Three servers at a downtown restaurant partly-owned by the Montreal Canadiens are accusing the venue’s management of racial discrimination, after all say they were fired with no notice, and were offered vague explanations to account for it.
Terry Ngala, Fahmida Khatun, and Whitney (who requested that her last name be withheld) all had worked at 1909 Taverne Moderne since it opened last October — until the weekend of January 13, when all three said they were fired without notice by the restaurant’s general manager, who had recently replaced the manager overseeing the restaurant when all three were hired. All three were people of colour, and said they had good track records at the restaurant, with no warnings (written or verbal), and each said they barely received any day-to-day minor criticisms that a server might face on the job. No other servers (the vast majority of whom are white) were fired around the same time, according to the three, and a current employee of the restaurant.
Food service company Cara, which owns chains such as burger restaurant Harvey’s, beer bar Bier Markt, and Quebec chicken chain St. Hubert, and runs Taverne Moderne, has launched a third-party investigation into the firings and “allegations of racism.”
“The investigation will aim to verify that our values of respect and equality contained in our code of conduct have been met,” said Taverne Moderne director of operations Otman Amer in a statement to Eater.
The restaurant is branded as an official establishment of the city’s hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens (it also claims to be Canada’s largest restaurant). It is part-owned by the Canadiens’ owners, and partly by Cara.
All three of the people terminated say they had individual meetings with the manager, Jean-Bernard Fourges. Partway through their shifts on January 13 and 15, each person was reportedly called in and told that their services were no longer required. All three say they had worked at the restaurant for longer than the three-month period where the Quebec government allows for terminations with no notice — all of them say they did not receive written notice of their firings, as required by law.
Each of the three said Fourges was not able to identify specific instances that justified their dismissal, although the general manager reportedly suggested that the servers lacked experience. Each of them has three to four years’ experience as a server.
“I couldn’t get it…you have to tell me what I did wrong to fire me, and he could not give me a straight answer, [he was] just saying that ‘we have standards’,” said Whitney.
The manager also told Whitney she could not be relied upon to serve high-profile clients like hockey players or members of the Molson family, who owns the Canadiens hockey team. “He said if we had a VIP client in like a Molson I wouldn’t assign them to you and I said, ‘That’s funny because they’ve come in and I served them and they left a pretty generous tip,’” she said.
Ngala described a similar encounter. “All he told me was that ‘we feel your service was not up to par’. I asked if there was an incident, [but] there was no documentation...he said ‘just know that it’s a decision that we made and we feel it’s better for the advancement of the restaurant’. What went through my head was, ‘You’re firing me because I don’t look like them, I don’t act like them.’”
All three said they were told that that their work should be more like two other specific servers at the restaurant (both of whom are white) — Khatun said that while no explicitly racial comments were made, she felt that the undertone during her meeting was that the manager was commenting on her appearance as a woman of Indian origin.
“He said if every server were to be like them I’d be happy…they arrive ready to work, they have a good appearance...I was always on time, my clothes were always clean, I had make up on, I would do my hair properly, I was always clean.”
“He compared my appearance to these others and unless you’re talking about colour or gender I don’t know what you mean,” said Khatun.
Khatun also pointed to another incident around the same time where a violation severe enough to break an employee contract had happened, yet when the server was caught out, she was reportedly only reprimanded and kept her job.
All three ex-servers filed complaints with Cara’s human resources department, and have given statements to them. They also have the support of some coworkers: some also made complaints to Cara, while more have told them that they plan to do the same.
In his statement, Amer told Eater that the company was concerned about the situation.
Our restaurant relies heavily on diversity in the hiring of its staff. We take this situation very seriously and we are taking the appropriate steps to ensure the principles in our code are being adhered to.
Speaking to Eater, one current Taverne Moderne employee (who chose to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions at work) said she felt that it was a case of whitewashing the restaurant’s team. “I looked around yesterday [and] I realized that most of the support staff are people of colour and most of the waiters are white.”
Over the weekend Cara instructed staff at the restaurant not to talk to the media, according to a document seen by Eater — as of Monday, the incident was handed over to an unspecified external organization to investigate.