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Celebrity Chefs Flocked to This Food Nonprofit. But Employees Allege It Was Plagued by Inappropriate Behavior and Mismanagement.

Rethink founder and CEO Matt Jozwiak wanted to solve food insecurity — and invite restaurants into the equation. As the nonprofit grew, workers have accused the founder of mismanagement and making unwanted advances toward former staffers

Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

Matt Jozwiak was going to solve hunger in America. Or at least that’s what the charismatic, 30-something former chef and founder of Rethink Food told a roomful of costumed partygoers at Brooklyn queer nightlife hotspot House of Yes one night in April 2019. According to Jozwiak, an alum of Eleven Madison Park, the answer to food insecurity, which affects nearly 14 million American households, was simple: Every restaurant produces leftover food that can be transformed into meals for those in need. Someone just needed to figure out the logistics — someone like him.

Within a year, Jozwiak went from making that case onstage at House of Yes to evangelizing Rethink in the pages of the New York Times. In March 2020, the nonprofit began handing out $40,000 grants for restaurants to turn their kitchens, emptied by the pandemic, into Rethink production lines, and start cranking out meals. Restaurants loved being associated with the nonprofit, which offered both cash and the ability to do a good deed while the world was falling apart. Eleven Madison Park publicly credits Rethink with altering its entire business model, with the now-vegan three-Michelin-starred restaurant donating five meals to food-insecure New Yorkers for each $365 meal served in its dining room and running a food truck in partnership with Rethink that distributed 2,000 meals per week across the city in December 2021. Donors poured tens of millions of dollars into Rethink in 2020 alone, and corporations and bold-faced industry names from across the country eagerly lined up to support Rethink, including juggernauts like American Express and Brookfield Properties, and nationally recognized chefs like Nashville’s Sean Brock and San Francisco’s Dominique Crenn.

But many of the 19 former staffers who spoke with Eater say that they were disappointed to find that Rethink’s workplace culture didn’t match the nonprofit’s conscientious public appearance. Early former staffers allege that Jozwiak lost his temper around staff, discussed his sex life with employees, made unwanted advances toward two individuals, and paid one of those people to snag dates for him on Bumble. As Rethink morphed from a scrappy startup pulling in $1 to $2 million per year from 2017 to 2019 to a $38-million-dollar company in the first year of the pandemic, it also appeared to become a revolving door.

Rethink, which hired nationally recognized defamation law firm Clare Locke while this story was being reported and answered all questions through a spokesperson, denies the allegations against Jozwiak. Most of the five employees provided by Rethink for interview — including the nonprofit’s now-former head of HR and chief development officer, as well as its current chief financial officer — praised Jozwiak’s leadership of the organization. According to the company, Jozwiak doesn’t yell at staffers and never talked about his sex life with employees or made unwanted advances toward staffers.

“These false allegations have been fabricated by the co-founder of a competing for-profit company in an attempt to advance their own financial interests through discrediting our nonprofit work,” a spokesperson for Rethink stated in an email. “This zero-sum approach stands in stark contrast to how Rethink and many other nonprofit organizations work collaboratively to create a more sustainable and equitable food system.”

Many of the 19 former employees interviewed for this story — nearly all of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from Rethink and some of whom wanted to protect their employment status elsewhere in the industry — expressed a strong distinction between their opinion of Rethink’s stated mission, which they support, and their personal experience with working there. “Rethink doesn’t need to be shut down,” one employee said. “It just needs a dramatic change in leadership.”

Emma* started at Rethink as a volunteer. With no previous experience in food rescue but with a desire to break into the space, she cold-emailed Jozwiak after reading about Rethink in a Civil Eats article published in early 2018; she was drawn in by his intensity, and by the chance to be a key player at an early-stage startup addressing both food waste and food insecurity. From the moment she joined, she says, Jozwiak made her feel that he could see her potential when no one else could — she felt that they were actually going to make an impact on food waste and hunger in New York and beyond.

Jozwiak prided himself on building close personal relationships with his new employees and making them feel like they were just as intrinsic to Rethink’s success as he was, Emma says. She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. “We bonded over being really smart and scrappy,” recalled Lucy*, another former office employee.

