On a Sunday in late February, as diners were beginning to warm up again to indoor dining and most restaurants were celebrating one of their busiest weekends in two years, Acme Food & Beverage Co. turned 24 years old to the tune of a silent, empty dining room.
The Carrboro restaurant’s birthday came three days after its front-of-house team announced the end of their three-month strike, with all but one of the 19 striking workers permanently vacating their serving, hosting, and bartending positions.
The strike was brought on by what employees describe as the “willful ignorance of upper management” in addressing sexual harassment allegations they had raised against Acme’s owner, Kevin Callaghan.
During a time of dramatic upheaval in the labor sector—Starbucks workers are currently organizing in more than 150 locations across the country; just last week, employees at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island succeeded in forming the company’s first union—the strike at Acme stands out as unusual for a number of reasons.
“It’s hard not to see that this is something of an anomalous strike,” says Gunther Peck, a Duke University associate professor of history who teaches courses on organized labor. “There’s no wage demand. There’s no union recognition demand.”
Unlike labor movements in recent headlines, the strike at Acme involved a single, independent restaurant in a small college town, with a social-media-centric strategy of organizing that reflected its generation of striking workers, nearly all of whom were under the age of 25. And their chief demand—that Callaghan, Acme’s founder and chef-owner, would not set foot again in his own business—raised questions about what justice looks like in a strike unable to be settled through simple policy change.
It was also an abnormally tight-lipped strike, as employees declined to go into detail to others or the INDY on their allegations. Strike organizer Madison Burns says this was primarily because harassment is hard to enumerate; it can be difficult to convey the impact of a comment, a look, or a lingering touch, she says.
“Sexual misconduct and harassment has a much broader definition than people realize,” Burns wrote in a reply to one Instagram commenter’s request for specifics. “Our coworkers were made to feel very uncomfortable by a man, who is their boss, who is more than twice their age, on nearly every occasion he was in the restaurant. That’s plenty of detail if you ask me.”
Shortly before the strike, employees say, a breaking point came after working a wine dinner in mid-November. According to Burns, Callaghan, 55, had spent the night making inappropriate remarks and being touchy-feely. A few workers expressed their discomfort to Alison Hinks, a recently hired bar manager.
“She was really concerned so she brought it to management’s attention, and she was threatened with her job if she didn’t stop speaking out for us,” says Burns, who started working as a server at Acme in May 2021. “So she quit, and that’s when we decided we should strike.”
In an email to the INDY, Acme’s legal representation wrote that allegations of inappropriate behavior by Callaghan at the wine dinner were false and denied that he had threatened Hinks’s job; after Hinks reported that Callaghan “had engaged in ‘inappropriate sexual language and advancements,’” they wrote, the restaurant requested that she give them time to gather facts, and she subsequently resigned without notice. Hinks declined an interview for this story.
On November 26, several hours before the striking employees set off to deliver their notice, Callaghan used the restaurant’s scheduling app to dispatch a letter to the entire Acme team.
The letter opens with Callaghan asserting that he thought he was “on the right side of things”—or, at least, that’s what he’d “told himself.”
“You think that because you go to marches, host fundraisers, and sign petitions, that you then align with certain goals and beliefs,” Callaghan wrote. “So, it’s incredibly humiliating to find myself complicit in the same power dynamics that I’ve claimed to disavow for my entire adult life.”
Callaghan went on to state he would be removing himself from any involvement in restaurant service for several months; in the meantime, he would be talking with a therapist and Acme’s management team would work to create a new framework for conducting conversations about harassment.
“There is no excuse for my actions,” Callaghan concluded. “I am very sorry.”
The strikers found Callaghan’s apology insincere.
“[It seemed like Acme] knew something was up and were trying to quickly take the wind out of our sails,” says 22-year-old striker Drew Ehrler. “The timing of it felt like too little too late. It just gave this feeling like nothing’s been internalized, very glib.”
Later that day, as planned, the strikers submitted their notice and Acme shifted back to the take-out-only model it had implemented earlier in the pandemic.
After receiving the workers’ demands, the restaurant hired Raleigh attorney Bridget Blinn-Spears as legal representation and Chapel Hill employment law practice Noble Law Firm to conduct an HR audit. With help from the grassroots labor campaign Fight for $15, the strikers brought their own counsel on board, who represented them pro bono.
The strikers’ first demand: that Callaghan “not be allowed to return to the premises.” The notice also called for the appointment of an official human resources officer. Zoë Dehmer—the chief culture officer for Acme’s leadership team and the manager who employees say functioned as Acme’s de facto HR director—had recently gotten out of a six-year romantic relationship with Callaghan. Dehmer, 29, says she started dating Callaghan after being promoted from a front-of-house position to management in 2015. In an email, Dehmer wrote that though they lived together, she and Callaghan kept their personal lives removed from the business during the time.
“I don’t know where they got the idea I was the de facto HR person,” Dehmer wrote. “In Acme’s handbook, which they all signed during onboarding, the policy is clear that employees were welcome to go to any manager to raise concerns.”
The strike notice explained that Dehmer’s involvement with Callaghan “contributed to the inability of victims to come forward against Kevin.”
Twenty-year-old striker Abbey Chewning, who started working at Acme in August 2021, says she was originally drawn to the restaurant because she believed its status as a beloved, critically acclaimed Carrboro institution implied a healthy workplace. But once Chewning learned of Dehmer’s history with Kevin, she says, “there wasn’t a lot we felt like we could do to rectify the issues we were facing.”
Former employee Coco Wilder, who worked at Acme between 2018 and 2019, echoes this sentiment.
“Kevin and Zoë as a unit were impenetrable,” Wilder says. “She was posting pictures of their international vacations together—I’m not going to go to her with an issue against her boyfriend, boss, and owner of the restaurant.”
The notice went on to demand a “formal apology” from Callaghan and upper management—one posted publicly with an acknowledgment of Callaghan’s alleged behavior, not just his position of power—as well as a framework to encourage more diversity in the restaurant staff.
The negotiation was frustrating at first, strikers say, then began to feel futile.
In February, employees received a draft of Callaghan’s apology that Acme representatives said would ultimately be released to the public. Workers were then asked to sign a contract stating that they wouldn’t release the apology or discuss it in detail, Burns says, which Acme also denies. According to the restaurant’s counsel, Acme “requested and received assurances that any drafts would be kept confidential until the apology was finalized and released.”
Ultimately, Burns maintains, it was a document that “didn’t inspire any confidence that if we went back we would experience different treatment.” After the HR audit was concluded, Acme presented the results to the striking workers’ counsel on an “attorneys’ eyes only basis.”
The investigation did not find any instances of Callaghan’s behavior that would constitute a legal claim for sexual harassment, according to Acme, though it did “describe employees being uncomfortable with comments made by Callaghan.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, five former employees who worked at Acme for three to 10 years, as long ago as 2005—including one who claims to have submitted a testimony to the HR audit—corroborated Callaghan’s history of harassment. Some expressed guilt at not speaking up about the alleged behavior. Acme maintains that management “received no other complaints related to Mr. Callaghan prior to those made to Ms. Hinks.”
Acme also informed the striking workers—who were largely made up of front-of-house staff—that in rehiring employees, the restaurant would be reinstating its pre-pandemic shift availability policy, in which servers and bartenders must have the availability to work a minimum of 15 shifts a month. This, according to Acme, was to ensure that employees have a “deep knowledge of the menu and ingredients,” though some employees—who had previously been hired to work only a few shifts a week—interpreted it as a more direct message from Acme: We don’t want you back.
By the end of January, some advancements had been made: Acme agreed to mandate sexual harassment and diversity training for employees and management, as well as implement a new anti-bullying policy.
And in negotiating their chief demand, Burns says the strikers were willing to compromise; if Callaghan had agreed to take a lengthy furlough and limit his presence during service hours upon his return, that would have been enough. Instead, lawyers offered a 30-day leave of absence from Callaghan.
Several months into this back-and-forth, the restaurant was still posting brightly lit photos of cornbread and wedge salads on Instagram, and most of the workers had moved on and gotten new jobs. Though no demands had been met in full, workers decided it was time to call it. On February 17, they ended the strike.
When Wilder heard that her successors had gone on strike, she says she was supportive but dubious about how it would play out.
“I was like, that’s gonna be hard, their first demand being that Kevin was not going to set foot on the premises,” says Wilder. “Acme is inseparable from Kevin.”
This particular facet of the strike is part of what makes it so unique, explains Peck.
“It’s unusual for a particularly bad foreman to literally cause a strike,” he says. “Usually it’s company policy, or that all the foremen are doing something wrong.”
It’s also unconventional to use a strike as a grievance procedure, according to Peck. When there’s just “one bad apple creating a toxic work environment,” it’s usually a simple fix—the company fires them. It can even be an easy way for a company to look heroic, Peck says.
“But this isn’t a company—there’s the rub. It’s an individual who owns the damn restaurant.”
But Peck stresses that the demand is important, despite the fact that it’s tricky to meet it in full.
“In terms of getting a story that’s compelling about something that sometimes would be gray in policy terms, to say it’s gray doesn’t mean it’s not impactful.”
They’ve raised difficult workplace questions, Peck says, and that’s a good thing. In Chewning’s words, “When the owner of the restaurant is the biggest issue, it’s like, what are we gonna do? Fire him from his place of business?”
From the outside, the answer may have been straightforward: quit and find another place to work. This is ultimately what most of the strikers did, but not before making a full-court press to change working conditions—not just for themselves but for future employees.
“The employees insisted that the food being served and the efficacy of the restaurant are inseparable from how they’re being treated,” Peck says. “They were figuring it out as they went, so I admire the chutzpah—the courage and the risks that they’ve taken.”
Wilder also applauds the strikers’ ability to both see an issue and act on it.
“It’s a very brave thing to do. They’re new blood, and that may mean that they’re not taken as seriously, but it also means they’re able to identify a problem and take a stand,” Wilder says, in reference to the number of recent hires that were involved in the strike. “In the ‘business as usual’ climate I worked in, I don’t think it would’ve happened.”
This, the strikers say, is part of what enabled them to organize as a collective.
They all started at Acme around the same time and quickly became good friends. Most were in their early twenties, and though Acme’s front-of-house had always been fairly youthful, this new batch was also from a new generation.
And even if the collective’s demands weren’t ultimately met, they say they still feel accomplished in what they set out to do: have their voices heard—if not by Callaghan or management, then by the community.
According to Chewning, the workers didn’t originally intend to go public with the strike. But after almost a month had passed and Acme hadn’t responded to their demands, they took their grievances to the digital realm. They decided to go Gen Z on ’em.
They created an Instagram account,@acmeonstrike, which quickly accumulated more than 700 followers. The strike hashtag—#damngoodstrike—was a sardonic nod to Acme’s business leadership team, Damn Good Food, which is owned by Callaghan and works jointly with Plum Southern Food in Durham, Atlas Bar in Carrboro, and Lumina Theater in Chapel Hill.
“They pivoted really quickly to something called community unionism, where you’re not focused simply on the immediate demand, but you reach and seek out a broader public,” Peck says. “It shows the ingenuity of a younger group on strike.”
The strikers created graphics (complete with their own “Acme on strike!” logo) that stated their demands, a timeline of events, and any updates, and posted them on Instagram alongside captions that provided nuance, addressed commenters’ questions, and cited their role models; one post ends with a quote from Lech Walesa, a trailblazing labor activist who organized his first strike at age 27 and later served as the president of Poland.
Burns has Walesa beat by a few years: she’s 24, the same age as the restaurant she strove to organize.
“Social media has become a really powerful information-spreading tool,” Burns says. “It was a way to get information to folks who maybe aren’t plugged into activist networks otherwise.”
Beyond Instagram, the workers also filmed videos of themselves explaining the strike and its larger context and cut them with B-roll from a rally they held in early January; the videos were then featured on Fight for $15’s TikTok account, which has 100,000 followers.
Sharing social media posts via direct message is straightforward—even reflexive—and allowed the strikers to swiftly mobilize their own community. Online visibility likely played a large role in raising the strikers’ funds to almost $10,000, and also allowed reporters to easily contact strikers for interviews, enabling their story to be shared on other platforms.
The strikers went public with the hopes that it would compel Acme to start talking. But the rally, which attracted Carrboro Town Council member Danny Nowell and more than 50 other supporters, was ultimately what drove the restaurant to start taking them seriously.
That being said, there was a driving force behind those high turnout numbers: they’d promoted the rally on Instagram.
On February 25, Acme posted a note from Callaghan on its website stating that management had been approached with “complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct” in November and immediately took action to investigate the claims. Callaghan wrote that even though the investigation came back clean, he feels he has fallen short in creating an environment where employees feel comfortable and is working to mitigate similar situations in the future.
The restaurant linked the note in a Facebook post and, for several days, in its Instagram bio. The note is not visible on Acme’s site unless users enter specific search terms.
Now that the strike is done, Burns is channeling her energy into forming a Chapel Hill–Carrboro Workers Coalition, which she says will provide workers with a support system and a place to discuss organizing and workplace treatment.
The former strikers held a “victory rally” to promote the new coalition on February 27, huddling under the pavilion at Carrboro Town Commons while rain poured down around them.
At the rally, Council Member Nowell briefly applauded the workers for their efforts, a sign-up sheet for the coalition was passed around, and then the crowd, mostly made up of former strikers and former employees, dispersed one by one. Perhaps due to poor weather and a last-minute venue change, turnout was low, but Burns has taken to the Acme strike Instagram to further promote the coalition, which had its first meeting on March 28. Ten people attended.
In a phone call, Nowell, who also spoke at the mid-strike rally in January, declared that he doesn’t plan on returning to Acme.
“It’s a real shame. I was really looking forward to eating at an organized Acme that had met these demands,” Nowell said. “But under these circumstances, I’ve had my last meal there—I’m not going to be crossing the picket line. Without the workers, there is no Acme.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.