This story ran in the August 10 print edition of the INDY with two companion sidebars. You can read them here and here

During Raleigh’s Black Lives Matter uprisings, in late May, protesters smashed Brewery Bhavana’s storefront window. In response, the downtown icon, already shuttered by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, posted a statement to social media stating that the restaurant’s window was just a piece of property; Black lives mattered more.

The post, polished and seemingly harmless, touched off a dramatic series of events that led, first, to an outpouring of firsthand accounts from employees alleging misconduct at the restaurant and its longer-standing counterpart, Bida Manda. This was followed by a quick succession of devastating reports of mistreatment of employees on WRAL and in The News & Observer. (At the time, the INDY came in for criticism, too—for failing to follow-up on a tip, a year earlier, about conditions at the restaurants.)

The public reckoning led to management departures from the restaurants, including co-owner and general manager Vansana “Van” Nolintha. The restaurant announced that Nolintha’s sister, Vanvisa, who co-owns both restaurants, and Patrick Woodson, who co-owns Brewery Bhavana, would forge a new way forward. There would also be a search for a new CEO and a third-party investigation into the allegations. 

Since that time, the INDY has spoken to 16 current and former employees of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, in addition to numerous people close to the situation. Many employees spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or being blacklisted in Raleigh’s restaurant industry. They tell a story about a workplace in which vulnerability was coerced by Nolintha and those loyal to him. This company value, employees say, made the prominent Raleigh restaurants uniquely susceptible to sexual misconduct and the emotional manipulation of employees. 

“The Nolinthas have always fostered a culture of vulnerability and Van Nolintha and Jordan Hester have both abused that trait with their staff,” former bartender Nicole Bivins wrote in an Instagram post on June 7.

What follows is an in-depth report of the inner workings of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, as recounted by employees who experienced the restaurants’ cult-like environment. Two separate stories set the stage: One details serious allegations against one of the restaurants’ most prominent employees, former beverage director Jordan Hester, while the other outlines the national context of a restaurant reckoning like this one. 

Before the events of May, the two Laotian-influenced establishments had come to be known in the Triangle for their empathy and civic engagement in fraught times. That reputation was coupled with local and national renown for their food, beer, service, bookstore, and floral arts.  

“We have come to learn,” the May 31 Brewery Bhavana Instagram post read, “that the act of speaking out is crucial to what it means to be an ally.” 

This drew a blunt reply in the comments from Sara Dye, a former employee: “When are you going to address the sexual abuse that also happens in your establishment?”

Commenting on Nolintha’s post was quickly disabled, but not before an open letter from employees, “Keep Bida Manda Accountable,” began circulating, describing a racist incident that occurred earlier this year. The document was joined by a flurry of social media posts from employees, alleging sexual harassment by Nolintha and the restaurants’ beverage director, Jordan Hester. (Hester’s lawyer did not return repeated calls from the INDY.)

The racist incident occurred in early February when Jibreel Parks, a Bida Manda server, was nearing the end of a shift. Manager Kate Shields stopped Parks to point out a table that needed clearing. He was, she said, her “slave.” Parks is Black. 

Both reported the interaction to other managers; Shields, who did not want to speak on the record to the INDY, offered to resign. Those managers then reported the incident to Nolintha, who waited two weeks before calling an all-staff Bida Manda meeting, at which Shields apologized and wept profusely and Nolintha announced she would resign. It was an uncomfortable afternoon. Employees say that its bungled handling reflects deeper issues at the restaurant.

“He positioned himself to be so influential in the community,” Dye says of Nolintha. “When you have that combination of wealth and power and influence, I could see how you feel invincible, like, ‘Nobody’s gonna speak out against me, and if they do, nothing will be done about it.’”

In response to written questions from the INDY, a spokesperson for Nolintha issued the following statement: “Van has stepped down as a managing partner and is no longer involved in the operation of the restaurants. He has started the process of divesting his ownership, which is complicated and will take time. It would be inappropriate to comment further.”

“I don’t think any of this would have come out without [the pandemic and Black Lives Matter Protests],” Parks told the INDY. “It was definitely the perfect storm. Van’s the golden boy [with] perfectly crafted social media. After all this, it’s kind of like finding out how magic works.” 

A culture of coercion

Before all this, if you Googled Van Nolintha, you’d encounter a wealth of effusive results. There were profiles and interviews, lush images of foamy beer and sky-blue pools. One of the first search results, on the North Carolina Leadership Council website, outlined Nolintha’s journey to opening one of the first Laotian restaurants in the country. 