In some ways, staffers likened Jozwiak’s leadership to a chef running a restaurant kitchen. There was never an off switch: Jozwiak, who was also working as a private chef in the company’s early days, would call and text staffers about Rethink late at night and over the weekend, and in his intensity, would openly berate colleagues in the office when a task was not completed properly, multiple employees say.

According to Rethink, the nonprofit expected managers to be “reachable” to support an overnight trucking route to collect food from restaurant kitchens after they closed for the night. That route was eliminated in 2019. The company denied that Jozwiak has ever yelled at employees. “We have always been committed to creating a workplace where employees feel safe and respected,” a Rethink spokesperson says. “Members of Rethink Food’s leadership team have all completed management training to ensure feedback is delivered in a constructive manner.”

A green illustrated depiction of a brick-walled kitchen with scattered items on the counter.

In day-to-day interactions during Rethink’s early start-up years, Jozwiak appeared to draw few boundaries between his professional and personal life. Lucy and Emma each allege that he complained to them about relationship issues with his girlfriend (and later fiancee), who attended some Rethink events and helped with early fundraising efforts. The blurred lines made it feel like they were equals instead of boss and staffer, according to Lucy. Jozwiak appeared to imply that “my success is your success,” Lucy says. “He would link us together like I was this special mentee.”

In July 2018, shortly after Rethink hit a milestone 10,000 meals served in NYC, Jozwiak organized a weekend house party with restaurant industry friends at Rethink donor (and board chair as of October 2018) Julian Baker’s guest house for staff in the Hamptons. Lucy says that Jozwiak invited her to join him for the two-night weekend getaway, and she accepted; another Rethink team member was also present at the house, although did not attend the party. A Rethink Food spokesperson says Baker was not aware of the event, and that the event was not affiliated with Rethink; Baker could not be reached by Eater for comment. “This event took place prior to when Rethink Food had gotten off the ground or become operational,” the spokesperson says. “Of the 30 to 40 people present, only two had ties to the organization. This was not a Rethink Food event — it was a casual gathering in the Hamptons that was not affiliated with the organization.”

On the second night, Lucy says that Jozwiak gushed about her to other partygoers, praising her in ways that she worried made it seem that they were more than work colleagues. Later on that night, when she was sitting alone with him as the party was winding down, he allegedly told her, “You know, I was going to come into your room last night,” which made her feel deeply uncomfortable. Lucy says that in the moment, she laughed and played off Jozwiak’s comment to diffuse the situation. “What if he gets angry and snaps?”

When Lucy got back to the city, she decided not to report Jozwiak to anyone at the company. She knew that she would have to rely on him for future recommendations — Rethink was her first nonprofit job out of college and Jozwiak was the only boss that she had ever had in the nonprofit world. “I was so obsessed with not being the victim,” she says. “I thought, ‘Even if he is attracted to me, I’m just going to ignore that and work hard and it’s going to be okay.’”

Rethink denies that Jozwiak ever said anything sexually suggestive to her over the course of that weekend. According to Rethink, Lucy had submitted her resignation to Rethink prior to the Hamptons party, and she had asked to attend the event. “However, as Matt has grown as a leader, he now recognizes it was inappropriate for him to bring a former colleague to a personal social event,” a spokesperson says.

The spokesperson also says that the company “gives team members credit for their work, so it would not be unusual for a former employee to be praised for their contributions to the organization.”

Though Lucy left her gig at Rethink that summer, she ended up returning in the fall on a freelance basis, thinking that the arrangement would allow her to keep more distance from Jozwiak. But, she says, he resumed blurring the boundaries between the personal and professional. Lucy alleges that he asked her to run a Bumble account for him during a period when he and his fiancee — to whom he’d become engaged that September — were fighting. He paid her $50 over Venmo in January for setting up one date under the label “services rendered,” according to multiple employees with knowledge of the incident, and the Venmo receipt, which Eater has reviewed. Jozwiak ended the arrangement after one date because he felt guilty, according to Lucy.

