Pioneering tristate butcher shop Fleishers has temporarily closed all four of its locations after roughly three dozen employees orchestrated a walkout on July 23. The move came after Robert Rosania, the company’s leading investor, instructed Fleishers CEO John Adams to remove signs supporting the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA+ movements from storefronts in New York and Connecticut.
The incident that sparked the walkout occurred on July 22, when Rosania reportedly received a text message from a friend, claiming they were offended by a sign in support of the Black Lives Matter movement hanging in the Westport store’s window. Rosania, a real estate developer and billionaire wine collector, called Adams and instructed him to remove the signs, according to former workers with knowledge of the events.
Former employees say that Adams, the company’s newly minted chief executive and fifth CEO in five years, took a train from the company’s headquarters in New York to its butcher shop in Westport to remove the sign, along with a second sign that depicted a Black fist raised over a Pride flag. The following morning on July 23, Adams returned to New York City and removed signs from the butcher shop located in Park Slope.
In the hours after the incident, “the atmosphere was at a fever pitch,” says Ajani Thompson, the former manager of Fleishers in Park Slope. Thompson, who is Black, says that removing the signs “sent a message” to the company’s staff, approximately half of which identify as either LGBTQIA+ or BIPOC, according to former employees.
Thompson received a call from a store manager in Connecticut later that morning, who told him that workers at the Greenwich and Westport locations had banded to together to walk out. His staff in Park Slope agreed to follow suit, and workers on the Upper East Side walked out the same afternoon, forcing all four tristate butcheries to temporarily close.
Adams put the signs back up at the Westport and Park Slope stores within 24 hours, but former employees say it was too little too late. Following the walkout, at least 20 of the company’s roughly 40 workers resigned. The company is now struggling to hire back staff without an employee overseeing its human resources department — they resigned following the incident — amid a nationwide hiring shortage.
A sign posted to the front door of the company’s Park Slope outpost on August 2 states the butcher shop will be temporarily closed through August.
In an internal letter to Fleishers employees on August 2, Rosania apologized for removing the signs. “I realize removing the signs that express support for the basic human rights of our black [sic] and LGBTQ [sic] employees, and customers was not in that spirit of supporting your feelings, along with a longer-term lapse in communications as we’ve gone through growing pains,” he wrote.
Rosania vowed to use the experience “as an opportunity to rededicate Fleishers to being a place where everyone feels welcome and supported.” However, multiple former employees of the tristate butcher say this is the latest example in a pattern of behavior that has been ongoing for years.
Fleishers was founded by Joshua and Jessica Applestone, who started the company with a single butcher shop in Kingston, New York, in 2004. The New York Times characterized the couple as “young idols” and “rock star butchers” in an article from 2009, but behind the scenes, former employees say their company struggled to turn a profit.
The Applestones sold their stake in Fleishers in 2013, shortly after entering a partnership with Mile End Delicatessen to share a production facility in Red Hook. “When the founders exited, it was not a successfully running company,” according to Christophe Hille, a former Fleishers CFO who worked at the company from 2013 to 2016. “It was a company with a lot of problems.”
Rosania, a real estate developer who made headlines for suing WeWork last year, presented a solution to the tune of millions of dollars. He first invested in Fleishers in 2015, and has since sank between $17 to $20 million into the company, primarily through $1 to $2 million quarterly investments, according to a former Fleishers employee who worked closely with Rosania and requested anonymity because they work in the hospitality industry.
As Rosania’s involvement in the company increased, however, former employees say a “cultural divide” formed between those who oversaw Fleishers and those worked in its stores. “We all give a really big damn about one another here,” says one Fleishers employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they work in the hospitality industry. “For a lot of us, being under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, this was a place that we worked that felt safe for the first time in our professional careers. There’s a lot of trust.”
The company, which brands itself as a “neighborhood butcher” shop “making a positive difference” on its website, focused instead on recovering from debt amassed in its first decade of operations, former employees allege. In a statement to Eater, Rosania said, “I have reinvested my own capital into the company during the pandemic to return our stores to being cash flow positive, which they now are.” Fleishers has an estimated revenue of between $5 and $10 million, according to Forbes, but the business is not profitable.
In Westport, former assistant manager Christopher Edmunds estimates the butcher shop went from losing around $5,000 per week when he joined the company in August 2018 to being cash-flow-positive when he resigned last month. Getting there, however, may have come at a cost to store employees, who say vendor and staff relationships suffered.
Former employees say that longstanding business relationships had started to fray in recent years due to vendor orders going unpaid. At the Park Slope butcher shop, Thompson says he received calls from vendors inquiring about unpaid orders at other locations of Fleishers. The company took out debt to cover vendor orders during the pandemic, Forbes reports.
Others cited cost saving measures taken by the company, including staffing cuts and wages that employees say undervalued their labor. In Park Slope, Thompson says most of the butcher shop’s employees were paid between $15 and $20 per hour, while he made $22 per hour as a store manager. “It wasn’t illegal, but it wasn’t a good amount of money,” especially for positions in the meat industry, which are often considered skilled labor, he says.
Following the wave of resignations in recent weeks, Fleishers employees remaining at the company were reportedly offered a two dollar hourly raise to continue working in its stores when they reopen next month, according to Edmunds. The former assistant manager, for the record, will not be one of them.
“You can’t treat employees this poorly and disrespect their whole identities as people and expect them to rally around a company that doesn’t care about them,” he says.