These workers led a campaign to expose a “toxic” restaurant chain

Two executives have been removed at Winnipeg's Stella's after a deluge of harassment complaints surfaced on social media.
November 16, 2018, 7:23pm
Workers created the Not My Stella's Instagram account and were inundated with complaints about the chain.

A prominent Winnipeg restaurant chain has removed two of its company executives and is reviewing its human resources policy after a deluge of allegations of workplace misconduct, sexual harassment and unfair labour practices were posted to social media over the past week.

On Nov. 9, an Instagram account called Not My Stella’s began posting stories from current and former employees of the Stella’s Cafe and Bakery chain. The allegations range from toxic workplace behaviour to unwanted touching, verbal abuse, racism, transphobia, pregnancy discrimination.

The Stella’s chain has become popular in Winnipeg since it opened its first location in 1999. It’s since expanded to seven locations, as well as a bakery and catering service. Its brand has been largely built on its image as a homegrown company that caters to a young and progressive clientele.

Since the account first began posting, Not My Stella’s has amassed more than 12,000 followers, and the owners of the account say they have received messages from over 300 current and former employees sharing their experiences. There are over 200 posts to their Instagram account like the ones shown here.

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“This is something that happens across the restaurant industry,” says Christina Hajjar, the former Stella’s server who started Not My Stella’s. “But we’re also talking about something very specific here, which is a local chain that feeds on this image of great quality, cheap prices, and it is at the expense of frontline workers.”

Hajjar made those comments at a press conference on Nov. 10, where she was joined by fellow ex-Stella’s employees Kelsey Wade and Amanda Murdock. All three women have their own stories about working for the company.

Wade, who worked as a server and a supervisor, says Stella’s CEO Grant Anderson would touch her face without her consent and call her “cute” repeatedly. “I was way too uncomfortable to tell him to stop,” she shares in her post on the Instagram account.

She also says the company distributed a questionnaire to employees following an alleged sexual assault at the workplace. One of the questions asked them to rate the victim’s credibility on a scale of one to five, she says .

Murdock worked as a server and assistant general manager before becoming pregnant shortly after she was promoted to a general manager position. She was placed on medical leave during her pregnancy, but she says when she returned to work she was told her job had been given to someone else.

In her post, claims she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy. Among other workplace misconduct and labour violations, she says she was gaslighted and that regional manager Brad Burrows used intimidation tactics against her.

“I have lived in fear of sharing this for a very long time.”

“I live in fear,” Murdock says. “I have lived in fear of sharing this for a very long time.”

Stella’s is far from the only Canadian restaurant to come under fire for the treatment of its staff or for allegedly turning a blind eye to sexual harassment in the workplace. In recent months, restaurant industry workers from across the country are opening up about some of the “expectations” that come with their jobs, with some calling it the industry’s “MeToo moment.”

Restaurant industry employees are also part of the growing number of precarious workers in Canada, most of whom are also not protected by a union. According to some labour experts, this means that when harassment or abuse does happen in the workplace, employees are often left high and dry by the institutions that are meant to protect them.

The Not My Stella’s group made a number of demands, including a public apology and the “prompt removal” of the company’s CEO Grant Anderson and regional manager Brad Burrows, both of whom come up again and again in the stories shared by the Not My Stella’s account.

They are also seeking monetary restitution for current and former Stella’s employees to access mental health services and the creation of a human resources department within the company.

Neither Burrows nor Anderson responded to repeated requests for comment from VICE News.

On Nov. 12, Stella’s announced on their Facebook page that Anderson and Burrows had been removed from their positions and placed on indefinite leaves of absence.

In another statement, company owners Tore Sohlberg and Lehla Abreder said Stella’s is working with People First HR Consultants, an independent consulting firm, to develop “enhanced workplace policies” that will be rolled out in the days to come.

When asked for additional comment, Stella’s referred VICE News to their statements on Facebook.

They also encourage employees to report their complaints through third-party processes such as the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and Manitoba Employment Standards.

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Elsa Taylor co-owns The Roost, a Winnipeg cocktail bar she helped open in 2015 in part because of her negative experiences working in the restaurant industry. She supports Not My Stella’s and, as a manager herself, she says she “can’t comprehend” the way Stella’s has responded to these allegations.

“If you’re a business owner, the first thing you should be doing when issues like this are brought to you is looking inward and evaluating the environment that you’ve created and what you could have done better to create a better situation for your workers,” she says.

Taylor also says processes such as the Human Rights Commission or the Employment Standards Board are “difficult or even impossible” for entry level restaurant workers to access, either because they’re hard to navigate or because of biases against women reporting sexual assault. With that in mind, she says it’s only natural that people are taking to social media to air their complaints.

“I think what they did is really brave, but it’s also one of the few things available to workers in their situation who encounter that kind of abuse,” agrees Julie Guard, a labour studies professor at the University of Manitoba. “Without anyone protecting them, without a third party between them and the employer like a union, their chances of keeping their job and winning their case at the same time are not good.”

Guard counts Stella’s employees among the growing number of precarious workers in Canada, who she says are mostly young people, women, people of colour, recent immigrants, Indigenous people, and other minorities.

A recent study found that just under 22 percent of workers in Canada were in precarious forms of employment in 2015. That’s up from just under 14 percent of workers in 1989, according to an analysis of Statistics Canada data.

At the same time, the percentage of Canadian workers in unions has dropped. Between 1981 and 2014, the unionization rate fell from over 37 percent to under 29 percent, according to Statistics Canada.

“I think what they did is really brave, but it’s also one of the few things available to workers in their situation who encounter that kind of abuse.”

Although Stella’s employees aren’t unionized, they could have been. In 2002, an employee at one of the company’s restaurants was fired after he attempted to organize a union meeting, according to Patrick McGuire, a Winnipeg delegate for the Industrial Workers of the World.

After the employee was fired, McGuire says IWW held weekly pickets outside a Stella’s location during its Sunday brunch rush. He says they also took the matter to the Labour Board but, rather than going to a hearing, Stella’s opted to reach a settlement with the fired employee.

“There’s a long track record of it being a toxic workplace where people have tried to stop this and have been shut down by the employer,” McGuire says about Stella’s.

At the time, Stella’s former co-owner Tomas Sohlberg told CBC the employee was fired because he wasn’t a “team player,” not because he tried to organize a union meeting.

Stella’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment by VICE News.

Guard says the Instagram campaign by Stella’s workers is part of a shift in Canadian labour organizing. “Labour is responding to the growth of precarious work and the inability to protect people by organizing in new ways,” she says.

On the evening of Nov. 14 — two days after Stella’s announced Anderson and Burrows had been removed from their positions, four days after the press conference, and five days after the first story was posted to the Not My Stella’s account — Hajjar, Wade and Murdock are proud of the gains they’ve made.

“The pressure’s still on,” Wade says. “We’re seeing some small changes in the works, but we’re going to keep pushing.”

Cover image of (from left to right) Elsa Taylor, Christina Hajjar, Kelsey Wade and Amanda Murdock outside Taylor's cocktail bar The Roost. All photos by Isaac Würmann.