Rethink acknowledges that the interaction occurred but says that Lucy first suggested the idea, and was not an employee at the time, although she was hired for occasional freelance projects. Jozwiak personally paid her for one week to run the account, according to a spokesperson for Rethink.

Around the same time that Jozwiak paid Lucy to run his Bumble account, Emma alleges he also made sexually inappropriate remarks to her at a Rethink event. In December 2018, Rethink hosted a dinner at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village, and Emma alleges that in a cab ride prior to the event, Jozwiak started complaining about how his fiancee appeared to have been cheating on him. He then bragged about his own sex life, saying that he had sex “with all of these women” and “cheated on [his fiancee] so many times,” Emma alleges.

Jozwiak acknowledges that he shared details about his relationship with his fiancee with Emma during this time, although he doesn’t recall the conversation happening in a cab, and the company denies Jozwiak ever talked about his sex life with employees.

After arriving at the event, which Jozwiak’s fiancee also attended, he continued to stand close to Emma and focus his attention on her, she says. During the dinner, Emma was seated in between Jozwiak’s fiancee and Jozwiak, who she says became “clearly drunk.” When Jozwiak got up to deliver a speech about Rethink’s growth and accomplishments, Emma alleges that he stared at her the whole time. Returning to his seat after the speech, she claims that he hugged her, nuzzled his face in her neck, and said, “it was all for you. Everything was for you.”

“The physical closeness of that — it felt like I was being used to make [the fiancee] jealous,” Emma says. “Matt was not only being physically inappropriate with me but insinuating that there was something between us or something from me that he wanted.”

Emma says she left the event feeling disgusted but didn’t talk about it with anyone at the company. At the time, even though Rethink had moved to weekly operations in the fall and ramped up its monthly meal output, there was no dedicated HR representative at the company.

Rethink denies that Jozwiak drank excessively at the event, directed his attention towards the employee, or said those comments to her. “[Matt] did not intend to focus his attention on this individual and apologizes if she was made to feel uncomfortable,” a spokesperson says. “No complaint was ever made regarding this alleged incident and Matt was unaware she felt that way.”

Furthermore, the spokesperson says that the nonprofit “was built through the hard work of the entire team of employees, volunteers and community partners, and Matt would never assign the organization’s success to one person.”

Emma continued to work at Rethink until shortly after the nonprofit’s House of Yes event the following spring, in April 2019. Jozwiak showed up to the event around 10:30 p.m., in a wrinkled T-shirt, late from his day job as a private chef. He had already missed his scheduled speech, but, to the embarrassment of multiple employees, he hopped up onstage, grabbed the microphone, and launched into an expletive-laced tirade against food insecurity and how Rethink could solve it all, according to multiple employee accounts and a video recording of the speech, which Eater has viewed. “There are really troubling issues where we’re throwing away 40 percent of our food but one in six are going hungry,” he spat into the microphone. “How fucking unbelievable [sic] fucked up is that?”

Afterwards, Emma says that Jozwiak found her and started talking about how the company was about to enter its next phase and how the team — specifically, she and Jozwiak — were going to have to start working harder, together. She alleges that he kept repeating that “things are about to get really weird between us,” and that the two of them were going to have to “become closer than we ever have before.” Jozwiak also told her that her partner at the time, who was present at the event, wasn’t good enough for her, and that she could do better, she alleges. As he was talking, he grabbed her and held her closely, she alleges, and kissed her on the cheeks multiple times.

As Jozwiak touched and kissed her, Emma froze. “The boss — the person who claims all responsibility for your success — holding you, saying all those things, kissing your face,” she said. “It was extremely unwanted but I didn’t know how to react.”

Jozwiak acknowledges that he had a conversation with Emma at the event, although he says that it was actually about how the House of Yes event hadn’t pulled in the expected amount of donations. He touched her to console her as she started to get upset, he says, although he denies kissing her. A secondary source provided by Rethink says that he saw Emma and Jozwiak exchange words at the event and that he himself left the event with Jozwiak, but he said he could not confirm or deny the employee’s allegations.

