WICKER PARK — It’s been nearly two years since Felicia Govan was fired from The Robey in Wicker Park. But the memories of racial discrimination she said she experienced there are fresh in her mind.
Govan, who is half-Black, said general manager Santiago Leon once called her “Aunt Jemima” during a busy dinner service. Head Chef Kevin McAllister repeatedly called her “nappy” and “sloppy,” she said.
The former bartender was fired in July 2018 for insubordination, but Govan thinks she was truly fired in retaliation for speaking out about racial discrimination. Now, as conversations of systemic racism sweep the country, Govan and other Robey employees are going public with allegations of racial and sexual discrimination at the hip Wicker Park hotel.
They said their efforts aren’t about “cancel culture” or boycotting the hotel, but they do want customers to know what is happening behind the scenes. Former staffers said the problems at The Robey have been an open secret for years. But a Black Lives Matter solidarity message from the hotel this month, headlined “We Are Listening,” led many to speak out for the first time.
After former staffers flooded the replies with their stories, The Robey disabled commenting.
“When I saw the Black Lives Matter post, I was so enraged,” Govan said. “You’re just posting this to save face. You don’t believe this. … You don’t give a s— about any of this. You’re only doing it so you don’t lose profit.”
Block Club interviewed five former staffers who worked for Leon and described a leadership style rampant with racism, sexism and abuses of power. A sixth staffer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, accused Leon of sexual harassment.
Everyone interviewed said they experienced or witnessed Leon singling out women and people of color — particularly Black women — for unjust suspensions and firings. He often used Yelp reviews or claims of insubordination to justify the discipline.
In refusing to hire a human relations manager, Leon created a workplace in which allegations against him were “swept under the rug.” Employees who spoke out were reprimanded, several staffers said.
Former staffers are calling on Grupo Habita, the hotel’s parent company, to fire Leon and McAllister and overhaul how the hotel treats staff and guests.
Moises Micha, managing partner at Grupo Habita, responded with a letter of his own. He asked employees to submit details of their allegations to the company, which had retained “outside counsel” to investigate the claims. The deadline to submit allegations was June 23.
“While we have always taken pride in our continued efforts aimed at inclusion, we also recognize that there exists room for improvement in any business setting,” Micha wrote.
Micha, Leon and McAllister declined to be interviewed. The company intends to investigate the allegations before commenting further, spokeswoman Karrie Leung said.
“Out of respect for the current and former staff, The Robey would like to receive the requested information prior to arranging any type of formal statement or details,” Leung said.
Former Robey manager Amanda Gonter said she and others didn’t plan to answer Micha’s letter. The staffers said they already reported their stories to The Robey during their employment, she said — nothing changed.
“You never really know what’s going on with the staff, the company within,” another former staffer said. “The Robey seems lovely on the outside. The pool is lovely. The drinks are nice. On the inside, I feel like it is not a nice place. How they treat people is not nice.”
‘Amazing Potential’ Ruined By ‘Culture Of Intimidation’
When The Robey opened in 2016, the luxury boutique hotel breathed life back into a fading Chicago historical landmark at the Milwaukee, Damen and North avenue intersection.
The hotel, 2018 W. North Ave., has attracted a talented pool of industry professionals, many of whom have Michelin-star-studded resumes.
Ty Carter, who is half-Black, was among those drawn to what The Robey could offer.
“I had great regulars, it was a beautiful hotel. It had amazing potential. All they needed was to get the right people in there,” Carter said.
“Instead they chose to hurt a lot of people.”
Posts on Boycott The Robey, an Instagram page started by Govan, illustrate a litany of allegations against Leon and McAllister.
Staffers accused Leon of targeting non-white employees for discipline, allowing the head of security to follow Black guests around the hotel, misgendering staffers, refusing to discipline a white employee who took lewd photos on a company device, allowing male guests to demand female staff escort them to their hotel rooms, harassing and forcibly kissing a female bartender, and allowing male staff to sexually harass female employees.
The employees accused McAllister of being intoxicated at work, and ignoring or condoning discriminatory behavior and harassment from his kitchen staff and Leon.
Former manager Max Boudman said that with no HR manager, staffers who reported allegations were directed to the company’s financial controller, David Quigley, who did not have the proper training to respond to such complaints.
Boudman said he had little ability to advocate for himself or co-workers.
“It was a culture of intimidation,” he said.
Leon’s abusive leadership style was evidenced by a high turnover rate, staffers said.
“I went through five different direct managers in 16 months,” Carter said. “They were not focused on providing a good guest experience. They were focused on controlling us.”
Govan said she counted more than 60 managers between 2016 and 2018; fewer than 10 were women.
During her employment, Gonter was one of the hotel’s rare female managers — and she only lasted two months.
She recalled one day when Leon asked a female staffer to stand while he pointed to various parts of her body and said, “See? Women are physically weaker than men.”
A few moments later, Leon said women and Black people “try to get fired from jobs so they can sue companies,” Gonter said.
Gonter said she attempted to discuss Leon’s behavior with other managers. She suggested a bias training for staff. Her requests were ignored.
When she finally quit, Gonter’s “exit interview” was with Quigley. It wasn’t clear what, if anything, would be reported to Leon’s bosses; Quigley requested they communicate via private email addresses, Gonter said.
Dress Codes, A Hip-Hop Ban, The ‘N-Word’
One way Leon asserted control was by changing the staff dress code nearly every season, Boudman said. Dress codes were haphazardly enforced and often targeted Black staff, he said.
One day a Black server and a white bartender working the same shift were wearing red and black shoes. Boudman was informed that day of a dress code change requiring black-only shoes.
Boudman’s supervisor saw the Black server’s footwear and instructed Boudman to write up the bartender for violating the dress code, he said.
“I refused to do it,” he said. “I later found out he had written up the server himself. … To me, everything about that situation felt racially charged.”
Govan said Leon started treating her poorly when he learned she was half-Black.
“I’m biracial, I’m not a dark-skinned woman,” she said. “For the first two years there, they thought I spoke Spanish. When I told them I was Black they were like, ‘Oh, OK.’”
Govan’s firing coincided with her standing up for a host who had been sexually harassed by a line cook, she said. Her last day at work was the day she told McAllister to “shut up” after he called her “nappy” and “sloppy.”
“They said, ‘He’s your boss.’ OK, so that’s the standard you guys have at The Robey,” she said. “Because he’s the manager, he can make comments about my appearance, say that I’m sloppy and my hair’s nappy, but when I tell him to shut up, I’m fired.”
Michele Larry, a Black woman, worked as a server at The Robey for two years until the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of the hotel’s restaurant. Her first day overlapped with Govan’s last.
Larry ignored Govan’s cautionary tale at first; she told herself she’d never let anyone treat her that way. But then came two years of “abuse.”
Larry said she heard the “n-word” almost on a daily basis. She was warned she would be written up if she tried to play hip-hop music. When a co-worker gifted Larry lingerie during the staff’s Secret Santa, managers refused to reprimand the person involved.
“I had very, very high anxiety. I changed as a person,” Larry said. “I’m Black. I’m a Black woman. I’ve always known that. But I’ve never been more aware of that than working at The Robey.”
Larry was fired May 11 via email. The decision was made to “ensure the financial stability of the hotel,” the email said.
After seeing the company Black Lives Matter post and reading the stories from other Black staffers, everything “clicked,” she said.
“I was so disrespected,” Larry said. “How dare you post something about this? It’s very, very, very evident that you don’t care about Black lives. … You don’t care about your one Black staffer.”
Several staffers also accused Leon of creating a hostile work environment for women and staffers with diverse gender identities.
Leon looked the other way when drunk male guests asked female hosts and servers — some of whom were under 21 — to accompany them to their hotel rooms, Carter said.
Leon condoned sexual harassment, staffers said. After a male line cook sexually harassed a young Mexican woman who worked as a host, Leon instead reprimanded the host for speaking up, saying the cook had a “family.”
When Leon learned a white manager had stored at least a dozen photos of his penis on the host’s iPad, he did not reprimand the manager, Gonter and Govan said.
Leon also refused to use the correct pronouns for transgender and non-binary staff, Boudman and Govan said.
A former bartender told Block Club that Leon groped and kissed her after a year of sexual harassment that included unwanted hugs and unanswered invitations to go on dates. Block Club is not naming the woman, as she fears retaliation.
During a dinner service in fall 2018, the bartender was working behind the bar when she said Leon hugged her from behind and forcibly kissed her neck. Boudman, a former manager, said he witnessed the incident.
During the kiss, the woman said she and Boudman “locked eyes in horror.” Leon had appeared to “lose control” in the moment, she said. He eventually let the woman go and, without a word, walked away.
Boudman said he reported what he saw to Quigley, The Robey’s de facto HR representative.
Quigley provided video footage from The Robey’s security cameras — but the tape was not from the night in question and showed what appeared to be a consensual hug between Leon and the woman, she said.
The woman was then told by a manager higher up than Boudman to email Micha if she wanted to pursue an investigation.
Intimidated by this option, and beginning to second-guess herself, the woman did not email Micha. Leon never spoke of the incident and stopped asking her out.
“Sensitivity trainings” implemented by the hotel in November 2018 were a failure, staffers said.
Led by a lawyer, the trainings were more focused on how to protect the company rather than how to speak up for oneself, Carter said. The lawyer skipped a section about transphobia because she said it was “too confusing.”
Neither Leon nor McAllister showed up to the hourly staffer trainings. They did participate in the manager-specific trainings.
Boudman said he remembered Leon asking the lawyer, “What should you do when you are falsely accused of sexual harassment?”
‘That Post Struck A Chord And Lit A Fire’
Gonter said she is now in touch with at least 24 former staffers who experienced or witnessed discrimination during their employment.
Like the others, Gonter said her anger toward The Robey was revived by the Black Lives Matter post. Staffers had been “talking about their stories” for years, she said. Some tried to contact journalists. Nothing changed.
Now they have numbers and the momentum of a movement where public stories of discrimination have led to the closure of neighborhood restaurants like Fat Rice and Nini’s Deli, and the ousting of local drag queen T Rex.
“That post struck a chord and lit a fire,” Gonter said. “It’s time to bring attention to this place.”
They said Grupo Habita has an opportunity to hire someone capable of doing HR and firing two employees at the center of these allegations: Leon and McAllister.
“He’s not remorseful for what he’s done. He continues to do it,” Govan said of Leon. “That’s how he operates a business. I don’t have a lot of empathy or forgiveness for him, or for anyone in a position of management in that hotel, because they’re comfortable with what they’re doing.”
Taking their stories public hasn’t come without consequences.
After Larry spoke out, she said she received angry messages from former coworkers still employed by the hotel. She also doesn’t expect a call back to work any time soon.
That’s OK, she said.
“Every day I was being abused,” she said. “I’m kind of relieved I didn’t get a job offer because I would be cheating myself if I let someone treat me like that.”
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