LOGAN SQUARE — The owners of Super Fat Rice Mart are shutting down their business indefinitely after former employees alleged co-owner Abe Conlon was a verbally abusive boss who made racially insensitive remarks and business decisions.
The move comes just a month after the owners transitioned their businesses from acclaimed Macanese restaurant Fat Rice at 2957 W. Diversey Ave. into a general store/market.
“The future of Fat Rice, or Super Fat Rice, or any form of the business at this point is quite uncertain,” Conlon said. “Regardless of that outcome, there are a lot of things that I personally must do to be a better and a more effective leader.”
Conlon, a James Beard Award-winning chef, is at the center of the employees’ allegations, which were sparked in response to Instagram posts he and co-owner Adrienne Lo published to show their support for the Black Lives Matter protests playing out across the nation.
The posts were immediately criticized by former employees and brought long-simmering frustrations to the surface.
In long Instagram threads and in interviews with Block Club, former employees described instances when Conlon screamed and swore at workers — one such incident resulted in him being banned from the restaurant. Conlon also made racially insensitive remarks and used racist imagery in Fat Rice promotional materials, the former employees said.
Last week, the former employees left their uniforms in front of the restaurant and put out signs with messages like, “Acknowledge who helped you become successful.” One worker burned a Fat Rice T-shirt.
Over the weekend, Conlon issued a public apology on Instagram, saying, “I wanted to be a different kind of chef. I am not. I wanted to create a different kind of restaurant. I did not. For the pain that I have caused others, I am deeply sorry.”
Conlon went on, saying he has “reinforced a culture of hostility and oppression due to my own insecurities.”
“Many of the people who have helped me to build Fat Rice over the years, and who have helped it to succeed, have been left feeling hurt and betrayed. It is my desire to make things right, in any way I can. I am sorry,” he wrote.
In an interview with Block Club on Tuesday, Conlon said he is “regretful and deeply sorry” for any pain he’s caused former employees. Lo said they both need to take time to “step back and reflect.”
“There’s a lot that’s going on in the world and. … we need to look within ourselves and our business and our society and reflect and learn some things,” she said.
‘There Weren’t Enough Black People There To Be Like, “Dude, This Is Racist”’
Employees interviewed by Block Club said Conlon created a culture of fear and intimidation and berated them constantly.
Former employee Molly Pachay offered up one example: In 2017, when Pachay was a bartender for Fat Rice, she saw Conlon scream at another worker in the middle of a Sunday brunch. Pachay said Conlon called the worker “a f—ing retard” and ordered the woman to leave because he didn’t like the way she had coursed out the food that particular morning.
Pachay and several other former employees said Conlon was known to berate employees.
Another former employee, who spoke to Block Club under the condition of anonymity, said Conlon would constantly pull him aside and curse him out — “about eight months of that s—,” he said.
“At the end of the shift, he pretty much made it seem like it was just a thing that goes along with being in the industry — that you develop a tough skin,” he said.
Asked whether he was verbally abusive to his staff, Conlon said, “I have not always shown the best leadership in the way I communicate with people or teach them things.
“I have high expectations of myself. … I have shown my disappointment in myself and in others in not the most professional and sympathetic way.”
Conlon confirmed that he did scream at a worker in 2017. Lo barred him from the restaurant for a few weeks after that incident, Lo and Conlon said.
“The offense was relatively minimal and my reaction was more than it should’ve been and I immediately regretted it,” Conlon said.
After that incident, Conlon said he and Lo started implementing more programs and policies around workspace conflict.
“I was unhappy with that scenario,” he said. “I do remember cussing. I don’t remember using that word [retard]. If I did, I deeply regret it and I am sorry I offended them.”
Unprompted, Lo said any rumors about Conlon having physically assaulted employees are unfounded.
“That just never happened. … It hurts that somebody would say those things,” Lo said.
In social media posts and interviews with Block Club, former employees have also accused Conlon of making racially insensitive remarks and appropriating Black culture.
Conlon threw a haunted New Orleans-themed Halloween party in 2017 and asked an employee who spoke to Block Club anonymously to dress up as “a Black banjo player from back in the day,” the former employee said. The employee is Black.
“I was like, ‘This doesn’t look anything like me.’ He was like, ‘You sure you don’t see it?’ I’d be like, ‘Bro, you can’t say s— like that. You can’t act like that,'” the employee said.
Conlon said he did not recall this incident, but said the event was supposed to highlight New Orleans jazz and banjos wouldn’t have been included in the theme.
The former employee said he and another Black employee were also on the receiving end of “a lot of microaggressions.” There were rumors one of the owners told the other Black employee, a woman, she had to flat-iron her hair if she was going to host, the former employee said, though he did not personally hear either owner say this.
“There weren’t enough Black people there to be like, ‘Dude, this is racist,'” the former employee said.
Conlon and Lo said they do not recall this alleged incident, but Conlon said “everybody’s hair needs to be restrained” while working in a restaurant.
Taylor Rae Botticelli, another former employee, said the post used to promote the haunted New Orleans Halloween party used racially insensitive imagery and “derogatory slang.”
Conlon said he now realizes the haunted New Orleans marketing materials were racially insensitive. He said he wrote the post to sound like the Southern cook Justin Wilson, of whom he was a big fan. The image he used was of Baron Samdei, a figure in Haitian Voodoo.
