same allegations. Last August, a Gramercy Tavern staffer also went public with allegations of a racist work environment at the restaurant.

“With grateful acknowledgement for the contributions of those team members who have brought their passion to our Diversity and Inclusion Council and other efforts, it’s nonetheless clear that what we have done to date has not produced impactful changes to our culture,” Meyer wrote in a company email, a version of which was then converted into a public statement. The new programming will focus on better promoting diversity in “recruiting, hiring, training, sponsorship, career advancement, and compensation,” Meyer states.

The company will also create and maintain goals for working with a more diverse group of suppliers at the restaurants, according to the email.

USHG formed a diversity group in 2017 with the goal of having the company’s employee demographics match NYC’s population by 2024. In 2018, a diversity report obtained by Eater showed that 70 percent of the company’s salaried employees were white, 11 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 10 percent were Asian, and 3 percent were black or African American. Across all employees at the company, including hourly staffers, 44 percent were white, 30 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 15 percent were black or African American, and 8 percent were Asian.

In the days leading up to the announcements, many former employees raised concerns internally with company leadership and offered suggestions as to how the company could take action in the midst of a broader national movement highlighting racial inequalities in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis.

For days, their concerns were met largely with silence or vague statements of acknowledgement according to multiple staffers who spoke with Eater. They expressed frustration that USHG, usually eager to set the tone for the industry, was seemingly taking a back seat on conversations about race and racism.

Former staff first received an email from Meyer addressing the national events on June 2, five days after protesting began in New York and two days after a nightly curfew had been announced. In the email, which is posted on Union Square Hospitality’s company site, Meyer said that he’s “been pessimistic” to how the company can enact positive changes for society in the face of so much pain and “felt frozen” when trying to write the letter over the past days, before going on to state that he’s listening to concerns and the company was conducting “constructive dialogues” about next steps.

On the same day, each USHG restaurant posted a black square on Instagram — as part of a wider, controversial #blackouttuesday social media campaign — with identical messages stating that the company stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter organization and would use its platforms “to be a voice in this critical dialogue.” It was the first time that the company had made any public reference to the protests and national unrest.

Many former employees felt that the initial response was tepid and voiced their concerns with management. In one case, over 200 staffers from 14 of USHG’s restaurants in the city, including Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Manhatta, and the Modern, signed an employee-written letter to Meyer asking for more action.

In the letter, which has been reviewed by Eater, the employees — the vast majority of whom have been laid off since mid-March — were disappointed with the boilerplate, copy-and-paste message across all of the restaurants’ Instagram accounts. Meyer’s initial email, too, was lacking in substantive words when action was desperately needed, they wrote.

The letter went on to lay out steps that the company could take, including providing personal protective equipment, water, and food to protesters who were often passing by one of USHG’s most prominent restaurants, Union Square Cafe, in lower Manhattan. The employees called for the company to host an auction to benefit Black Lives Matter — similar to high-profile auctions, like a weekend in Copenhagen with the world-renowned Noma team, that have already been held to fundraise for former restaurant staff during COVID-19 — and for the restaurants to define menu items where proceeds would benefit racial justice organizations. They also suggested using the company’s social media platforms to highlight black chefs and restaurateurs who are still operating amid the pandemic while most of USHG’s restaurants remain closed.

A day after the former staffers delivered the letter, the company hosted one of its regular “Chat With Chip” meetings for the entire staff, referring to USHG president Chip Wade. Meyer opened the meeting by playing a video about privilege that Kim Kardashian West had posted on Twitter, and he acknowledged that he’d “made a mistake” in waiting to address employee concerns.

“I need each one of you to understand that I need your help because I will make mistakes,” Meyer said. “I don’t want to be frozen, worried about saying something the wrong way, when it is action that we need right now.”

BIPOC staffers then spoke about racism that they’ve experienced in their own lives and at the restaurants. Black staffers talked about customers and fellow staff members alike overlooking them and making demeaning comments, including asking to touch their hair and making snide remarks about affirmative action. A former manager recalled the situation about staffers allegedly stealing money from the restaurants. Not only was the white employee only let go and not reported to the police, but the company offered help after learning that the employee had a drug addiction.

In an email statement to Eater, Meyer acknowledged that the many USHG staffers speaking out “played a crucial role in holding us accountable for facing up to the gap between good intent and inadequate action.” He added that the company “invited robust conversation” and was “keenly aware” that USHG needed to take the lead and outline subsequent action.

The past week’s events aren’t the first time that the company has been made aware of racist incidents occurring within its restaurants. Last year, a former Gramercy Tavern server alleged that the restaurant fostered a racist work environment, including an instance where another employee called her a “black bitch” and managers mocked her hair, in a complaint filed with the New York City Commission on Human Rights last year.

After Meyer sent out the email laying out company plans to address racial inequality, three former staffers who were involved with sending the employee-led letter say that they were relieved to see the company take steps toward concrete action. While the actions have yet to bear out, the former staffers, who are white, were encouraged to hear some direction, although they acknowledged that it wasn’t for them to decide what actions would be appropriate enough to address racism at the company.

Meyer acknowledged that the initial actions laid out, including rebuilding USHG’s diversity and inclusion group, would be just the beginning of the restaurant group’s work on the topic.

“We know that confronting systemic racism requires far more than a pledge, writing a check, or issuing a statement,” Meyer wrote. “This is a start, and with daily action, understanding, and love, we will make sustained progress together.”