Award-winning Raleigh restaurant owner steps away amid accusations of misconduct
Posted June 9, 2020 4:07 p.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2020 10:48 a.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — A co-owner of two award-winning downtown Raleigh restaurants has stepped away from his leadership position at both places after allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace conduct.
Vanvisa Nolintha and Patrick Woodson, co-owners of Brewery Bhavana, said in a statement Tuesday that their co-owner Vansana Nolintha, who is Vanvisa's brother, would be stepping away from both Bhavana and its sister restaurant, Bida Manda.
"We take the sexual harassment allegations and conduct complaints for both restaurants very seriously and have decided to bring in an independent third party to investigate allegations of inappropriate workplace conduct. To ensure the integrity of this investigation, we have asked Van Nolintha to step away from his leadership position within both companies. Our commitment to our employees, guests, and the community is that we will follow the facts wherever they lead, hold the appropriate persons accountable, and take all the actions necessary to restore full confidence in our restaurants, Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana."
WRAL requested interviews with Vanvisa Nolintha and Woodson, but spokesperson Joyce Fitzpatrick said they would not be answering any questions at this time. Calls to Vansana Nolintha for comment have not been returned.
Since opening in March 2017, Bhavana has received numerous awards including being named one of the 10 Coolest Places to Eat in the World in 2018 by Forbes and one of Bon Appetit's 10 Best New Restaurants in America. The restaurant was also named a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award in 2018.
Fourteen former and current staff members at both restaurants described to WRAL News an environment that involved a culture of silence, the objectifying of male and female employees and allegations of sexual assault.
Staff members said it was common for Van Nolintha to engage in inappropriate relationships with younger male employees.
Brandon Edwards started working at Bida Manda in December 2016. It was only a few weeks before the annual company retreat to Ocean Isle Beach. The theme for the retreat was “Game of Thrones” and Edwards said management had assigned characters to each person.
Edwards and Van Nolintha were assigned the two gay characters on the show. A week before the retreat, Edwards said Nolintha texted him a photo of the two characters preparing to engage in sex. In text messages obtained by WRAL News, Nolintha is shown writing,“What happens in ocean isle lol” and then texting the photo.
Flattered by the attention Edwards flirted back.
“I definitely played along with it. I was 21, giving him flirtatious texts back,” Edwards said.
Edwards said the texts continued with Nolintha saying that if the two had sex “he would be on top because he was my boss.”
A few nights later, Edwards said he was invited to Nolintha’s apartment above the restaurant. Edwards had been drinking at Legends and arrived at Nolintha’s intoxicated. He said the two kissed and Nolintha grabbed his crotch, before calling Edwards an Uber.
Edwards’ roommate at the time confirms the text message exchanges between the two men and confirms that Edwards told her about the encounter with Nolintha after it happened.
Another former employee, who asked not to be named, said that it was common for Nolintha to make advances on his employees when the group would go out after work to Fox Liquor Bar, Capital Club or Neptunes.
"Times were fun until they weren’t. Many nights on the dark dance floor Van would make sexual advances towards me and others I knew well. It primarily consisted of kissing and groping. I have no doubt a few incidents were consensual. However, countless times were not," the employee said. "I was drunk, I was vulnerable having just come to terms with my sexuality, and I thought this was OK. At the time I didn't have a grasp on personal or professional boundaries. It never dawned on me that this was anything more than the reality of being gay, or 'that’s Van'- another phrase shared amongst fellow staff when we would talk about individual experiences."
Justin Moretto, who worked as a bartender at Brewery Bhavana in 2017, described the culture at the restaurant as almost cult-like.
“When I first joined it was very much this cult mentality. It is a family and we take care of family,” Moretto said.
Moretto said Nolintha would make comments about his appearance telling him that he “looked hot” and should wear a specific outfit again because he looked good in it.
Moretto said Nolintha had a meeting with all three male bartenders and one female bartender in preparing for a wedding that would be hosted at Brewery Bhavana in October 2017.
“He said he picked the three men because his friends were going to be there and he wanted there to be eye candy behind the bar,” Moretto said.
That evening, Moretto said Nolintha got very drunk and kept going behind the bar, trying to make drinks.
“He was very hammered behind the bar,” Moretto said.
When Nolintha spilled the drink he was making onto Moretto’s shirt, things took a turn. Moretto said Nolintha started yelling to the crowd at the bar, “Who wants Justin to take his shirt off?”
Moretto recalled another uncomfortable incident that day when he was using the urinal and Nolintha and a few friends came into the bathroom.
“I’m standing there actively using the bathroom. He walks over and rubs my shoulders and asks me if I am going to come out after work,” Moretto said. “I was uncomfortable with that.”
After one of the newer bartenders remarked about the “sexual aggression” coming from Nolintha, Moretto said he knew he needed to speak up.
Moretto said he reported the incident to a manager, but was immediately rebuked saying that he as a white, straight man could not be experiencing harassment. He said his hours were soon reduced and he was later fired.
"Everyone on that management team knows what Van does," former employee Sara Dye said. "Everyone that works in the restaurant knows what Van does."
Dye, who managed the bookstore at Bhavana from February 2018 to December 2018, went public on Saturday with an Instagram post describing a sexual assault by a fellow employee in July 2018.
