Several former workers of Mile End wine bar Larrys, and nearby sister establishments Lawrence and Boucherie Lawrence, have taken the restaurants to task on Instagram for allegedly insufficiently addressing racist and toxic behavior in the workplace.
The accusations come at a time when Larrys has been receiving accolades for deciding to abolish tipping. A number of workers believe the owners don’t deserve this praise until they accept accountability for allegedly failing to address their role in fostering an environment that feels unsafe to workers, especially those of colour, who say they’ve experienced traumatizing racist attention from customers.
The two restaurants and butcher shop are owned by partners Sefi Amir, Marc Cohen, Annika Krausz, and Ethan Wills. Allegations levelled at Larrys began to surface June 3 in the comments section of the restaurant’s latest Instagram post, which contained an announcement of the new no-tipping policy. In the post, the restaurant called itself “lucky to have the most empathetic, progressive and open-minded staff we could dream of” and said it was “excited to be part of a movement to make the restaurant industry a more just and professional place to work.”
The post drew criticism from commenters who pointed to what they perceived to be a discrepancy in progressive posturing from Larrys and the experiences reported by some of its former workers.
Eater sent Larrys’ owners a detailed list of the accusations levied against them and their restaurants, both on social media and through conversations with former workers. The restaurant’s owners declined to respond specifically to any questions, but said generally, “We are working hard to address these issues internally with respect and thoughtfulness.”
Among the most vocal critics of the restaurant was Fatim Yassine, posting on Instagram under the handle @fatim.yassine, who wrote that she “couldn’t wait for the progressive thinking to reach their anti-blackness.” At the time of publishing, this comment had garnered more than 200 likes. Yassine told Eater via direct message that she began working at Larrys in 2016, but declined a request for a phone interview.
On June 7, Yassine posted a Story on Instagram, recounting an incident in 2018 where she says she and a brown co-worker “had a terrible shift with racist customers making really inappropriate and fetishizing comments to [her] co-worker.” That night, Yassine says in the Story, the pair told one of the owners about “this really fucked up experience” and requested a meeting with management to discuss how to proceed in such situations, as well as the introduction of “policies to deal with micro and macro aggressions in the workplace from customers and coworkers.”
Though Yassine says the owner — she doesn’t specify which — expressed a willingness to raise the issue with fellow managers and address it in a future meeting, she says that meeting never happened. Yassine also claims that she and her colleague asked the owner if employees could tell a client to leave (and that they were unwelcome) if they were being mistreated. According to Yassine’s Instagram Story, the owner said that was “tricky because we are in the hospitality business.” Ownership declined to answer questions about this particular incident.
Several sources tell Eater that they believe ownership mishandled discussions prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement. They say that Yassine had worked with the owners on how to proceed in the aftermath of anti-racism protests in Montreal and around the globe in June 2020, and that they used her suggestions in an internal company communication — without Yassine being credited or compensated, at least initially. Larrys ownership did not respond to questions about this incident.
“They never acknowledge their anti-blackness [or] the harm they caused me and my other black co-workers last year and all the years before. Making this place unsafe for us to work at,” Yassine said in an Instagram Story posted on June 3.
On June 5, another former employee, this one from next-door restaurant Lawrence, going by the handle @lenacam, provided an account of allegations that also included management failing to address her concerns involving racism from a restaurant patron. The worker, who asked that her full name be withheld for privacy concerns, shared over direct message that she worked at Lawrence from December 2018 to January 2020.
In an archived Instagram Story, @lenacam says there was a customer at Lawrence who grew “obsessed” with her, learning what shifts she worked, asking that she be the one to serve him, making racial comments, and “filming her ‘lovely black hands’ serving him.” The worker says that she told coworkers and a manager, but that nothing was done. The poster did not identify the specific manager in her post, but tells Eater via direct message that it was an owner. At some point, she says on Instagram, a manager did take notice, but told her that the man “was gay and therefore not a real problem because his intentions were not romantic/sexual.” Larrys ownership did not respond to questions about this incident.
