Sonoma County hospitality businesses grapple with employee activism

Restaurateurs and other hospitality operators don’t want to hurt staff morale, while knowing a misstep by a worker can become social media fodder.|

The recent brouhaha at Girl & the Fig restaurant in Sonoma after a server who angrily quit over wanting to wear a Black Lives Matter mask as part of her uniform reverberated through the local hospitality sector.

Owners walk a tightrope with a younger workforce and a deeply politicized society grappling with social change and the demand for racial equity. They don’t want to hurt staff morale, while knowing a misstep by an employee on the job can become social media fodder and quickly cause an uproar harmful to a company’s reputation.

The stakes are particularly high because hospitality operators, from restaurants to winery tasting rooms to hotels, are a major driver of the Sonoma County economy, taking in over $2 billion a year in consumer spending.

The incident at the popular Sonoma eatery is not isolated to the county. After much internal and external consternation, Starbucks last year reversed course and allowed employees to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts and pins. Earlier this month, a federal judge tossed a lawsuit against Whole Foods over claims the grocery chain illegally retaliated against employees who wore Black Lives Matter masks in the workplace.

While some local businesses inside and outside the hospitality arena were reticent about talking publicly about the thorny matter of acceptable workplace clothing and masks, the topic can’t be avoided, brand and corporate crisis communications experts said.

Restaurants and retailers must be proactive in communicating to employees a policy on mask wearing and work attire, experts said, and if they have strong support for a social movement, they should let it be known in an appropriate way to workers and customers. Many food, drink and retail operators updated such uniform policies last year, as facial coverings took hold in the pandemic and after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis policy custody in May ignited a firestorm of racial injustice protests nationwide.

“I believe that employees want to be proud of the organizations they work for,” said Jacinta Gauda, the principal at the New York corporate communications firm The Gauda Group at Grayling.

“And sometimes social movements actually give us a larger sense of purpose and many customers can connect with that larger sense of purpose.”

Healdsburg chef and restaurateur Dustin Valette began addressing uniform policy rules in 2016 during the heated presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He reiterates those standards with every new hire at his Valette restaurant. Although he personally supports Black Lives Matter 100%, he said, his serving staff is required to wear jeans and a black shirt. During the ongoing pandemic, plain black masks were added to the uniform.

“We're not in a position at a restaurant to try to alienate any single person or group. We are here for everybody,” Valette said.

He takes pride that his restaurant is accessible to those from a wide socioeconomic range, in a town in the heart of Wine Country increasingly visited by luxury worldwide travelers. He recalled a recent evening when a billionaire dined near a janitor.

“They can enjoy themselves exactly the same,” Valette said of his patrons of diverse backgrounds. “To me, that is the truest, most essential part of our business and the main part makes me the happiest.”

The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville gives a mask with its logo on it to employees, and also allows them to wear either a black or khaki face covering. The luxury inn, where suites start at $575 a night, has a uniform code that even covers the display of tattoos, though it never has never to enforce that part, owner Joe Bartolomei said.

“At the end of the day, our (employee) handbook is what we go back to, if you need to enforce something,” Bartolomei said.

Some of his workers are passionate about social causes, citing the bumper sticker on their cars in the employee parking lot. The Farmhouse Inn also serves guests from Southern states who are likely to be more conservative than the progressive nature of Sonoma County.

“I would never want to ask an employee to compromise their values,” Bartolomei said, and he would not want to “put a guest of mine in an awkward position either.”

He has found that it is best for employees to avoid any discussion of politics at the inn. “If a guest is talking politics, we don’t engage,” he said.

Earlier this month, the highly regarded Girl & The Fig restaurant was forced to close for a week amid social media furor when former server, Kimberly Stout, posted a video on Instagram on Jan. 1 of her leaving her last day on the job Sept. 3, 2020. She declared she quit after being told she could not wear her Black Lives Matter mask. Stout’s post quickly went viral, garnering harsh comments and getting picked up by national and international media.

Restaurant owner Sondra Bernstein wrote in a Facebook post that Stout wasn’t fired but chose to resign when the restaurant updated its uniform policy requiring staff to wear a Girl & the Fig-branded face covering, or a plain black or blue surgical mask.

In the aftermath, the restaurant posted an apology to “our employees, patrons, and the Sonoma County community for any missteps we have taken in introducing and communicating the reasoning for our face mask policy.” Bernstein also said there will be mandatory staff diversity and inclusion training and the eatery would contribute to the 15 Percent Pledge, a campaign in which retailers dedicate 15% of shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

A subset of area businesses have made their social causes a key component of their business cultures. A prime example is Santa Rosa’s Brew Coffee and Beer House. Partners Alisse Cottle and Jessica Borrayo opened in 2015 and have kept the rainbow flag flying out front since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. The restaurant — a key community meeting place for the local LGBTQ population — also served as a hub for Black Lives Matter protest marches and events last year.

“I don’t think the Black Lives Matter movement is political. This is human rights. It is so much bigger than politics,” Cottle said.

Still, she acknowledged that speaking out about these sensitive issues can be worrisome and bring fierce pushback. “The past few months with the heated divide in this country has been scary,” she said. “I know what side of history I want to stand on.”

Down south in Petaluma, Lagunitas Brewing Co., owned by Dutch giant Heineken International, requires employees wear branded shirts and hats while working, but they have leeway on masks.

“At Lagunitas, we believe that there’s a seat at our bar for everyone. If our taproom staff, or any other Lagunitas team member wants to show support for a social cause that promotes inclusivity and equality, we wholeheartedly support their decision,” spokesman Max Wertheimer said.

Rival Russian River Brewing Co., which has a loyal local following and also draws scores of tourists to its Santa Rosa and Windsor brewpubs, provides its own mask with company logo to employees. They can wear the Russian River face covering or a plain blue mask.

“It’s not to say that the business owners don’t support these causes. It’s just saying we have a dress code and you have to draw the line somewhere,” brewery co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said.

She noted Russian River made a special stout beer last year and donated revenue from it to local nonprofits supporting police reform and legal aid.

A couple other local food and wine enterprises sidestepped being interviewed for this article because the topic was too highly charged for them following the Girl & The Fig flap.

“I don’t know if I am really comfortable talking about this. It’s just so fraught,” said one well-known North Bay restaurateur, who asked not to be identified.

A spokeswoman for Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa, which operates a number of tasting rooms in Sonoma and Napa counties and is one of the most recognizable wine companies in the nation with its Kendall-Jackson brand, said the company would have no comment for this story.

Gauda, the communications consultant, said companies need to start having conversations with employees about these social matters, realizing they are part of a larger cultural context in their respective communities.

“I think there are new kinds of conversations that we’re having to have with our employees,” she said. “But we have to have them. We can’t impose policy without rationale. Those days are over.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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