Stellas controversy a wakeup call, says Winnipeg restaurant owner

Stella\s controversy a wakeup call, says Winnipeg restaurant owner
Staff will suffer from Stellas boycott, sympathetic lunch customers say
Winnipeg restaurateurs are taking the opportunity to revisit or augment their HR policies after more than 275 disclosures of workplace incidents blew up on social media under the tag "Not My Stella's." 

More than 11,000 people have followed the Instagram account, with former and current Stella's employees coming forward with their stories — and saying they were discouraged from coming forward before. 

Pizzeria Gusto owner Bobby Mottola decided to take a look at his own human resources policies in the wake of the allegations. 

"Unfortunately with what's going on at Stella's, which is heartbreaking and hard to read and understand that it was that systemic, at the same time it is an opportunity for ourselves — and I think the restaurant industry as a whole — to continue to look at their policies and to make a commitment that it's not OK and if there's things that you have to do to change, you have to change them," said Mottola, who also owns Merchant Kitchen.

Following the allegations from Stella's employees, Mottola held a staff meeting to make sure that all employees completely understand all HR policies and to ensure that they are continuing to communicate properly with the staff. 

Nobody's an island, nobody should have to take on these types of behaviour alone.- Bobby MottolaMottola regularly holds two staff meetings a week and hopes that the constant communication and an open-door policy will make sure the employees feel comfortable going to management if they have a complaint. 

​Mottola says every new employee receives a human resources policy package, so they know the policies of the restaurants and what kind of behaviour is unacceptable.

Over the last 10 years, he added a second restaurant and grew his staff to 100. As they grew, policies needed to be more "black and white," he said. But relationships are important too. 

"I think what we do, over and above that, is we make sure that we instruct our management staff and we continue to have conversations with the restaurant team about the importance and value that we place on them as part of a greater whole and that their voice and their situation both inside and outside the restaurant are of great importance to all of us," said Mottola.

The main thing that she was concerned about was having enough ways for her staff to let her know that something was going wrong in the restaurant.

"I'm really surprised, but I'm the last person to know that there's been a situation … and so I just wanted to … sort of make sure that there were more opportunities for people to kind of be heard," she said. 

To help with this situation and making sure staff feel comfortable making work-related complaints, Syrie is creating a new position within the restaurant.

The Tallest Poppy will have a "shop steward" available for all employees for any work-related reasons. 

"We've set up a person on staff who is kind of connected as a liaison … so they can feel comfortable talking to that person," said Syrie. 

She's also having a staff meeting to see if any employees have ideas about what could make their HR policies better.

Mottola says every person should have someone to talk to about any situation that makes them feel uncomfortable in the workplace.

"Nobody's an island, nobody should have to take on these types of behaviour alone," he said.

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That was the general feeling among the lunch crowd at the Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard location of the popular local restaurant chain Tuesday afternoon regarding last weeks flood of allegations from former and current employees about misconduct ranging from labour violations to sexual harassment and assault.

A litany of complaints and experiences have been posted to an Instagram account called @notmystellas.

As customers filed in and out — some headed back to work and others hurrying to University of Winnipeg classes — the few who stopped for a moment said former employees whove been affected need support, but those still working at the restaurants seven Winnipeg locations need to make a living.

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That was the general feeling among the lunch crowd at the Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard location of the popular local restaurant chain Tuesday afternoon regarding last weeks flood of allegations from former and current employees about misconduct ranging from labour violations to sexual harassment and assault.

A litany of complaints and experiences have been posted to an Instagram account called @notmystellas.

As customers filed in and out — some headed back to work and others hurrying to University of Winnipeg classes — the few who stopped for a moment said former employees whove been affected need support, but those still working at the restaurants seven Winnipeg locations need to make a living.

Ahmed Barkat will still support Stellas to ensure employees continue to get enough shifts to make ends meet. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

“Its good that we are all aware that this has been happening in Winnipeg, but the reason I am not boycotting it is I know that the people who work here are the ones who are going to get hurt (if business declines),” said Ahmed Barkat, 27, a U of W student, adding he goes to Stellas every day.

“Weve talked a lot about it online and those that are paid salaries, the managers, theyre going to be fine. The people who are going to get hurt are the ones who are going to get their shifts cut. I used to work based on shifts, and the worst thing that can happen to you is to have your shifts cut without you asking. You base your spending on how much work youre going to get.”

The Instagram account — which has shared hundreds of personal stories — is being run by 12 current and former employees who have been involved in organizing a campaign against Stella’s business practices. There has been a torrent of accusations on the account and in media reports asserting the company has been engaging in labour and human-rights violations for years.

Retiree Alvina Koshy said Tuesday she was “really shocked,” and wants to see the restaurant chain protect its workers.

“The staff are so excellent. You couldnt go to a place with friendlier service or greater food, so it definitely never occurred to me that there could be problems. I never saw anybody being rude to anybody,” said Koshy, who said she meets a friend for lunch regularly at Stellas and will continue to do so.

Alvina Koshy says Stellas staff are excellent and she was shocked to hear about the allegations of harassment at the restaurant. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

“I really like Stellas food; we always bring it in for birthday parties. If these things are going on, I would certainly hope that they will change their policies to make differences and to talk to the people involved. If theres harassment going on in the kitchen, they need to be changing it.”

Barkat said Stellas patrons can still show their support and solidarity for the workers who have been allegedly harassed and, at the same time, ensure current employees can keep up their shifts and earn their living.

“Theres a way to punish and to send a strong message but not by punishing the people who are mostly university students who are trying to make ends meet,” he said.

“You send a letter, you voice your concern, you make sure that you are with the people who are working in the front line but not with the management, not with the managers.”

Barkat said he supports what Stellas owners, Tore Sohlberg and Lehla Abreder, have done so far by placing CEO Grant Anderson and regional manager Brad Burrows on indefinite leaves of absence as of Monday.

The Stellas location on Sherbrook Street was closed Tuesday as the company held meetings to deal with the fallout of numerous harassment allegations. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

“Its a starting point… putting them on leave is good but you have to do more than that and make sure theres a clear way to report harassment (in the future). (The owners) have to talk to the people on the front lines, they have to help them, they have to listen to them,” he said.

“Im sure many of them are disappointed that this is whats going on in their workplace…. It shouldnt end here. It should go on to include more steps.”

Jess, 19, who did not want her last name published, said shes been working as a server in other restaurants since she was 15 and said the culture within restaurant management needs to be changed.

“Its sketchy right now. Its business where you usually dont get breaks and go a 16-hour shift,” she said. “Ive been sexually harassed on the job, too, and he didnt even get talked to. There definitely needs to be some repercussions, but thats why a lot of servers dont say anything. Its harder to find cooks.”

In a letter sent Monday to staff and to media, Stella’s owners also announced that People First HR Consultants has been hired to investigate all complaints and to develop better respectful workplace training and policy. The letter said that Stella’s staff and managers are to direct complaints and concerns through a confidential process.

The group behind the Instagram account has alleged that the working conditions at Stella’s were so abusive that the owners should pay for mental-health services for current and former employees in need.

In response, Stellas owners suggested employees struggling with mental-health concerns should seek free treatment at Klinic Community Health Centre.

“Nobody should be insulted or treated badly on the job,” said Dan, 20, who declined to give his last name.

A customer reads a sign Tuesday informing people the restaurant was closed. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Tom Langrell and Catherine Peters enjoy a quick dance with music courtesy of The Key of J at their wedding social at Crescentwood Community Centre last Saturday evening.