Brewery Bhavana, Bida Manda owners step away from leadership roles, new CEO named
Posted September 17, 2020 9:30 p.m. EDT
Updated September 18, 2020 7:08 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Three months after allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace conduct, Brewery Bhavana and Bida Manda in downtown Raleigh are getting a new CEO.
In an email to employees Thursday, Brewery Bhavana co-owners Patrick Woodson and Vanvisa Nolintha wrote that they would be stepping away from their current roles and hiring a new CEO, Frederique Leonard, the former head of operations for City Kitchen, to lead both restaurants.
"Words can’t express how devastating these past few months have been, as we’ve tried to do what we thought was right at the time and we remained silent when we should have been more transparent. It went against everything that we stood for. We are sincerely sorry and take full responsibility in acknowledging that our failures in those crucial moments have caused people immense pain," Nolintha and Woodson wrote in the email.
WRAL asked Courtney Osgood, a spokeswoman for the restaurants, if Patrick Woodson and Vanvisa Nolintha would continue to remain owners of the Brewery Bhavana and if Vanvisa Nolintha would remain the owner of Bida Manda. WRAL also asked the ownership status of Vansana Nolintha, Vanvisa's brother and original co-owner of both restaurants who stepped down from his leadership role in June following accusations of misconduct.
"Right now our focus is on ensuring that we are effectively communicating internally with our staff and are answering any questions they may have in regards to the new changes. We appreciate your understanding," Osgood said.
Both restaurants reopened last week for limited curbside take-out service. A few dozen former employees and their supporters protested outside Brewery Bhavana during the reopening.
Both restaurants had been closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The restaurants were granted Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans in April. The loans were designed by the Small Business Administration as an incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.
In a separate email to employees on Thursday, former co-owner of both restaurants Vansana "Van" Nolintha addressed the allegations of misconduct that surfaced in June from current and former employees.
WRAL spoke with 14 former and current employees of the restaurants. Staff members said it was common for then co-owner Van Nolintha to engage in inappropriate relationships with younger male employees. Former employees also alleged sexual misconduct by beverage director Jordan Hester.
Current owners Vanvisa Nolintha and Patrick Woodson launched a third-party investigation into the workplace accusations and Van Nolintha, who is Vanvisa's brother, stepped away from both restaurants, saying that he planned to no longer serve as a managing partner in the restaurants and divest his ownership.
"I know that nothing I say will make up for the pain that you feel. While I know that it won’t change anything or take away any of the pain, it’s my humble hope that it will provide some clarity and offer my deepest apology to those that have been wronged and have felt hurt," Van Nolintha wrote in an email to employees. "I was scared to say the wrong thing. I was fearful that my words could be perceived as a performance or something that I just 'had to do.' I felt paralyzed and it kept me from apologizing and kept me from defending myself against the things that I did not do. I just didn’t have the courage to follow what my gut, my heart, and my soul were telling me to do - and that was to acknowledge and apologize."
"These past few months have forced me to confront my shortcomings, not only as a leader but as a person. I know my silence has been perceived as ignorance and I just want you to know that I hear you. I have read every single comment, every single article and I’ve heard your voices. It’s haunted me and I deeply apologize from the bottom of my heart to those that have been affected by all of this. This has been a sobering experience for me, and I want you to know that I’m committed to putting in the work that's necessary to become a better person," Van Nolintha wrote.
Hester was let go from the company after the allegations. WRAL has spoken with 10 women, some of whom were employed at Bida Manda at the time, who allege Hester sexually assaulted or harassed them. Hester is currently facing felony charges unrelated to his time at both restaurants. WRAL repeatedly tried to reach out to Hester but did not hear back.
In June, former employees came forward to WRAL, describing an environment that involved the objectification of male and female employees, allegations of sexual assault and a culture of silence.
Sara Dye, who managed the bookstore at Bhavana from February 2018 to December 2018, was one of the first former employees to speak publicly with an Instagram post describing a sexual assault by a fellow employee in July 2018.
Dye said she came forward 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.
In a now-deleted post on Bida Manda’s Instagram page, Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha wrote that they “did not act decisively” regarding the incident. The manager accused of making the slave remark has since resigned, according to an internal email sent to staff members and obtained by WRAL.
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.