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This article was published 9/11/2018 (339 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Stella's, a Winnipeg restaurant chain associated with all things wholesome and homespun, is at the centre of a flurry of sexual harassment and unfair labour practice allegations.
The Free Press has been contacted by more than 20 former and current Stella’s employees from all seven Winnipeg locations, alleging sexual harassment, unwanted touching, verbal abuse, lewd kitchen conduct, unfair labour practices and, in one case, a sexual assault that occurred on the job.
Since Thursday, an Instagram account called @notmystellas has been steadily documenting similar allegations.
The account paints a picture of a deeply toxic work environment: harassment, verbal abuse, racism, transphobia, unsafe work conditions, and pregnancy discrimination are among the complaints. By mid-afternoon Friday, it had almost 5,000 followers and nearly 200 posts.
Former Stella's employee Christina Hajjar, who began posting her own and others' experiences to her personal Instagram before creating @notmystellas, said she has received hundreds of messages from past and present employees.
"I got way too many messages to handle," she said Friday. "We have over 100 unread messages. There are more experiences we're not sharing out of fear of retaliation.
"A lot of people who have messaged me are currently employed and are having a bad time."
Stella's owners Tore Sohlberg and Lehla Abreder released a lengthy statement Friday afternoon.
"We have engaged People First HR Consultants... to review all of our policies and procedures on workplace safety and harassment and to make recommendations to help us continuously improve," the statement read, in part. "Harassment in any form — whether sexual, physical, psychological or otherwise — is not and will not be tolerated within the Stella’s family."
However, that's not the experience reported by several employees.
One female server, who asked not to be identified, said she was harassed and assaulted by a male server during a shift in September 2017.
"The perpetrator repeatedly made very inappropriate comments to me and attempted to touch me inappropriately," she told the Free Press. "He would rub his groin against my backside every time he would walk by me. I felt pretty shocked and unsure of what to do.
"There were times I told him to stop, and it just kept going and going."
She said despite speaking to a supportive manager, "it just never seemed like there was any concern (from head office) for what happened to me."
Stella's Café & Bakery opened its first location on Osborne Street in 1999 as a small over-the-counter breakfast and lunch café.
The operation expanded to Grant Avenue, with a Sherbrook Street location following in 2005.
There are now seven Stella's locations, including the Buhler Centre on Portage Avenue, the Centre culturel franco-manitobain on Provencher Boulevard, Pembina Highway, and Richardson International Airport.
It has become a Winnipeg institution, known for its scratch cooking. It is often held up as an example of a local success story.
Co-owned by Tore Sohlberg (who is also a WestJet Airlines pilot) and Lehla Abreder, Stella's employs more than 500 people.
When she gave notice two weeks later, she filed an incident report, and said she was told it would be sent to head office. "When I called head office, there was a recorded voice message with options and one of them was for HR. When I clicked the number for HR, I was pretty surprised it went right to the CEO's (Grant Anderson) phone line."
Anderson asked her about the day of the alleged assault, and if she did anything different, because "people don't just do that," she said, adding he also reprimanded her for not filing an incident report sooner.
"I was in tears," she said, adding she contacted police who looked into the incident, but no charges were filed.
When reached for comment, Anderson said he would never say it wasn't prudent to come forward. "By the time I actually spoke to (the server), she had already left the company. She would not have been an employee at that time."
The male server, meanwhile, was reportedly transferred to a different location. "I believe he also received a promotion," the woman said.
Kelsey Wade, 22, worked at Stella's for almost three years as a server and supervisor.
She said Stella's distributed a questionnaire to employees following the September incident, asking for statements regarding the evening during which the alleged assault took place. One question asked to rate a staff member's credibility on a scale of one to five.
Wade said Stella's completely disregards its own harassment policy, and Anderson made her feel uncomfortable at work. "He'd grab my (face) and tell me how cute I am, which made me feel horribly uncomfortable, and I couldn't do anything about it because he was CEO and I thought it would put my employment at risk."
"I don't recall that specifically," Anderson said, when asked about the allegation. "I really don't remember any instance like that at all."
People who worked at the management level in the restaurant chain told the Free Press staff were often insulted and demeaned in management meetings by higher-ups, or were made to feel "irrational and crazy" for bringing up concerns.
"That's kind of what they do," said Amanda Murdock, who worked at Stella's from April 2013 to September of 2016 in assistant and general management positions. "I've witnessed how they trained management to approach staff this way. They would say things like, 'All servers are lazy bitches' and 'all servers are lazy c—-s. We can replace them like that.'"
Murdock, 37, became pregnant after she was promoted to a general management position. She was placed on medical leave. When she was cleared to return to work, Murdock said she was told by Anderson her job had been given to someone else and there wasn't a position left for her.
She filed a claim with the Human Rights Commission, which she didn't pursue, as she was allowed to come back in an assistant manager position.
Anne Wyman worked at Stella's for five years as a server. She said she often felt unsafe at work.
"I had so many experiences where the safety of staff, specifically the female staff, was not protected when serving customers who were sexually aggressive," Wyman said. "I saw so many occasions where people who had perpetuated really inappropriate behaviour, like touching or hitting on female staff, were allowed to come back to the restaurant over and over again."
She said at Stella's Grant Avenue location, the front-of-house staff was subjected to constant sexual conversations by the kitchen staff, including rape jokes.
"They project an image of being a supportive and safe place for a diverse group of folks to work, but that's not the case at all behind closed doors," she said.
In their statement Friday, Stella's co-owners stressed they won't tolerate an environment of harassment for their employees.
The other employees who contacted the Free Press said they felt like they couldn’t complain due to fear of retaliation. Hajjar believes that social media allowed them to share their stories on their terms. "I hope people listen," she said. "I hope other restaurants and industries in general see that their actions are not without consequence, that people are listening and watching."
"We do not believe that it would be constructive to try to publicly address matters raised in social media," the statement said. "We believe that all concerned individuals deserve to be treated with utmost respect and dignity, and their privacy must be respected.
"For those who are critical of us, we regret that we have let you down. Please let us assure you that Stella’s is committed to creating a positive environment for all members of the Stella’s family by doing our utmost to ensure that everyone — employee, customer, supplier and friend — is treated with dignity and respect."
The controversy spilled over onto Stella's official Instagram page, with many posts saying they plan to boycott the business and demanding an appropriate response.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at 7:53 AM CST: Cutlines fixed.
9:35 AM: Typo fixed.
November 16, 2018 at 10:58 AM: Clarifies year of alleged assault.