A group of survivors and allies who have spent months of calling out a culture of widespread abuse and sexual harassment within the restaurant industry met, Sunday afternoon, in a gazebo at Pullen Park to air grievances. The forum prompted a response from James Beard Winner Ashley Christensen about alleged abuse at one of her restaurants.
The NC Safety Alliance, a grassroots movement that began by outing alleged abusers on social media, held the forum on September 13. During the meeting, Kaylin Fulp, a former employee at Christensen’s renowned Poole’s Diner, stood up and said that she had experienced instances of sexual assault and harassment at the restaurant. The former employee gave the INDY permission to use her name.
“I was sexually assaulted three times within my seven months of employment at Poole’s Diner,” Kaylin Fulp said at the meeting, which was live-streamed on the NC Safety Alliance Account.
Two days later, Christensen responded with an open letter that, using Fulp’s full name, addressed the allegations and outlined the steps her restaurant group was taking to build a safer space.
The volunteer-run NC Safety Alliance, had begun collecting and posting stories on social media from sexual assault survivors in mid-July. Flooded with #MeToo stories from across the state—many of them embedded in the service industry—the NC Safety Alliance account, in turn, began numerous chapters in cities like Asheville, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Chapel Hill.
This summer has been a moment of reckoning for the service industry, both locally and nationally. Several local institutions—including Brewery Bhavana, Bida Manda, Lady Luck, and Neomonde—were faced, to varying degrees, with allegations of workplace harassment, abuse, and assault. Most recently, in Durham, more than a dozen former East Durham Bake Shop employees made allegations of mismanagement and a toxic workplace; shortly after that story came out in WRAL, the bakery announced it was closing permanently.
As a painful summer draws to a close, these public accounts culminated in the Sunday afternoon meet-up at which organizers encouraged local service industry workers, owners, and managers to “attend and participate in a discussion with the community.”
According to Fulp, she was 19 when she began working at the Poole’s as a back-of-house employee. In 2017, after being assaulted by two different employees, she took her concerns to management. The two employees who allegedly assaulted Fulp no longer work at Poole’s, she said at the forum.
Fulp declined to speak with the INDY on the record but detailed her disappointment with Ashley Christensen and her wife, AC Restaurants’ Executive Director Kaitlyn Goalen, in an Instagram post, asking that the “leaders of our community to take accountability and actually apologize when given the opportunity.”
Christensen and Goalen’s open letter came two days later. While they were aware of “instances of sexual harassment among kitchen employees at Poole’s through the use of vulgar language” the pair claimed they did not know the full extent of the alleged abuse.
“We know that ‘we didn’t know’ is not an excuse,” the letter says. “We know that ‘we’re sorry’ is too little, and too late. What we’ve outlined above should not be used to discredit Kaylin’s account, because we believe her, and she is right to hold us accountable.”
Poole’s Diner is Christensen’s flagship restaurant. She also owns Death & Taxes, Beasley’s Chicken, and Fox Liquor, among other prominent Raleigh restaurants, and is often seen as both a regional and national leader in the restaurant industry.
In June, Christensen spoke out in support of survivors at Brewery Bhavana and Bida Manda, calling on owner Van Nolintha to “stand in accountability” and detailing her own experiences of assault. In 2017, following an explosive report by the Times-Picayune of widespread sexual abuse at prominent New Orleans restaurateur John Besh’s restaurant group, Christensen issued a blunt post that called on restaurants to put HR procedures in place.
“The issue of sexual harassment is extremely important to me, to my company, and to the industry as a whole,” Christensen wrote.
Yesterday’s open letter outlines several steps that AC Restaurants have taken since 2017—around the time when Fulp left Poole’s—to create a safer workplace, including eliminating post-shift free alcoholic beverages for employees and banning sexual relationships between supervisors and subordinates.
“We are moved by the bravery that Kaylin has shown coming forward, and are gutted to know of the hurt that she has experienced,” Christensen wrote in the statement. “We have asked for the opportunity to apologize to her directly, if she is open to it, for the harm that we caused her.”
The statement—which uses Fulp’s full name and references a private exit interview—was complicated by the fact that Fulp says that her permission was not asked prior to its release.
“Given that you and your wife follow along with me on IG (regularly view my stories) you could have very easily contacted me here. How dare you,” Fulp wrote in a comment on Christensen’s Instagram post.
Christensen says that they had initially attempted to reach out to Fulp through a third party.
“We immediately reached out to the survivor via a mutual friend to apologize directly and to make sure she knows we heard her story and are committed to changing our industry to put workers first,” Christensen said in a statement shared with the INDY.
The open letter, however, was publicly issued before any contact was made.
Across the Triangle, the #MeToo reckoning has precipitated a dramatic culture shift, as restaurant owners have scrambled—to varying and flawed degrees—to regain community trust and establish better workplace practices amid a pandemic.
Last week, months after the initial controversy broke—and just a month after the INDY detailed serious reports of emotional coercion and abuse from management—Brewery Bhavana quietly reopened for curbside pickup, writing in an Instagram post, “As we rebuild, we may not do everything perfectly, but we are dedicated to this process and are grateful for the opportunity to grow.”
Angry comments from former employees were deleted on the post, and when the restaurant opened its doors for curbside pickup, picketers lined the sidewalks, protesting the restaurant’s apparent failure to apologize to victims.
That same week, Union Special Bread and Person Street Bar posted statements in support of survivors, as did Whiskey Kitchen in an opaque Instagram story that said, “We here at Whiskey Kitchen are ashamed to have been part of an environment that allowed abuse and misconduct to take place.” That story directed viewers to the NC Safety Alliance.
“All we know is that we cannot go back to what we had before,” Christensen’s open letter concluded. “The pandemic has laid bare just how problematic our industry has been, on every level.”
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.