A Boba Guys manager who was alleged to have made racist comments in 2018 has been fired from the company. The decision comes after several days of intense scrutiny, as dozens of people called out the San Francisco-based boba chain on social media for the company’s treatment of black employees — even as Boba Guys voiced support, publicly, for recent protests against police brutality and the broader Black Lives Matter movement.
The manager in question, who is alleged to have had a pattern of making offensive statements, is no longer employed by the company as of this morning, Boba Guys co-founders Andrew Chau and Bin Chen tell Eater SF.
Much of the attention to what Chau and Chen now acknowledge to be “rampant” systemic racism throughout the Boba Guys organization started with a now-deleted video that Chau posted to the company’s Instagram page late Saturday night, in which he addresses rumors about the 2018 incident that were already circulating online. “I hope our body of work speaks for itself,” Andrew Chau, co-founder of Boba Guys, says near the beginning of the 15-minute monologue. The broad topic of the video was “Systemic Racism & Accountability,” but its main impetus seemed to be the social media blowback around the company’s handling of that 2018 incident.
Here’s what is known so far about what happened back then: By Chau’s own account, about two and a half years ago, a Boba Guys employee reported that a manager had made a racist comment in the store where they were working — a comment ”that was essentially talking about black people,” Chau says, somewhat obliquely, in his mea culpa video. According to a widely circulated tweet — an apparent screencap of the post by the now-former employee — the specific comment in question was, “if a Black person made me a drink, i wouldn’t take it bc they’re lazy and have a poor work ethic.” When asked to confirm this account, Chau said that this was the gist of the comment he investigated, though he admitted that he did not investigate it until a few months after it was made.
In the deleted Instagram video, Chau explains that the company investigated the incident and wasn’t able to “get to an actual truth” of what was said — whatever that means. The upshot was that no immediate action was taken against the manager; Chau says that the company eventually found that the manager was someone who “generally doesn’t think about what he says” and demoted him as a result.
Several Instagram posters who identified as former and current Boba Guys employees disputed in the comments of the video post whether that demotion actually happened — in fact, some claim that he was promoted to a higher-level position. Chau and Bin declined to speak on the record about whether person had been promoted or demoted, citing fears for that individual’s safety after some of his personal information was posted online.
With respect to the decision to fire the former manager at the center of this controversy before now, Chau tells Eater SF, “There’s no excuse for enabling what we did in 2018.” Chau says his thinking at the time was that he was trying to help this person transform — “we thought maybe it was a learning experience,” he says — but he now recognizes that this was a mistake, and that the company needs to have a “zero tolerance policy for systemic racism.”
In the end, Chau acknowledges in the video, he handled the situation poorly. Whatever the intent behind his mea culpa video, the commenters — including, again, many who identified as current and former employees of the company — overwhelmingly were not impressed. Comments on the post quickly turned into a litany of grievances: One apparent employee of the company wrote, “Every Black employee I’ve known in my three years of working at the Union Square store has had their attitude cited as a weak point.” Several alluded to the microaggressions they had to face while working for the company. Another commenter alleged that, as an African American man, he’d been denied service at a Boba Guys shop, only to see a short while later that a line white patrons were served with no issue.
The firestorm comes at a moment in time when companies’ hiring practices and treatment of black employees have come under intense scrutiny, especially as various brands have posted statements — often “performatively,” their critics say — against systemic in solidarity with recent protests against anti-black police violence, sparked by George Floyd’s death last month at the hands of Minneapolis police. Perhaps most prominently, Bon Appetit’s editor in chief, Adam Rapoport, resigned from his position just days after the magazine released its own statement in support of the movement, after it was revealed that he’d been photographed in brownface in 2004.
Nor is this the first time Boba Guys has been called out on social media for its policies or political statements. Late last year, after the Boba Guys shop in the Mission had been broken into for the third time, the company made a statement likening San Francisco to “Gotham with the jokers taking over the city” — a sentiment that some observers criticized as being “coded racist and classist language.” The company’s support of cashless payment and CCTV cameras have likewise been criticized as “classist moves that stigmatize the poor.”
Moving forward, Chau and Chen say they’ll implement several new policies and programs, which they say had started even before the whole social media backlash: Zoom town hall meetings that give employees a chance to voice their concerns, an internal “diversity score card” to help the company measure its progress, and a new incident report system that allows workers to report harassment and other “unethical conduct.”
“We made a huge mistake,” Chau says. “And now we have to dismantle everything related to systemic racism, which is apparently rampant in our company.”