The New York outpost of San Francisco’s Mission Chinese Food is being sued by four former employees alleging unpaid wages and racial discrimination, Eater NY reports. The lawsuit was filed Thursday by attorney Maimon Kirschenbaum, and names chef-owner Danny Bowien and managers Jane Hem and Adrianna Varediare, claiming that management discriminated against black staff members, while ignoring complaints of hostile behavior.
According to one former employee, the restaurant was “very, very often a toxic environment,” despite it’s reputation for a progressive culture. In the suit, former employee Erin Lang, who is a queer black woman, alleges that she was denied promotions and had shifts reduced because of racial discrimination particularly exacerbated by an assistant manager Jane Hem. The suit also claims that Hem often directed racially charged comments at Lang including suggesting that Lang’s dreadlocks looked like “Grinch’s fingers,” among others.
The restaurant’s attorney, Rob Ontell, responded via a statement: “In nearly a decade of operations, Mission Chinese restaurants have continually invested in our staff and their training to ensure we provide a culture of acceptance and opportunity. It is disheartening and frustrating that any former staff person would choose to file a suit based on this unwarranted and inaccurate description of our business practices.”
Meanwhile, the original location of Mission Chinese in San Francisco is not named in the suit, and continues to operate normally. While co-owners and founders Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint are investors in the NY location, the two maintain separate operations — Myint is in contact with Bowien by phone and email to coordinate the two menus, and discuss business decisions. According to ENY’s report, Bowien is named in the suit because the staffers allege he was aware of the discriminatory and illegal wage behavior but did nothing; former executive chef Angela Dimayuga was not named in the suit.
“Neither Anthony nor I have ever been involved in the day-to-day operations or staffing of the New York location, and we have never witnessed behavior remotely like what is described in the lawsuit,” Leibowitz told Eater SF via email. “I don’t think either of us have ever had any interactions with either Erin Lang or Jane Hem; we have traded work-related emails with Adrianna Veredi.”
Leibowitz and Myint began Mission Chinese Food as a street cart before evolving it into a pop-up within the Lung Shan restaurant in the Mission, and eventually taking over the restaurant. Though their newer restaurant, The Perennial, has been the focus since it opened in 2016, Myint is still involved at MCF in San Francisco.
“The allegations in the New York lawsuit certainly do not reflect the larger company culture or ethos,” said Leibowitz. “And they do not reflect the person we know Danny to be. He has always been outspoken against abusive kitchens, we have never known him to discriminate against African-Americans or Latinos, and we have seen him mentor and promote people from all sorts of backgrounds and orientations.”
According to Leibowitz, interpersonal issues at SF’s location are resolved through a combination of staff meetings, written notices, and personal conversations. “We have, from the beginning, worked to create a diverse and respectful environment in both the front and back of the house and we believe that these values are also important to our friend and partner Danny Bowien,” said Leibowitz. “To be honest, we have never observed or imagined anything like this at MCFNY.”
Stay tuned for more details as the lawsuit, which former staffers intend to make class action, progresses.