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Founders Employees Gather in Cass Corridor to Meet With Community Amid Lawsuit Controversy

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The brewery’s diversity and inclusion director resigned Friday over the handling of the lawsuit

A diverse group of staff in sweatshirts and hats gathers near the Founders Detroit taproom in Cass Corridor for a peaceful gathering. Brenna Houck
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.

Employees from Founders Brewing Company’s Detroit taproom gathered in Cass Corridor over the weekend to meet with the community, following a week of intense backlash over a racial discrimination lawsuit against the brewery filed by a former employee Tracy Evans. Founders closed the Detroit taproom indefinitely on Friday morning “out of concern for our employees’ safety,” but pledged to continue paying staff during the duration of the closure — including those who planned to demonstrate on Saturday.

Around 15 front-of-house and back-of-house employees, as well as two brewers and a handful of supporters stood down the block from the Detroit location on October 26 for what they characterized as a “peaceful gathering.” The group handed out prepared statements printed on slips of paper. Participants said the gathering was organized solely by taproom staff in Detroit who wanted to show customers in the area they could feel comfortable coming into the brewery. “A lot of our people that work with us are either minorities, LGBTQ, or women,” participant Lee Montana told Eater. “We want people to understand that we do want to be part of the community [and] that we are here to stay.”

Another staff member Mario Cabrera said that in the wake of the lawsuit and the release of a transcript from a deposition by the Detroit taproom’s manager, some staff members had described incidents where they felt threatened. “Some people have told us that they’re getting harassed just by wearing their work clothes, which obviously shows that people perceive Founders as this racist location,” he said. “That’s an easy call looking from the outside in, but when you look at the inside [or] you work inside your view changes.”

The elephant in the room, of course, was the lawsuit, which staff members repeatedly declined to address when questioned by reporters. “This has nothing to do with the lawsuit,” Cabrera said. “We’re just trying to let the community know that we’re here for the community and the community’s here for us.”

When asked whether staff felt like Founders was adequately addressing industry-wide concerns over diversity and inclusion, Cabrera answered affirmatively. “Founders, from the inside, definitely tries to hire as many diverse people as we can,” he said. “That’s something we’ve advocated for too. So, they are listening to us from inside at the Detroit locations and for new employees.” Cabrera also pointed to initiatives such as monthly diversity and sensitivity trainings that Founders implemented earlier this year for new hires. “We really are just here to support ourselves. We don’t want anybody to lose your jobs,” he said.

The group was joined by Eastern Market Brewing Co. owner Dayne Bartscht and employee Gabe Torres who came out to show their support to the staff. Eastern Market Brewing Company pulled out of the Detroit Fall Beer Festival last week over concerns about Founders’ participation (Founders later withdrew from the event) and pledge to donate 10 percent of the weekend’s earnings at the taproom to the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. “This is bigger than just racism,” Torres said. “This is about our community and coming together as one and setting up and showing things aren’t right and we need to stand together and stick together.”

Bartsch told Eater that he was initially concerned that some of the tensions surrounding the issues at Founders last week might spillover into his own taproom, but thus far the conversations had been good. Social media, he pointed out, tends to embolden people in a way they wouldn’t normally behave when speaking face-to-face.

Founders Brewing Company’s co-founder Dave Engbers spoke with the Detroit Free Press on Friday about the controversy surrounding the brewery and the lawsuit, saying he was “disheartened” that Evans’ legal team chose to leak the deposition. In the leaked transcript, general manager Dominic Ryan — who fired Evans — appears to actively avoid identifying Evans is black or African American. “We know Tracy Evans is African America,” Engbers stated, adding that he believes the transcript was released in order to escalate the lawsuit. The brewery was largely silent last week despite requests for comment, which Engbers blamed on bad advice from a public relations team.

“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” I greatly appreciate friends and family for being...

Posted by graci harkema on Friday, October 25, 2019

Shortly after Engbers’ interview published, Gracie Harkema, Founders’ director of diversity and inclusion of less than a year, resigned from her position. In a follow-up statement, Harkema wrote that management repeatedly ignored “explicit feedback on how to increase our reputation and increase our narrative, media reputation, and morale with employees,” as well as refusing to accept the nearly identical feedback from public relations firms.

In every conversation and with every action, you’ve been most concerned with winning the lawsuit. You are most concerned with the ego of “winning” than you are about the loss of customers, loss of reputation, and loss of employees’ wellbeing. This does not exemplify the Founders’ Principles of Family, Community, Authenticity, Dedication, Humility, Positivity, Purposeful Progress, Diversity or Inclusion.

Now a full week after the release of the transcript, many Founders customers are distancing themselves from the brand. Several bars and restaurants in the area confirmed last week that they would no longer serve Founders, and the movement to get rid of Founders products has spread across the country.

Founders maintains that the allegations contained in the lawsuit are false. The case is suit is due to go to trial in October 2020. An attorney for Founders wrote in a statement last week, that he intends to present evidence to get the case dismissed.

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

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