Brewery Bhavana starts CEO search, launches third party investigation
Posted June 11, 2020 3:24 a.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2020 7:46 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Nearly a week after allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace conduct surfaced, the owners of Brewery Bhavana in downtown Raleigh restaurant told employees via email that they are launching a search for a CEO and a third-party investigation into the allegations.
In the email shared with WRAL News, Vanvisa Nolintha and Patrick Woodson, co-owners of Brewery Bhavana, said that lawyer Denise Cline is beginning an independent investigation into the allegations of misconduct.
"Some of you have questioned her impartiality, so we wanted to stress to you that she has been instructed to gather facts and report on issues that need to be addressed," Nolintha and Woodson wrote.
In the email, the co-owners wrote that they planned to create a professional Human Resources function so there would be "in-house expertise to address employee issues." In addition, the owners wrote that they are planning to provide "diversity/anti-harassment/implicit bias training for staff and managers as a permanent and required part of our ongoing education."
"We believe that each of these initiatives will provide the beginning steps that move us toward our goals of a more inclusive more open and more supportive workplace culture," the owners wrote.
The move comes just days after they announced that their co-owner Vansana "Van" Nolintha, who is Vanvisa's brother, would be stepping away from both Bhavana and its sister restaurant, Bida Manda amid allegations of misconduct.
Fourteen former and current staff members at both restaurants described to WRAL News an environment that involved objectifying of male and female employees, allegations of sexual assault and a culture of silence.
Staff members said it was common for Van Nolintha to engage in inappropriate relationships with younger male employees.
On Wednesday, Vansana Nolintha wrote to staff that he plans to also no longer serve as a managing partner in the restaurants and divest his ownership.
In an email shared with WRAL News, he wrote, "As an owner and manager of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, I was not the leader that I intended to be. To assure change, I will have no role in the companies' future."
Nolintha added that he was "taking a hard look" at his actions and "commits to learning from my mistakes."
"I'm truly sorry for the pain I have caused," Nolintha wrote.
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.
Sara 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.
In the post, Dye said she reached out to The Indy Week in May 2019 to tell her story. She said she spoke with editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman and offered additional sources to corroborate her story of the environment at both restaurants. She said he told her he'd get a reporter on the story. She never heard back from them.
Billman issued a statement on Monday on The Indy Week website saying that the publication “lacked the resources and personnel we needed to see the story through properly."
“I hoped to report it myself, but never found time to get to it,” Billman wrote. “At a minimum, I should have followed up with the person I spoke with in May and let her know the obstacles we subsequently ran into. I failed to do that, and I apologize.”
On Thursday, Indy Week publisher Susan Harper announced that Billman was asked to leave the position.
"This weekend, we confronted serious questions about our journalism: We had failed to pursue a significant news tip last year. Then, yesterday, after many difficult discussions with staff, I concluded I needed to ask our editor to leave," Harper wrote in a post on the publication's website.
Managing Arts and Culture Editor Brian Howe will step into the edition in chief role in the interim while a replacement is being sought, Harper wrote.
When reached for comment, Billman said he and his lawyer would likely be issuing a statement early next week.
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.
In a post on Bida Manda’s Instagram page, Van and Vavisa 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.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the restaurants confirmed that longtime beverage director Jordan Hester had been "let go."
Hester had been with Bida Manda since 2012 and then its sister restaurant Brewery Bhavana when it opened in 2017.
Hester was accused of sexual misconduct in recent days, as current and former employees went public via social media.
Nicole Bivins, who was a member of the opening bar staff at Bida Manda in 2012, detailed inappropriate behavior by Hester. In an interview with WRAL News, this week, Bivins said that she considered Hester a mentor and close friend for years before he allegedly assaulted her.
In addition to Bivins, three other women have detailed to WRAL similar accounts of alleged assaults by Hester.
WRAL has reached out to Hester for comment but has not heard back from him.