Unlike after the James Beard House incident, Emma had some measure of recourse this time: Rethink, which grew to 26 employees in 2019, had recently hired an HR consultant, Hannah Kramer. Emma documented the incident with Kramer the next day in an email exchange that Eater has reviewed. Out of fear of retaliation — and knowing that she still would likely need to rely on Jozwiak to provide future job references — Emma told Kramer that although she wanted to log the incident, she didn’t want the company to take any action against him. “Thank you for thoroughly documenting this incident,” Kramer wrote back in an email agreeing to her request. “I am so sorry that this happened. The record is noted and I am available if you end up needing anything further.”

Emma also notified two of Rethink’s female executives of what had happened, and then quit the nonprofit a few weeks later. Later that year, she found work outside of the food nonprofit space and moved out of NYC. Lucy left the company in 2020 and has since retained a lawyer. She declined to speak further for this story after gaining legal representation.

“I felt like I was pushed into a position where I had to decide what was more important, my career or my health,” Emma says of her time at Rethink. “A year of working with Matt really altered my understanding of what it means to be in a safe working environment.”

Following Emma’s complaint, a Rethink board member “looked into the matter, investigated, and spoke to the individual,” Rethink’s board said in a statement to Eater. “The individual made clear that she did not want any further action taken.” As of 2022, Kramer no longer works for Rethink.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit’s public stature continued to rise, but employees who worked at Rethink in 2020 and 2021 also allege the workplace was mismanaged and rife with leadership issues.

Up until 2020, Rethink had been a tiny but steadily growing startup. According to past tax filings, the nonprofit drew in $78,118 in total revenue in its beginning months in 2017 (largely due to billionaire hedge funder Baker, who had hired Jozwiak as a private chef and subsequently became Rethink’s main financial backer in its pre-pandemic days). That figure increased to $1,486,454 in 2018 (including a $1 million donation from Baker), and dipped slightly to $1,209,084 in 2019 (nearly 50 percent of which came from Baker).

In 2020, Rethink shattered those previous financial records. It pulled in nearly $38 million in total revenue in 2020, a year-over-year increase of more than 3,000 percent. (The financial boon that year was not unique to Rethink — other local outfits, including City Harvest and Food Bank For New York City, reported large jumps in donations as 1.5 million New Yorkers experienced food insecurity during the pandemic.)

As money was pouring into Rethink, the company moved swiftly to scale up its workforce to handle the explosive growth. Its ranks tripled over five months in 2020, according to Rethink. The organization hired its first executive management team — a chief financial officer, chief operating officer, and chief development officer — to round out the C-suite in the same period.

Among the rank-and-file, the newcomers brought in years’ worth of accomplishments from well-established nonprofits like Boy Scouts of America, YMCA, and NYC’s Urban Justice Center. But at Rethink, they were entering a startup environment that was struggling to manage its growing pains. Multiple former staff members alleged they were not issued laptops for work, not told about equitable paths to promotions and raises, and not instructed how to resolve conflicts among their teams and with executive leadership.

At the end of 2020, Rethink’s staff collated a wide-ranging list of employee concerns and put them together in a November memo delivered — “Please don’t kill the messenger!” the sender wrote — to the senior leadership team. “There is a lot of truth in the adage that ‘People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses,’” the memo, which has been obtained by Eater, read. “Employees tend to stay at jobs where they are valued, financially and otherwise, treated well, and where they can trust the leadership.”

An image of a green tomato on a circular reddish pink background

The memo contained over 30 bullet-pointed staff complaints and questions surrounding communication, compensation, retention, and equity issues at the organization. The complaints ranged from blunt observations — “[T]here are pay discrepancies throughout the organization, even between levels in the same department. Why?” — to straightforward requests for the company’s leadership to provide concrete examples of how they were addressing inequity at the organization.

Jozwiak and the executive leadership team formed an internal Employee Relations Committee in an effort to better field and engage with staff concerns. Rethink also hired an external HR consultant to support the department and provide diversity and equity training within the company, worked with two compensation consultants, and created “multiple avenues for employees to express concerns or report issues with management, including anonymously and outside the normal HR structure,” according to a spokesperson. But the measures seemed like window dressing and didn’t lead to concrete changes, according to staffers. “The change needed is so much bigger than one Zoom call with a diversity expert or an HR training,” one former employee, who requested to remain anonymous to protect their current employment, said.