“We saw it as a powerful image. … I realized that, that combined with the image … may have been perceived as racially insensitive and I apologize for that,” he said.
Sukainah Jallow, a former server-turned-bartender at Fat Rice, said Conlon also once appropriated Black culture when promoting an ’80s-’90s R&B Real Love party.
“It was written in the stereotypical way of how a Black person talks,” said Jallow, who is Black. “I do remember being like: ‘Why couldn’t you just plainly say what this event was going to be about?’ … People throw R&B events all the time. You don’t have to be Black.”
Conlon said he didn’t specifically remember the language that was used in the marketing materials for the Real Love party, but the theme was inspired by Mary J. Blige and other R&B artists of that time period.
“We’re sorry if anything we said was offensive. It was never meant to hurt anyone, ever,” Conlon said.
Fat Rice has also faced criticism for playing music with the N-word. Previously, Conlon defended the decision, telling Eater Chicago in 2019, “much like our food, beverage offerings and service, our music selections are genuine, unfiltered and uncensored.
“Some of these songs we play contain strong language that may be considered offensive. However, we believe people should have a choice when it comes to their dining experience.”
‘An Apology Doesn’t Mean Anything If There’s No Change’
Over several days, several former employees have taken to social media to share their painful experiences with Conlon.
“Many of us are sharing our stories of being disrespected, gaslighted, abused, traumatized, dismissed, assaulted, taunted, humiliated, bullied, mistreated, singled out, violated, threatened, manipulated by [Conlon],” one employee wrote on Facebook.
The “Instagram storm,” as Conlon called it, came after Conlon and Lo published a series of Instagram posts in response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The owners first posted a black box with the caption, “We stand for Justice. We stand for Love. We stand for Change.”
The owners then published a second post that starts with, “Fat Rice was founded on the celebration of community, diversity, food cultures and food heritages. We welcome all. We serve all.”
In that statement, the owners said they have “pioneered” initiatives to keep their employees paid and insured. They said they set up an employee relief fund amid the coronavirus shutdown and are actively working on dispersing those funds.
Those two posts angered former employees, who said Conlon and Lo “had the opportunity to really amplify marginalized voices, to use [their] power and influence to affect change and actively stand shoulder to shoulder with those fighting for justice” but “squandered it,” according to the letter the employees wrote and posted to the restaurant door the day they dropped off their uniforms in protest.
In their third post, the owners responded to the growing backlash.
“We, the owners of Fat Rice, Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo, personally believe that George Floyd’s life matters. Black lives matter,” the owners wrote.
“We should have more directly expressed our sadness and outrage regarding the historic and ongoing violence and injustice that continues to affect Black lives. We are sincerely sorry for not doing so sooner.”
Throughout all of this, former employees pushed back against the owners’ public-facing comments, insisting the owners apologize for years of mistreatment and for racially insensitive remarks and cultural appropriation. The former employees said the two needed to outline the specific steps they intend to take to support Black communities amid the civil unrest.
Conlon said the social media backlash “was and continues to be a painful reminder that I’m not always the best at expressing the true sentiments of what my goals had been within the restaurant: … inclusivity, a safe workspace, a space for people to be heard.”
With Super Fat Rice Mart closed indefinitely, Conlon said he’s now focused on becoming more understanding and more sensitive “to how we unconsciously reinforce certain behaviors that only perpetuate a negative culture.
“We haven’t made the best decisions along the way. We haven’t had all of the tools we’ve needed. We haven’t been able to fully create all of the things we believe in to be a better form of restaurant. … We’re listening. We’re trying to understand our own behaviors. I’m trying to understand my behaviors.”
But employees told Block Club that Conlon needs to do more than just acknowledge the pain he’s caused and apologize.
“An apology doesn’t mean anything if there’s no change,” Pachay said. “I need to see followthrough. I wanted to see what they’re going to do for this movement. I want to see that Abe is going to go to therapy and work on himself. I want to see them donate money. I want to see them donate their time to feeding protesters on the South and West sides.”
Jallow agreed, saying Conlon is blaming the systemic problems plaguing the restaurant industry and not taking full responsibility. She said he should “personally reach out to the people [he has] hurt.”
Conlon, however, said the apology is only the “first step” and he’s also looking at using restorative justice conflict resolution to talk to people he’s hurt.
Conlon and Lo opened Fat Rice in 2012. Over the years, the restaurant won praise from locals and food critics alike. Conlon won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2018. But when the coronavirus shutdown hit, Conlon and Lo declared that restaurants were “dead for the foreseeable future” and decided to take the radical step of shutting down Fat Rice and opening a general store/market in its place.
When the protests over police brutality against Black people gripped Chicago, Conlon and Lo began donating food to underserved communities. They said that is a reflection of the type of business they wanted to create with Super Fat Rice Mart.
“When COVID-19 hit, we thought it was an opportunity to make a better restaurant on all fronts — culturally, in equal pay, in hours, in mental health,” Conlon said.
Now the future of Super Fat Rice Mart is uncertain.
“Opening back up for orders is not necessarily our immediate worry. We’re trying to take this time to figure this out,” Lo said.
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