Van and Vanvisa Nolintha moved from Laos to Greensboro in 1998 and 1999, respectively, when both were around 11 or 12 years old. They lived with family friends until they graduated from high school there. Nolintha attended N.C. State University, where he was admitted into the prestigious Caldwell Fellows program and traveled widely, before pursuing graduate studies in “community building and the role of art and design in the peacemaking process” at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

These interests were reflected in Nolintha’s seemingly progressive approach to restaurant management. Bida Manda, located on Blount Street, opened in 2012. As Nolintha told Forbes in a 2019 oral history, he had graduated Trinity mid-recession and was having trouble finding a job. While visiting his parents in Laos, he decided he wanted to find a way to honor them. 

When Nolintha returned to Raleigh, he emailed acclaimed chef and restaurateur Ashley Christensen, who offered to help him establish a restaurant. More industry support followed from the likes of Angela Salamanca, owner of Centro, and Trophy Brewing co-owner Chris Powers. A coalition of friends reportedly spent 750 hours helping Nolinthas put the restaurant together. 

The name Bida Manda comes from the Sanskrit ceremonial term for “father and mother,” according to the restaurant website, and a focus on family is paramount in the company. Pictures of the Nolintha parents meet your eyes at the entrance of the 22-table restaurant, and a biography of the Nolintha siblings is printed on the first page of each menu. While it is common for restaurants to emphasize “family” when trying to define their work culture for employees, at Bida Manda, this emphasis was more pronounced.

“I went in with this mindset, like, these are magical people,” says Taylor Quinn, who was hired as a host at Bida Manda in March 2017 and worked through the summer of 2018. “At the time, I thought it was so cool that they were so story-based and that they brought another element to dining.” 

Nearly everyone in the restaurant’s management had close relationships with the Nolinthas or reflected their values in family ties. There were Jordan Hester and his brother, Casey, who both worked as managers. Siblings Deana and Elizabeth Nguyen also worked in management and are longtime family friends of the Nolinthas. Several other managers, including Luisa Jaramillo, knew Nolintha from the Caldwell Fellows leadership development program at N.C. State. 

The sprawling, elegant Brewery Bhavana opened in 2017, bringing in a third partner, Patrick Woodson, who also oversaw operations at the nearby brewery. (Woodson is the son of N.C. State chancellor Randy Woodson). The name for the multi-concept space, which includes a flower shop, bookstore, and brewery, translates to “cultivation.” The company grew quickly. By the time the coronavirus shutdown closed the restaurants in April, the two restaurants collectively employed 211 people.

Sara Dye, the woman whose question proved the catalyst for all the upheaval at the restaurants, applied for a job at Brewery Bhavana in 2018, after moving to Raleigh from San Francisco. By then, the restaurant had amassed glowing write-ups in virtually all local publications, including the INDY, and in national outlets like Bon Appetit. In 2017, Forbes went so far as to anoint Bhavana one of “The 10 Coolest Places to Eat in 2018,” writing that the restaurant had completed the capital city’s “transformation from an underachieving food town to a serious eating destination.” The following spring, Brewery Bhavana was named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the category Best New Restaurant in the Country

When Dye came in to interview, she says she found herself overwhelmed by the airy, open beauty of the space—ornamental flowers and bamboo baskets of dim sum, potted fig trees that reached toward orbs of light. The application process she underwent was different from others she’d experienced. For one thing, Nolintha didn’t seem to care about her CV. He wanted to learn about her. 

“They made it sound like they were looking for something really specific,” Dye says. “They didn’t want you to just have retail or book experience. They wanted something more personal.”

It was an attractive place to work. The money was good—better than at most places. There was an electricity and edge to working for two of the most celebrated restaurants in North Carolina. And, as employees have repeatedly stated, the restaurants could feel like a big family. 

Emotional openness was a quality particularly valued in prospective workers. Although his was a high-end restaurant, Nolintha frequently sought out young people without prior industry experience for front-of-house work. This, employees say, made it easier for him to shape them to fit in with his restaurants’ untraditional practices. 

There was, in other words, a type. And when someone didn’t fit that social mold, employees say that, too, was made clear by management. 

“I was an outlier because I was older,” says bartender Patricia Heath, who was hired at Bida Manda in 2014. “I’m 35 now. Every manager was younger than me, except for Jordan Hester. And I wasn’t straight out of school. I was familiar with the area. I had different social circles.”