The company’s attempts at transparency were further undercut by unexpected staff departures that left workers reeling. In February 2021, two trucking staffers were told that Rethink had acquired new insurance that no longer covered them as drivers. They were offered eight weeks of severance. It was a “heartbreaking” end after driving for the company throughout the pandemic, one of the former staffers, Darius Johnson, says.

“We value each member of our team and we were disappointed to have to lose these staff members when we performed our annual insurance policy review, which is why we made sure to offer the most generous severance packages we could,” a Rethink spokesperson said.

In the same month, two high-ranking office employees were fired, purportedly due to breaches of confidentiality. One employee had allegedly forwarded a confidential email to her personal email account, while the other had allegedly downloaded a confidential document onto her personal computer (that she was required to use for work).

The alleged reasons for the firings — breaches of confidentiality involving use of personal technology, which Rethink required them to use — seemed so baseless that staffers speculated that the executive leadership was instead targeting employees who had fallen out of favor and cutting them loose under vague pretenses.

“An audit uncovered serious violations of Rethink Food’s confidentiality policy, which led to the termination of these individuals,” a Rethink spokesperson says. “Rethink Food’s policies are enforced uniformly across all employees and there is no favoritism involved.”

Outside of the office, employees in other Rethink departments similarly felt unsupported by management. In October 2021, an employee at the Rethink Cafe — a Clinton Hill restaurant with a donation-based price model to accommodate food-insecure customers — quit after a customer, who had a history of aggressive behavior towards cafe workers that multiple staffers say wasn’t properly addressed by Rethink management, dumped human feces on an outdoor dining table. The Rethink Cafe has since shut down.

Rethink confirmed that the incident occurred, but said that they took action to improve employee safety measures afterwards. “In addition to ensuring this client had access to mental health services, we increased security at the cafe and eliminated night hours following the incident,” according to a spokesperson. “Ultimately, we transitioned the cafe to a community partner in the neighborhood with more direct-service experience.”

Amid the upheaval, retention rates at the company plummeted. Of the 39 team members listed on Rethink’s website in December 2020, 24 of those people have since left the company as of June 2022. Rethink co-founder Winston Chiu left the company in late 2020 and now runs a for-profit company in NYC, alongside several other former Rethink staffers, that also works to address issues in the food system. Chiu did not provide a response to a request for comment for this story.

Rethink disputes this characterization of its retention rates. “It is not accurate to calculate turnover based off Rethink Food’s website as this may include independent contractors, as well as temporary employees and volunteers who joined the organization for disaster-relief purposes during the pandemic,” a spokesperson says. “As reported by our former HR consultant, turnover has never been an issue at Rethink Food.”

Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, the profile of Rethink and its founder continue to rise. Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm — who also recently came under fire for allegedly running a “shit show” of a workplace rife with long hours, low pay, and plenty of food waste — scaled up his role in 2020 from board member to co-founder of Rethink. In 2019, Jozwiak was named to Business Insider’s inaugural list of the 100 coolest people in the food and drink industries. In 2021, he was honored with a spot on global restaurant awards machine World’s 50 Best’s first-ever list of 50 Next, a group of individuals “shaping the future of gastronomy.” He was also named to the Crain’s New York Business 40 Under 40 list celebrating business leaders in the city. Taqueria chain Tacombi partnered with Rethink in 2021 to support food donation efforts at its stores in NYC, and has since expanded the partnership to Miami and the greater Washington, D.C. area. Real estate giant Brookfield Properties has committed to directing all of the restaurants in its flashy new Manhattan West property — including acclaimed hot spots Ci Siamo and Zou Zou’s — to either donate excess food, prepare meals, or fundraise for the nonprofit.

Watching Rethink and Jozwiak’s growth is a conflicting experience for former employees who still support the nonprofit’s mission while allegedly having witnessed and been subjected to mismanagement and mistreatment at the company. “[Jozwiak] brings in the money,” one former executive says. “As long as you have that ability, you’re untouchable.”

*Name has been changed

Fact-checked by Kelsey Lannin

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