Christian Arab, who worked in various capacities at the establishments from late 2017 to March 2020, tells Eater that over the years he was aware of several coworkers of colour, including @lenacam, who’ve had “racial issues that were never formally addressed in a manner that gave employees any comfort.” He says that in addition to the testimonials shared on social media, he can think of at least two other women of colour who worked at the restaurants and feel similarly. When it comes to Yassine’s callout on Instagram specifically, Arab says, “It shouldn’t have come to this. They were aware.”
The Instagram Stories posted to @lenacam’s account also allege an overall hostile work environment where she says management would disparage employees in front of each other. She specifically identified Keaton Ritchie, the restaurant’s head sommelier and general manager, who she says, “for a year made it his mission to condescend to, bully, and otherwise obstruct [her] in any and all ways.” Ritchie’s behavior, and a lack of support from other managers surrounding it, was a major factor in her leaving the company, she said.
Responding to these claims, Ritchie told Eater, “It certainly never was my intention to single her out in any way ... but my intent or my lack of intent is of no relevance because she was hurt.” He says that he was never approached by owners about this issue or about any complaints ever made against him by other employees. Larrys ownership did not respond to questions about this incident.
Another worker who requested her name be withheld for privacy reasons, a baker who worked for the restaurants for three years until March 2020, tells Eater that she had similar experiences with Ritchie, who she claims “had a way of making [her] feel so small.” She tells Eater that one day in particular, after completing her shift in the basement of Boucherie Lawrence, she went by Larrys for a breakfast sandwich as a staff meal. When Ritchie overheard her asking the cook for one, she says “he lost it” on her. Ritchie says he doesn’t recall this incident, but said that there was “always a lot of frustration and a fair amount of tension between ownership and staff about staff meals,” and that he was often in a position of having to enforce the policies.
The baker says she eventually told co-owner and head chef Marc Cohen about the incident, only to find out that he was already aware of it and hadn’t done anything about it. She says that it often felt like several of the white employees at the restaurant were “protected,” as though they were “too valuable to be held accountable.”
Another back-of-house employee, who worked at the company for two years up until the start of the pandemic (and requested to remain anonymous for privacy concerns), tells Eater that he “definitely” remembers that particular incident with Ritchie and the staff meal request, adding that this was an example of how the head sommelier would call out employees on rules governing staff meals, but “never did so in an understanding or respectful way.”
This worker says he frequently felt “a bit disgusted with a couple of the front-of-house managers (especially the sommelier Keaton) and their interactions with kitchen staff and the morning front-of-house staff.” However, he notes that he doesn’t believe the behaviour was necessarily only directed toward staff of colour or women: “He was always an asshole to me, and I’m a white male.” Meanwhile, he described the owners, especially Cohen and Amir, as “incredibly understanding and good-hearted.”
While this worker acknowledges that the owners were open to having conversations about issues at Larrys, he feels that such exchanges “never really prompted legitimate change.” That sentiment is shared by many, including Shayna Carolyn, who worked in the company’s pastry department for five years up until 2019. During that time, she says she spoke to the owners about various concerns, including rules around staff meals and overtime pay, but was frequently told that they were “not an issue.” Another worker, Erika Christou, who also worked in the back of house, from 2013 to 2018, puts it this way: “We would bring up problems, and then be told that they weren’t problems.”
In her assessment, @lenacam describes on Instagram “a dearth of compassionate and effective management, which created an unhealthy and stifling environment” at Lawrence. These conditions, she says, “affect everyone, but the severity is multiplied for those who are already marginalized and often have no recourse to address such deep problems.”
Five of the employees that Eater spoke to describe an environment lacking a clear system for raising grievances — whether they be surrounding racist customers, toxic interpersonal conflict, or gripes with company policies — in the first place. Some believe this became more of a problem when the company expanded from one solo Mile End outpost in 2010 to two in 2013, and then three in 2016, with the owners spread a degree thinner with each opening. A few mention — without absolving the owners — that they believe many of the company’s issues to be distressingly rampant across the industry. And most seem to agree on one thing: Larrys wasn’t always the progressive workplace that its new no-tipping policy may lead onlookers to believe.