A 37-page employee handbook, acquired by the INDY, includes detailed instructions on what to wear, how to greet guests, and how to handle conflict. Toward the back of the manual, a two-page section notes that sexual harassment is unlawful. Rather than discouraging hierarchical relationships between supervisors and staff, however, the manual says such relationships could not involve job leverage. 

“No supervisor or manager shall suggest that an applicant or employee’s acquiescence to sexual advances may favorably affect his or her conditions of employment or career development,” it read. 

The list of required reading materials on the Nolintha family history, beer culture, and the floral arts were extensive. But, as those materials made clear, working at the restaurant was a special opportunity to work in an intentional community. 

Dye was hired to manage the bookshop and found herself encouraged to promote envelope-pushing works like Ta Nehisi-Coates’ Between the World and Me, Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, and Free Women Free Men by Camille Paglia. 

Whether guests would buy Dye’s selections didn’t seem to be the point; the books, she was told, were more of a statement piece. They told a story. 

Dye was also struck by the restaurant’s proximity to power. Early on, at the restaurants’ glitzy annual fundraiser, Bida Promda, she remembers Nolintha grabbing her arm as she walked past and pulling her toward him. 

“Get a wine for the First Lady, please,” he said, according to Dye. 

Dye was startled when she looked up and saw Governor Roy Cooper and his wife, Kristin. It was her first introduction to the powerful circles the Nolinthas ran in, which included Raleigh power brokers like Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin and former mayor Nancy McFarlane, city council members Jonathan Melton and Nicole Stewart, developers like John Cooper and Greg Hatem, socialites like Eliza Kraft, and restaurant luminaries like Cheetie Kumar, Salamanca, and Christensen. In addition to serving on prominent local boards, Nolintha also was celebrated by national figures like John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

The company culture at Brewery Bhavana was also different from others Dye had experienced: closer, looser, more physical. In interviews with the INDY, employees emphasize how physical Nolintha and the other managers were toward employees. While on the job, there were frequent massages. Multiple employees use the word “encouraged” to describe management’s stance on staff dating. It was common for managers to make sexual comments about staff. 

“You probably weren’t going to get the same attention from management or praise at all if you weren’t giving in to vulnerability and being open and emotional at all times,” says Brandon Edwards, who worked as a host, server, and graphic designer at Bida Manda between 2016 and 2019. “My introduction to that world was the staff retreat I went on, where it was crying around the clock, because it’s a lot of intimate storytelling. Of course, there was alcohol at all times, so that was fueled. I remember crying at the retreat and being like, ‘I’m never open like this; I don’t usually do this kind of thing.’” 

The Bida Manda staff retreats were not mandatory, although employees tell the INDY they felt there would be repercussions if they didn’t attend. 

Retreats consisted of drinking and cooking, drinking and talking, and drinking and trust-building exercises. 

“Every single person cried at least once a retreat,” says former bartender Heath. “[Manager Whitney Wilson] and Jordan [Hester] would deliberate for a long time about which groups they would put you into. And then they would ask you questions. And then they’d have these questions and so much alcohol. It’s like what cults do. They wear you down.” 

There were probing group questions: “What was your most vulnerable moment?” There were jokes about consent, including: “Oh no, we’re going to get sued.”

“It was always angled like, ‘You would enjoy your time more if you did what the family wanted to do,’ which was be honest and open and emotional,” Edwards says. 

Back in Raleigh, karaoke was a popular activity for staff. After shifts, a group would often head to Flex on South West Street for long nights of singing and drinking; sometimes, managers, including Nolintha, would come along. Socializing off the clock wasn’t formally required, but many workers, especially new probationary ones, say they felt pressured to participate. 

“If you weren’t going to be all the way in the culture and drink the Kool-Aid, you wouldn’t be hired in one of the best restaurants in Raleigh,” says Taylor Quinn, who adds that she overheard managers disparaging employees who wanted to “just leave after their shift.” 

Extracurricular drinking often turned to touching. 

“There was a lot of, like, grabbing people’s hands and saying, ‘Let’s take shots,’” says Dye of evenings out. “That’s very popular with Van. And it’s always multiple. It’s not one random shot, it’s multiple rounds of shots, and he always pays for everything. That was my first introduction to his vibrant, big personality and what I thought for a long time was generosity. Now, I don’t see it as generosity.” 

When that generosity was most needed, employees say it could be unevenly applied. 

Alex Shoemaker was hired as a bartender at Bida Manda in 2013. Less than a year into the job, Shoemaker’s girlfriend miscarried. She was several months into the pregnancy, and Shoemaker was devastated.

