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Sebastopol restaurateur Lowell Sheldon accused of sexual harassment by six women

Sonoma County restaurateur Lowell Sheldon is no longer a partner in two of the three Sebastopol restaurants he helped to open after numerous female employees alleged sexual harassment and a toxic work environment over several years.

Over the past dozen years or so, Sheldon has opened a number of restaurants in Sebastopol, including Handline, Fern Bar, Khom Loi and Lowell’s. That last one closed in October 2019.

Sam Levy, a partner at Fern Bar, confirmed Thursday Sheldon was bought out of his ownership stake in that establishment in July, after former employees made public comments about their concerns on social media about the restaurateur's ongoing behavior work environment.

The comments did not publicly name Sheldon, but they alluded to a man in a position of power abusing his privilege, sexually harassing female employees and placing them in inappropriate situations.

Speaking to The Press Democrat on Saturday, Sheldon confirmed he sold his ownership stakes in Fern Bar and Khom Loi.

While he remains an owner of Handline, “I have no involvement in any managerial role there,” he said.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on its digital site Saturday six women who had worked for Sheldon accused him of sexual harassment, a pattern of unwanted touching and inappropriate comments stretching back to 2015.

Several women included in The Chronicle story had been contacted by The Press Democrat over the past six weeks, but refused to publicly discuss their complaints against Sheldon.

Three sources, however, told The Press Democrat police were never contacted about the allegations, and no criminal charges have been filed against Sheldon.

On Saturday, Sheldon told The Press Democrat he “acknowledged” making a “very inappropriate” comment to former employee Jesse Hom-Dawson, although “the details are little fuzzy.”

The incident happened on a Saturday night in the summer of 2019, he said. Two days later, he recalled, he sat down with Hom-Dawson and two other employees and “apologized profusely.”

“They heard me, we continued to work together, but the relationship did deteriorate after that,” he said.

Sheldon said he was going through a “challenging time.” He was in the process of closing the restaurant Lowell’s, and was separating from Natalie Goble, his partner, with whom he has two children. He was also mourning the recent death of his father.

“But that’s obviously no excuse for making inappropriate comments,” he said.

Another allegation involved a trip to a strip club.

While Sheldon said he did accompany an employee to a strip club, “it wasn’t after work.”

“It was in San Francisco. We went to a concert,” he told The Press Democrat. “These were friends we hung out with all the time.” After the show, someone suggested they go to a strip club.

“In the moment,” he said, “it wasn’t my idea.”

A third allegation involved a claim Sheldon attempted to put his hand under a woman’s dress in the back seat of a car, which he described as “100% false.”

Sheldon confirmed in September 2019, Fern Bar manager Alexandra Lopez wrote a letter to him and his co-owners, complaining of his pattern of sexual harassment.

Her complaint was “immediately addressed,” Levy said in an email to the Press Democrat.

At the time, Levy and co-owner Natalie Goble brought in an outside group of human resource consultants to conduct an investigation and make recommendations.

“After the investigation was completed, we drafted a good-behavior clause, required in-depth harassment training, and effective immediately, Lowell no longer had any operational oversight or managerial responsibility for any employees,” Levy said.

The agreement also stipulated Sheldon not enter the Fern Bar for one year.

The Fern Bar signed a binding agreement in July with Sheldon to buy out his stake in the business.

“We took all the appropriate steps to deal with it,” said Sheldon. “I took it 100% seriously, and followed everything that was asked of me by the partners.”

The move to eliminate Sheldon came several weeks after Leah Engel, social media manager for Fern Bar and Handline, announced on Instagram she was resigning.

“After many years compartmentalizing my own experience, as well as the experiences of many friends and co-workers, I can no longer justify working for Lowell or being associated with him or any brand connected to him,” she wrote.

“It really f------ matters who we choose to support and who we choose to reward with our talents + hard work.”

Hom-Dawson then weighed in, also on Instagram, thanking Engel for her statement and demanding accountability.

“Let’s stop keeping this a whispered secret around town and call it out for what it is: a white man using his position of power to place his young female employees in inappropriate situations, sexually harass them, and create a toxic work environment for his entire staff.”

The issues around Sheldon seemed to have faded into the background during the pandemic, when much of the restaurant’s staff was let go. But they heated up again in the spring.

That’s when Engel announced her departure from his restaurants on social media. Her Instagram post received widespread attention, and gave co-owners Goble and Levy the leverage to negotiate a buyout.

Sheldon expressed uncertainty about what his future holds. “Moving forward,” he said, he intends to “continue to the work I’ve been doing for the past two years to make sure that every business decision I make is in line with my values.”

Those values, he said, include “keeping people safe,” and making sure his businesses “have the appropriate tools to keep everybody safe.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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