Dye told WRAL News that the employee had been drinking at Bida Manda after his shift and had called an Uber to get home. Dye said she helped the Bida Manda host get the intoxicated employee outside to wait for his ride. While waiting, Dye said the employee tried to kiss her, then grabbed her right breast and eventually her butt. After each attempt, Dye said she told him no.
"I said no," Dye said. "I physically pulled away from him."
Since co-owner Van Nolintha was managing Bhavana that night, Dye said she went straight to him to report the incident.
"I told him everything that happened," Dye said. "His response was, 'Ok, let me have some discussions. Let me talk to (the employee) and people. Don't talk about this with anyone.'"
Dye said the incident was incredibly triggering due to her history of assault in the past. She said she was raped in 2014 by a stranger and sexually assaulted the following year by a close friend.
The following day, Dye said she received a text from Nolintha saying he had talked to the fellow employee who was sorry and was upset with himself. In text messages obtained by WRAL, Nolintha described the talk as a "growth moment" for the employee.
"I just had a firm and direct conversation with (employee) about last night and also the expectations going forward," Nolintha wrote.
"That's good. Was it okay? I feel bad," Dye wrote back.
"It was really powerful. He was really upset with himself but I assured him that we know who he is but that doesn't take away the need to address what has happened," Nolintha wrote.
Then, the employee who Dye said assaulted her sent a text message to her apologizing.
"I didn't give my permission to be contacted by this person. I am not comfortable talking to this person right now," Dye said.
When Dye threatened to quit over the incident, she said Nolintha agreed to look into adding a human resources person to the staff. That did not happen.
Dye said she continued to work with the employee who assaulted her.
"He'd come up and say hi and put his hand on my back and rub it," Dye recalled, saying she told Nolintha about this saying it made her still feel uncomfortable.
Dye said she was fired from Bhavana in late December 2018 after sending an email to Nolintha, co-owner Patrick Woodson and the manager of the brewery portion of the business in regards to possibly changes to its Cellar Door membership program, which allows members to pick up an exclusive bottle of beer each month at the shop. The program had become frustrating for customers and workers with the correct amount of bottles not always being on hand. In her email, obtained by WRAL News, Dye offers solutions to fix the problems.
Two days later, Dye said Nolintha fired her saying that, the "email threw the brewery under the bus and I broke their trust. There's no coming back from that for you."
Dye said she was given two months severance pay.
Dye said she came forward now with her story following reports that a black employee at Bida Manda had been called a slave in front of other coworkers by one of the members of the management team in February and a lack of swift action being taken by owners.
In a post on Bida Manda’s Instagram page, Van and Vavisa wrote that they “did not act decisively” regarding the incident.
While Dye said that Van Nolintha's behavior was widely known among employees and managers, some employees have contacted WRAL to indicate that they were unaware.
Behind the bar
Nicole Bivins, who was a member of the opening bar staff at Bida Manda in 2012, detailed inappropriate behavior by her boss, beverage director Jordan Hester. Bivins told WRAL that she considered Hester a mentor and close friend for years before he allegedly assaulted her.
"I can recall so many evenings bartending alongside Jordan and he would direct the conversation towards the appearance of an extremely young hostess’ body, the things he would like to do to them, or any number of other inappropriate topics. I have long wished I said something to him about it, or to these girls he would ultimately pursue," Bivins said.
Bivins said Hester first crossed the line with her during a trip to New Orleans.
"On the first occasion I was acutely aware he had crossed a line, he demanded I show him my breasts while attending Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. It was a command, like any other he’d give behind the bar. And he was my boss, and my friend - or so I thought," Bivins said, noting that she complied with his request.
Bivins said Hester assaulted her a year later while hanging out with friends at his apartment.
"They went to sleep, Jordan offered me his bed. He then got into his bed and pressed his body up against me, started grinding and grabbing my breasts. Like an animal of prey I froze, stunned and helpless. In the following days I worked up the courage to text him telling him how uncomfortable it made me. He told me that I could get him fired if I wanted to, but guilted me about not being able to care for his child."
Hester soon started behaving in a hostile way toward her.
"He walked into the restaurant on many occasions angry, frequently barked at me directly in front of customers, or refused to speak to me at all," Bivins said. "The owners and other managers elected to not schedule us together, rather than address his behavior - which they admitted was unwarranted, but said 'he’s not going anywhere.'"
After five years of working there, Bivins left Bida Manda.
"Due to the lack of support I received from management, and in fact the rather harsh treatment I endured for speaking up about anything I was edged out of the restaurant entirely," Bivins said.
Julia Swinn, who worked with Bivins and Hester at Bida Manda, said she was aware of Hester’s inappropriate behavior at the cocktail event in New Orleans and the alleged sexual assault at his apartment. Swinn said that while she did not know the exact details of the alleged assault, Bivins told her that something had happened. Swinn said Hester had spoken inappropriately to her as well.
WRAL has reached out to Hester for comment but has not heard back from him.
Vansana Nolintha's longtime friend and celebrity chef Ashley Christensen released a statement Tuesday afternoon regarding recent accusations.
"I have urged my friend, Van (@bidamanda), to stand in accountability for playing a central role in the hurt that has been inflicted at his restaurants. I am disappointed and angry and sad," Christensen wrote.
In the series of Tweets, Christensen revealed that she had been sexually abused as a child by an authority figure.
Following the accusations, The Saturday Market at Rebus Works said it would no longer be carrying Brewery Bhavana products pending the third party investigation. The remaining products in stock are being sold with proceeds going to the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault.