Isabella Used NDAs to Silence Employees
Chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella and his partners’ legal woes escalated last week with new claims that Mike Isabella Concepts (MIC) used non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to prevent employees from speaking out about sexual harassment, according to lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Apr. 3.
The sexual harassment case was refiled by former top manager Chloe Caras in federal court, including new accusations that Isabella retaliated against employees for reporting sexual harassment and used NDAs to prevent them from speaking publicly. In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuit asks the court to declare the NDAs invalid and unenforceable.
Caras initially filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court last month charging Isabella and his partners Johannes Allender, Taha Ismail, George Pagonis and Nicholas Pagonis at MIC with sexual harassment.
An attorney representing Isabella and partners did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, Isabella denied the initial charges through his attorney. In a statement to the Washington Post, Isabella said the allegations are “false, petty and lack context. I want to be clear: We do not condone the hostile work environment implied in these allegations. My team has worked incredibly hard building this successful restaurant group, and I will continue to focus on my employees, food and hospitality at this time.”
According to the new lawsuit, “MIC required employees — the majority of whom are low wage earners — to sign [an NDA] as a condition of employment to conceal the sexual harassment routinely engaged in at MIC’s establishments and to intimidate employees from speaking out about workplace abuses.”
Employees face $500,000 penalty plus attorney fees
The NDAs subject employees, including wait staff who earn $3.33 an hour plus tips, to a penalty of $500,000 plus attorney fees for breach of “confidential information” including any “details of the personal and business lives of Mike Isabella, his family members, friends or business associates and dealings” during the employee’s lifetime. It did not, however, “advise employees of their rights to report sexual harassment and other misconduct to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the D.C. Office of Human Rights, or any other state or local agency or to retain their own counsel.”
The new lawsuit also charges that “MIC management threatened employees with enforcement of the NDA if they revealed misconduct engaged in by Mr. Isabella or his partners or made negative comments about sexual harassment at MIC to the media in connection with Ms. Caras’ lawsuit.”
Isabella said the NDAs were established about six years ago to prevent news about restaurant openings from leaking to the press before he was ready to announce it. The NDAs were never used to intimidate employees, he added, and the company had policies to encourage employees to report incidents that made them uncomfortable, according to the report.
Isabella, meanwhile, has mounted a vigorous defense, saying Caras was also guilty of inappropriate behavior, the report said.
The company recently sent out a letter saying women are the “backbone” of the company and have built a culture of open communication and equality in a productive, friendly work environment. It listed 10 female employees at the end, although the names were typed and not signatures.
The federal complaint also included new allegations that Matt Robinett, the former chef at Graffiato in Richmond, harassed female employees and patrons with impunity until his termination around October 2017. Company officials knew of the problem for some time, but kept the chef on the job, according to the lawsuit. One employee was fired after making a formal complaint about Robinett’s behavior.
Fallout to the lawsuit has been swift.
- Jennifer Resick Williams of Know PR dropped Isabella as a client. He has since hired Lacy Jansson, a senior PR strategist for Status Labs, an Austin, Texas-based firm that specializes in online reputation management and digital crisis response. In 2014, the company was accused of trying to bribe a journalist to include mentions of its clients (which the firm denied), and its CEO Jordan French resigned in 2015 after another company he owns was involved in a controversial eviction and demolition of an Austin piñata shop.
- The Washington Nationals cut all ties with the chef and his company shortly before the season opener. Jonathan Stahl, vice president of ballpark operations and guest services, told DC on Heels the team had planned to replace Kapnos at the Park and Catchfly, but also dropped the G Sandwich stand after the lawsuit. Kapnos at the Park and Catchy fly were replaced by Old Hickory BBQ and Change-Up Chicken. Now we know that the old G location in section 136 along the main concourse will be replace by Grace’s Kitchen, which is named for former first lady Grace Coolidge and will offer a rotating menu from local female chefs and restaurateurs. First up is chef and restaurateur Jamie Leeds, who owns Hank’s Oyster Bar among others, and chef Carla Hall, who co-hosts ABC’s The Chew. Leeds will be serving a shrimp po’ boy with coleslaw, while Hall serves a Nashville hot chicken sandwich, which she served at her short-lived restaurant in Brooklyn, and mac ‘n cheese. Others include Valerie Zweig and Taryn Pellicone from Prescription Chicken and Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardner from Republic Restoratives. A portion of the proceeds from the stand will benefit the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy Nutrition Program and the D.C. Central Kitchen.
- Michael Rafidi, chef at Requin at the Wharf and Arroz in the Marriott Marquis next to the convention center, resigned. He is leaving to open his own restaurant, but has said the lawsuit played a role in his decision. His last day is Apr. 22.
- Dine-N-Dash, José Andrés’ annual fundraiser for World Central Kitchen, dropped Isabella’s photo from its website. The site also no longer lists Graffiato or a pop-up by Requin among the participating restaurants.
- Plum Relish, a woman-owned and operated catering service in D.C., removed the chef and his company from its website and social media. The company delivers bento-sized lunches boxes to offices. Catering by Mike Isabella had been one of Plum Relish’s “restaurant partners.”
- The Best Buddies Prom dropped Isabella as its culinary chair saying, “Best buddies prides itself on a culture of respect, inclusion and empowerment. In light of recent reports, Chef Mike Isabella will no longer serve as the culinary chair of the Best Buddies Capital Region prom on April 27.”
RAMW withdraws award nominations
- Now, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington rescinded RAMMY Award nominations for Arroz and G by Mike Isabella, two of the chef’s restaurants that were up for New Restaurant and Favorite Fast Bites awards, respectively. However, Rafidi, who was nominated in the Rising Culinary Star category, is still eligible.
- Eater has removed Isabella’s restaurants from all its lists and maps. It is part of the food website’s policy not to highlight restaurants operated by an alleged harasser or known bad actor.
- Finally, New Chefs on the Block, a feature-length documentary about the opening of Rose’s Luxury and Frankly…Pizza! Has removed Isabella’s face from its DVD cover, although Isabella remains in the film. “We are saddened and disappointed to hear that Chef Mike Isabella has been charged with sexual harassment in the workplace,” said director Dustin Harrison-Atlas in a statement. “True or not, we are outraged by the food industry’s general mistreatment of women. Our two stars Frankly Pizza and Rose’s Luxury has worked hard to reverse that trend, and continue to foster environments that are safe for all their employees.”