Former employees allege 'toxic' environment at Durham bakery
Posted August 28, 2020 4:55 p.m. EDT
Updated September 4, 2020 11:50 a.m. EDT
Durham, N.C. — When East Durham Bake Shop launched a Kickstarter to raise $20,000 to open a brick-and-mortar bakery in Old East Durham, the owners said they were committed to “paying employees a living wage” and being part of the community.
“With nearly one in five residents of Durham living in poverty, we cannot ignore the role we play as business owners in making a positive impact in our own community,” the owners wrote on the crowd-funding page. “And we’re looking forward to creating more jobs when we open our shop.”
But a group of former employees say that the bakery’s owners, Ali Rudel and Ben Filippo, created a toxic work environment that involved racism, lack of financial transparency and overall disregard for the community around them.
WRAL has spoken with 11 former employees who worked at the cafe located at 406 S. Driver St.
Rudel started East Durham Pie Company in her home in 2015 and after a successful Kickstarter campaign (raising more than $24,000), she and partner Filippo opened the brick-and-mortar bake shop in March 2018.
“We're looking to open a cafe and bakery in the commercial district of Old East Durham. Just down the road from our certified home kitchen, many of these storefronts are vacant or closed to the public. Right now there is no place within walking distance for our neighbors to grab a coffee or a bite to eat,” owners said on their Kickstarter fundraising page. “We love our neighborhood and our neighbors, and want to create a cozy and inviting space where folks from our community can meet, work with access to free wi-fi, grab a cup of coffee and share breakfast, lunch or dessert with friends.”
Glenn Wilson worked with Rudel and Filippo at their home bakery and transferred to the bake shop when it opened.
Wilson, who is Black, said that Filippo would talk to Black people differently, using stereotypes like bringing up basketball and rap music when talking to him and others.
“They made a playlist of music for me in the store. It was hip hop,” Wilson said.
Though Wilson had seniority, he said he was relegated to cleaning instead of baking.
“They end up hiring a new baker and they were supposed to give me more time to work due to a baby on the way,” Wilson said.
Within a month, the new baker, who was white, was given the keys to the store, Wilson said, noting that he was never trusted with the keys despite being a senior employee.
Rudel says that Wilson was a key holder and shift lead and that they paid for him to get a food safety management certification. She also says that playlists are not created for certain employees, and that employees are allowed to choose from a selection of playlists.
Former employees described Filippo putting down one of the Black employees repeatedly.
“He talked to him like he was stupid to his face and talked about him to other employees when he wasn’t there behind his back, then made him a manager and complained even more,” one former employee, who asked not to be named, said.
Another former Black employee told WRAL that they felt like they were called out by Filippo for “small things or often exaggerated reasons.”
The former employee described “casual, implicit racism” by Filippo against Black people in the neighborhood, mainly Black men and children who came into the shop.
“This included ridiculing them for asking for certain things that we just didn’t happen to sell but wasn't unreasonable, talking about them being in the bakery too long without buying anything even though it’s supposed to be a community space and white people did the same thing often, and being suspicious of Black kids who’d stop in for water and a break even go so far as to wipe everything down immediately after they would leave even if they only sat at a table which Ben never did, he never cleaned anything,” the former employee said.
Another former employee, who asked to not be named, said that when Filippo was in charge of delegating tasks for the day, Black employees were frequently assigned to do dishes rather than baking.
“Ben told me he wanted to fire one of the employees but couldn’t because he was the only Black employee and he needed to keep a Black person on staff to showcase diversity,” the employee said.
When asked for comment about racism toward Black employees, Rudel said, “We cannot comment on specific employment issues, but we do not treat employees differently based on race or other personal characteristics whether in hiring and firing decisions or in disciplinary action.”
Many of the former employees WRAL spoke with said that it was common for Filippo to refer to Black people by using the phrase “from the neighborhood.”
“‘From the neighborhood’ was code for Black person,” one former employee, who asked not to be named in this story, said.
Many employees described meeting people who Filippo said was “from the neighborhood” only to discover that they didn’t live in the East Durham area at all.
When asked for comment about Filippo using the phrase “from the neighborhood” in regards to Black people Rudel said, “We take each of these allegations or concerns seriously, but we do not understand from where these specific accusations are coming. As such, we cannot say whether the statements are taken out of context or are simply untrue. But the attitude insinuated by these allegations do not reflect who we are or what we stand for.”
Most recently, East Durham Bake Shop participated in June’s Bakers Against Racism event by raising money for Sankofa Farms and SAAFON, a network of Black Farmers.
In addition to accusations of racism, former employee Darcy Vanderhoof said that Filippo used to make transphobic comments mocking non-binary people or those who use “they and them” pronouns and would often misgender queer employees to the point where it felt intentional.
One former employee was transgender and asked Rudel and Filippo to be addressed using the pronouns they and them. The employee and other former employees said that Filippo continued to misgender the employee, even when the employee started wearing a “they/them” button to remind him. The employee became so upset that they emailed a letter to the couple.
“Making sure the Shop is a safe and supportive work environment and an inclusive space for everyone is a priority for us. We have had discussions with employees who were having a difficult time remembering or using another employee’s pronouns, given follow-up reminders, and provided further reading when we feel it is necessary,” Rudel said. “We did take this letter seriously, took it to heart, responded, and took action to address the concerns that were raised. We strive to make sure that we honor every employee’s authentic self, and we do our best to proactively address any issues.”
‘No financial transparency’
Anna Kasibhatla and other former employees said that there was little financial transparency with employees starting at $7.25 per hour in the first month with a raise to the living wage of $13.35 an hour in three months.
Kasibhatla said she and her fellow manager at the time were given raises after one month of working there. That was not the case with other employees, Thomas said she worked four months before getting a raise and only after addressing the issue with Rudel.
“It just kind of felt like they scammed us into this living wage,” Thomas said.
Rudel told WRAL that the shop is a “Durham Living Wage Project certified employer and we have always adhered to the guidelines of the program. All of our employees make a living wage as outlined in the program.”
The Durham Living Wage Project website notes on its website that the livable wage amount in Durham was $13.35 per hour in 2017.
“The state and federal minimum wages of $7.25 don’t let families earn enough to make ends meet,” the project states on its website.
The project offers voluntary certification to “identity, acknowledge and celebrate businesses and nonprofits that pay a living wage.”
The Durham Living Wage Project does allow certified businesses to pay less than a living wage to new hires for up to 90 days. Certified businesses are only required to sign a pledge to follow the project’s rules, with no further checks on the business unless there is an employee complaint, a representative with the Durham Living Wage Project told WRAL. Businesses are to be recertified every two years,.
“At one time we did have a phased process for new employees to receive the full living wage amount. However, we have revisited this policy, and currently all employees are paid a living wage upon hire,” Rudel said.
Former employees said they were also not paid until after the first month of work.
“I was working the hardest I had ever worked and we were all making minimum wage and we didn't even get tips since we were all new hires,” Thomas said.
“As with many small businesses both in and outside of the service industry, when we started we paid employees biweekly and in arrears, with a gap between when the pay period ends and a paycheck is cut. It is possible in theory that someone could start working at the end of one pay period and need to wait some time for their first paycheck. But, we pay employee wages in accordance with applicable wage and hour laws and to the extent we are able we work with employees who are facing an individual obstacle,” Rudel said.
Rudel added that a pay schedule is posted and an employee handbook is available in the employee locker room. She said that during on-boarding the pay scale and where to find information in the future is discussed during employee on-boarding, and that employees have to sign that they have read the employee handbook.
“Paying in arrears is common in the industry because of cash flow issues with which many small businesses face, and it also gives companies time to process new hire paperwork and payroll. A few months back, we were able to switch our pay practices so we do not currently pay in arrears,” Rudel said.
Kasibhatla said the appearance that the shop presents on its social media channels does not match up with what is happening behind the scenes at East Durham Bake Shop.
“It became apparent very quickly that they are pretty good at putting on a facade with a lot of marketing and social media outreach to kind of force the point that they are there for the community and people of East Durham,” Kasibhatla said. “When you thrust yourselves into that kind of spotlight or position, you really have to walk the walk. They didn’t even show up for their employees.”
“It was a really toxic work environment,” Vanderhoof said.
Paying it forward
The restaurant features a “Just Because Board” where people can purchase drinks or pastries for those in need to redeem when they come into the shop.
The former employees WRAL spoke with said that Filippo discouraged some people from using the wall.
“They thought people would abuse it,” former employee Ella Thomas said. “Ben would always talk about how people would come in every single day and use that. It was there for a gimmick or a little show. If they used it, they were looked down upon.”
When contacted by WRAL News about the wall, Rudel responded, “There are absolutely no restrictions on who can use the wall or how often they can use it. We intentionally do not limit its use because we do not want to create any discomfort for people or stigma related to the Just Because Board. We actively point people to the wall, and everyone can participate whether they are paying it forward or picking something from the wall.”
Former employees also said that Filippo would instruct them to call the police on homeless people who came into the cafe and ask for change.
Kasibhatla said that she suggested instead of calling the police, they should use a social worker first responding system that she was aware of.
“It turned into a weird bizarre yelling argument between me and Ben,” Kasibhatla said.
Kasibhatla said that later the program was implemented after Rudel said she had discovered it.
Rudel says that a community resource officer came into the bakery, introduced himself and left information, and that she has directed employees to contact him rather than police in such instances.
Former employees said they were told to ask homeless people to leave if they came in and sat on the couches without buying anything.
While employees were told to call the police in some instances, one former worker said that she received no support when she was threatened by a customer.
Chris Herbert, who is Black, said she was trying to close the shop for the day when an older white male customer threatened her. She said she called Filippo and Rudel but received no support. Herbert said Wilson was able to get the customer to leave. He confirmed the incident to WRAL.
“I expected so much more from them,” Herbert said. “When people came in and were disrespectful to the Black employees they didn’t do anything. They didn’t ask them to leave.”
When contacted by WRAL News, Rudel said she and Filippo, “have absolutely no knowledge of this particular incident.”
Outside of the “Just Because Board,”, former employees say the shop did nothing during their time employed there to directly help the community of East Durham.
Health and Safety
Former employees said they were not formally trained on anything, including cleaning.
“They didn’t teach you how to do anything and if you did it wrong, you were in trouble,” said Vanderhoof.
Vanderhoof and other employees said that in summer 2019 the shop learned that sanitizer levels were not correct for previous months, meaning that dishes, counters and tables were not being sanitized properly. Durham County Health Department inspections in April and July 2019 noted an issue with the sanitizer.
“When the Health Department came through there was a discrepancy between the readings on the strips they used and the readings on the strips provided from the company from whom we lease the dishwasher (who also does regular maintenance on the dishwasher). We took this problem very seriously and were in touch with both the Health Department and the leasing company to make sure it was resolved,” Rudel said.
The health department also noted on four of the six inspections since the restaurant opened that food employees with long beards needed to wear beard nets. Former employees said that Filippo who has a long red beard, refused to wear a beard net while working in the kitchen, resulting in customers finding red beard hairs in their pies.
“Ben does not currently work in the kitchen (he's the one answering phones and the door for pick up most days), but he does wear a mask at all times while in the shop,” Rudel said.
The cafe’s most recent health inspection was Tuesday and it scored 97.5 out of a possible 100 points. There were no violations for hair nets or sanitizer issues, but the inspector did note that there were a lot of flies.
Former employees said that workplace safety was also an issue.
Vanderhoof and another former employee said that one of the first things Rudel told them was that she liked to avoid and not deal with injuries.
The employees said that Rudel told them, “I just turn away because I don’t know how worker’s comp works.” Vanderhoof added that Filippo “would say it was probably just your fault anyway.”
One former employee described cutting their hand while peeling peaches in the kitchen next to Rudel. She said that though she soaked through several bandages, Rudel did not check on or or even acknowledge her injury.
Another former employee described passing out one night at the shop after being overworked.
Rudel told WRAL that the company has worker’s compensation insurance and employees have been told to file a claim if needed.
“We have never and would never discourage anyone from filing a claim,” Rudel said. “We would never require an employee to work through an injury that needed medical attention.”
Former employees said it was routine to be asked to work more hours without being paid overtime.
One former employee recalled a 26 hour shift she did preparing for Thanksgiving where she said she made 100 pies by herself while Rudel sat on the couch.
"Early on with a business, things can get hectic, and during our first Thanksgiving at the shop, we did have someone opt to work an extended shift without being asked or required to do so. This person was paid for their time, and afterwards, we tried to address the situation as best we could to avoid overexertion going forward,” Rudel said.