Ferndale restaurant group Working Class Outlaws is facing social media backlash this week over allegations the company fostered a toxic work environment and turned a blind eye to accusations of racism and sexual harassment. At the same time, the company has claimed that a customer’s report of a potential COVID-19 infection at one of its restaurants, Imperial, made on Thursday, June 25, may have been a prank orchestrated by a former employee to cause damage to the company.
The group’s management, which operates Imperial, Public House, and Antihero in Ferndale’s downtown corridor, addressed the situation in a Facebook post on Imperial’s page late Wednesday evening. Management also states in the post that they were “shocked” by the claims and are “evaluating our processes and procedures to find validation to substantiate the allegations set forth on social media.” In the statement, the group says that it is temporarily shutting down the restaurant for a week to assess a new state executive order that closed some bars for indoor service. On the evening of Thursday, July 2, the company made a second announcement on Facebook stating that co-owner Jeff King, the subject of multiple harassment allegations, had resigned “Operations Manager.” The company’s Imperial Facebook account is now shut down as are those for Public House and Antihero.
At least five employees of the restaurant’s bar team have resigned in protest from their positions at the company in response to the allegations, according to a letter shared on social media channels Friday.
Eater has reached out to Working Class Outlaws for comment regarding the multiple allegations leveled against the group and has requested comment from Jeff King, but did not receive a response at press time.
Eater has been in contact with representatives for Working Class Outlaws since Monday, June 29, following a company post that stated Imperial had closed for cleaning last weekend. The company stated to Eater in an email that an anonymous caller reached out claiming they had tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting the restaurant on Thursday, June 25. Shortly after publishing an article about the suspected case at the restaurant.
Allegations against the restaurant group and members of its management began to emerge over the weekend on Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, and Reddit. These anonymous and named accounts made wide-ranging claims about the business, including that it was putting employees and customers at risk during the pandemic and that it never actually closed for cleaning. Some people familiar with the situation allege that it was only after a screenshot of a message sent to staff about the suspected COVID-19 case began circulating on the internet that the restaurant publicly addressed the possible case. Eater has been unable to locate that screenshot to confirm that claim. Eater was able to review an Eganix invoice for $325 charge for a “virus disinfectant/sanitizing treatment” at Imperial dated Sunday, June 28.
Other allegations, if true, would point to more systemic issues at the company. Some accounts state that a part-owner in the company, Jeff King, has demonstrated a pattern of making unwanted sexual advances towards younger female employees and showing favoritism to those who permit him to do so. Some individuals allege the business favored white employees over their Black counterparts, and say that the business fostered an overall toxic work culture where employees’ concerns went unaddressed or were treated as expendable. Eater is in the process of investigating these allegations, which have continued to grow throughout the week.
In a statement to Eater, a representative for the restaurant group acknowledged the allegations of racism at the restaurant group and ones against owner Jeff King. The company did not state whether or not those allegations were accurate. “The team is evaluating the claims and looking further into the validity of the situations and accusations made,” the representative writes in an emailed statement. “WCO is exploring options and consultants to assist us in this unchartered territory. Since opening Imperial eight years ago, we’ve never faced this kind of public scrutiny.”
Eater also reached out to Working Class Outlaws for more comment on the COVID-19 situation and the claims circulating online. In an emailed statement, a representative wrote that the company believed the COVID-19 call may have been a false claim by a “disgruntled” former employee who may have been attempting to damage the business. The manager who was on duty at the time that the COVID-19 report came into the restaurant, “came to the owners and made everyone aware of the call.” The rep continues:
The general manager, John Kinney, found a deep cleaning service to sterilize the restaurant the next day. The owners reached out to the health department and left a message. By the end of the shift, the entire team was notified through the scheduling app, 7 Shifts.
Throughout the evening, the manager kept reviewing the conversation. He didn’t feel the facts were adding up. He took the phone number the alleged COVID-19 victim called in on and found out that the number belonged to a disgruntled employee who was let go a year and a half ago.
Eater has been unable to confirm the identity of the employee that the company is referencing.
The company further told Eater that there was an incident on the evening of Tuesday, June 30, where a woman celebrating her 21st birthday came into Imperial with a large party and allegedly became angry when her group couldn’t be sat together. The restaurant group claims that the woman “became irate, took her mask down and spit on the hostess.” Police were called and the woman was arrested. “Since her arrest, negative reviews [of the restaurant] have escalated, and allegations of racism are adding to this narrative,” Working Class Outlaws’ representative states.
Eater spoke with Dr. Russell Faust, medical director for the Oakland County Health Division, on Tuesday about how businesses can verify whether claims of positive cases are accurate. In the case of employees, Faust recommended they provided the business with their certificate of a positive test. He also pointed out that any positive tests within the county are always referred to the Oakland County Health Division for contact tracing. The individual is then contacted by an official who verifies who they may have been in contact with while infected with the virus and what places they visited. Any persons or businesses that they visited such as bars and restaurants are then notified by contract tracers who will recommend next steps. Businesses who receive an anonymous call from someone claiming to have contracted COVID-19 after dining at a restaurant are encouraged to reach out to the Oakland County Health Division for verification. At least one other Oakland County business, however, claimed this week that they only learned of positive infections at their business after news reports surfaced.
In statements to Eater, Working Class Outlaws’ owners write that they hadn’t previously heard the claims of sexual harassment, racism, and a toxic work culture until this week. The company said they had investigated one instance of misconduct made by a server against someone working in the kitchen “over a year ago,” unrelated to the current claims. The company’s representative states that in that case Working Class Outlaws “learned through their investigation there was no merit to the claims made by the server” but also “created a comprehensive sexual harassment training” following the accusation. They held in-person training workshops for each restaurant — something that at least one former employee Eater spoke with confirmed. During this time, WCO implemented a process, with a confidential email address, encouraging all employees to speak up if they felt threatened, harassed or were witness to an inappropriate act.” The representative tells Eater that Maria Cukr is the acting human resources rep for the company and monitors the reporting process and the confidential email address. The rep adds that, “Since the training that took place over a year ago, not one report or claim has been made.”
Eater has spoken to several former employees at Imperial and Public House both on the record and anonymously regarding allegations against King and other aspects of the company’s work culture and we are continuing to investigate the allegations made on social media against Working Class Outlaws, which have grown throughout the week. Individuals with additional information to share can contact Eater at Detroit@eater.com.
Update, July 6: This story was update to share the news of bartenders resigning from the company in response to the allegations.