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Founders Brewing Owner Says He Was ‘Disheartened’ That Lawsuit Deposition Leaked to Press

Brewery co-founder Dave Engbers spoke with the Detroit Free Press about the controversy this week

Customers mill around a lit fire pit on the patio at Founders in Detroit.
Founders Brewing Company in Detroit.
Michelle and Chris Gerard
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

An owner of Founders Brewing Company gave the brewery’s first official interview to the Detroit Free Press on Friday following days controversy over a racial discrimination lawsuit. Co-founder Dave Engbers says Founders was disappointed that plaintiff and former employee Tracy Evans’ and his legal team leaked portions of a deposition given by Detroit taproom general manager Dominic Ryan. The deposition transcript, published on Monday by Metro Times, sparked a week of backlash against the Michigan beer brand.

Evans filed a lawsuit against his former employer last fall, alleging a pervasive culture of racism at the Grand Rapids-based brewery. Evans claims that he was passed over for promotions, despite having greater seniority and a better record of conduct than two Caucasian employees who were ultimately hired. The filing alleges that in 2018, Founders terminated for filing a complaint with human resources about a racial slur used by an employee. Attorneys for Founders maintain that Evans was fired not because of his race, but because of poor job performance.

In the leaked transcript, Ryan — who fired Evans — appears to actively avoid identifying Evans is black or African American. At one point, Ryan states that Evans skin is “darker.” When Evans’ attorney Jack Schulz asks whether Ryan knows if president Barack Obama, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, or basketball player Michael Jordan are black, Ryan responds to each question by stating he’s “never met” them.

Engbers says he believes that the transcript was released to “escalate” the lawsuit and maintains that his legal team has strong evidence to fight Evans’ claims in court. He also says that Ryan’s statements in the deposition were the result of coaching by attorneys not to respond to Schulz’s questions “unless he was absolutely sure” of the answer. Per the Free Press:

Engbers said “we were disheartened” to see the deposition leak.

“We’re very confident in our case; it is well-documented,” he said. “They’re going to social media to see if they can escalate this. And it worked. ... It’s a hot topic right now. And it’s easy for people to read the headline and not read the article to see the substance behind it.

”We know Tracy Evans is African American. We’ve always known that. I think what we had was a kid who was deposed in hours and hours of deposition and was told not to answer anything unless he was absolutely sure.”

Engbers also blames the brewery’s response to the lawsuit and the leaked transcript on a PR firm that told management “not to say anything.”

The transcript stoked outrage on social media; however, Evans, speaking with Eater on Tuesday, said that it was important for people to see Ryan’s statements because they illustrate a larger conversation about race. “He just displayed what is part of the larger picture and that is the blind eye towards racism. The, ‘I don’t see color,’” he said. “How can you as a person, a company, a corporation, an individual — how can you understand and have sympathy or empathy for the things that minority people of color or women go through at your establishment, if you can’t even admit and can’t even acknowledge and know that these people are minorities?” Evans reflected more on the events this week on WDET’s Culture Shift on Friday afternoon.

Engber says that 18 percent of the employees at the brewery identify “non-Caucasian.” The brewery hired a director of diversity and inclusion Graci Harkema in January; however, Harkema confirmed on social media on Friday evening that she has resigned her post. A majority of employees have undergone sensitivity training, the Engber says. Founders still employs Dominic Ryan and the employee in the lawsuit who used the racial slur.

Founders withdrew from the Detroit Fall Beer Festival on Wednesday. The brewery announced on Friday morning that it was closing the Detroit taproom indefinitely and canceling its Canadian Breakfast Stout release party in Detroit out of concern for the safety of staff. Engbers tells the Free Press that there haven’t been any specific threats against Founders employees. He says the taproom will eventually reopen. Founders wrote in a separate statement today that employees at the taproom would be paid during the closure.

Employees at Founders are organizing a protest on Saturday at the corner of Cass and Charlotte, near Founders’ Detroit taproom. The goal of the demonstration is to “address discrimination against Minorities/LGBTQ+/Women in the workforce.”

Evans is currently in the process of establishing an organization called It’s Not Right to advocate for people who’ve been harassed or discriminated against in their workplace.

The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in October 2020.

Update, 7:03 p.m., October 25, 2019: This story has been updated to reflect that Founders diversity and inclusion director Graci Harkema resigned on Friday.

Founders Brewing Co-Owner, Fired Employee Speak on Racial Discrimination Case [Freep]
Fired Founders Employee Speaks: “Racism is Nothing New to People of Color” [WDET]
Founders Tells CBS Beer Release Ticket Holders It’s Closing the Detroit Taproom ‘Until Further Notice’ [ED]
Local Bars and Restaurants Remove Founders Beers From Menus in Response to Backlash [ED]
Founders Brewing Bails on Detroit Fall Beer Fest Amid Criticism Over Racial Discrimination Lawsuit [ED]
Founders Manager Claims in Discrimination Lawsuit Deposition He Didn’t Know Employee He Fired Was Black [ED]
Former Founders Brewing Co. Employee Files Lawsuit Alleging Racial Discrimination [ED]

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