“I had a pretty big breakdown,” he says. “I missed a couple of days of work, and I communicated this with Van at the time. He didn’t really seem all that compassionate about the situation, which was funny to me, coming from a guy who had talked about being compassionate to one another and trying to understand other people’s lives and the obstacles they’d overcome.” 

In retrospect, Shoemaker describes the restaurant as a “cult of personality.” At the time, though, he says he was thrilled to work with a cocktail visionary like Jordan Hester and felt that he’d stumbled into a transformative community.

The week after his breakdown, Shoemaker says that Nolintha called and told him they needed to have a conversation. Shoemaker had been warned about his boss’s tendency to suddenly let employees go; still, he was shocked by Nolintha’s tone. 

“I closed on Monday, and he helped me close, and after, he fired me,” Shoemaker says. “I asked him what I had done wrong. His response to me was that ‘the light in my eyes had gone out.’” 

Shoemaker moved away from North Carolina shortly thereafter. 

“It feels like you’re cast out,” he says. “Your entire life is wrapped up in that community. All of my friends worked there. When I lost my job, I lost my entire support group. It felt like people were told not to talk to me.” 

Reports of Sexual Harassment 

At a gathering at a coworker’s home in 2015, Helen Flowers—a server who briefly worked at Bida Manda—recalls someone turning on a video recording of staff singing karaoke. She says she was surprised by the physicality captured in the images on screen. 

“In one of the videos, Van was kissing one of the servers,” Flowers says. “It was so weird, and I mentioned something like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was a thing.’ And the person I was talking to, she said, ‘Everyone. Everyone has made out with Van.’” 

Brandon Edwards began working at Bida Manda in 2016, when he was 21. He soon noticed Nolintha taking an interest in him and, shortly thereafter, began to receive suggestive text messages from his boss, including one that, according to Edwards, intimated that if the two had sex, Nolintha would “be the one on top, since he was the boss.” 

One night, Nolintha invited him to have an after-hours drink at the restaurant, and the two went upstairs to the apartment where Nolintha lived at the time. They made out and Nolintha put his hand on his crotch, Edwards says, before Nolintha sent him home. And while his boss’s attentions eventually wore off, Edwards says that the dynamic made for an unsettling, confusing work experience.

Justin Moretto, who worked as a bartender at Brewery Bhavana in 2017, says he experienced numerous uncomfortable moments with Nolintha. His boss would compliment his appearance, he says, or ask that he take his shirt off. Once, Nolintha walked up behind Moretto as he was using the urinal and rubbed his shoulders. When Moretto mentioned the harassment to a manager, he says that he was rebuked—and, shortly thereafter, let go. 

Phillip Ayers, a bartender, was part of the original staff at Brewery Bhavana. He recalls an instance when he and Nolintha were both in the men’s bathroom. His boss drew Ayers’s attention to the stylish room’s design, noting, according to Ayers, that it exposed the people using it from certain angles. 

“It was weird to have the owner point it out and laugh about it,” Ayers says. “All we’re taught with guests is, you gotta protect them, to do everything you can to take care of them and make them feel comfortable. Bhavana was often referred to as the ‘living room of Raleigh.’ That seems to not line up. It’s really inappropriate if you know about that and don’t fix it.”

Ayers adds that he mentioned his discomfort with the bathroom design to Woodson, who, Ayers says, laughed it off. 

A spokesperson for the company states that the restaurant bathrooms meet all standards of sanitation and privacy. 

One male employee, who asked not to be named, lists numerous instances in which Nolintha acted inappropriately, coming up behind him at the urinals and touching him, or groping him aggressively at a party, once. 

During one evening out, the employee says he had refused drinks from Nolintha multiple times, only to find Nolintha pouring a drink in his face as he clenched his mouth shut, alcohol running over his mouth and down his shirt. 

This same employee had been warned early on about Nolintha’s attentions toward young male workers. After these encounters, he says he went out of his way to avoid his boss. Later, during a performance review, an evaluation caught him off guard: He was, in his manager’s words, “not vulnerable enough.” 

One evening in July of 2018, Dye was working at the bookstore when she took a break to place a takeout order at Bida Manda. While there, another staff member was escorting an intoxicated server out the door. Dye jumped in to help bring the employee outside and waited with him until his Uber arrived. The employee groped Dye several times, despite her repeated protests. As soon as his car arrived, Dye says that she went to Nolintha to report her discomfort with the encounter. He assured her it would be dealt with. Then he asked her not to tell anyone. 

The next day, Dye received an apology text from the server who had groped her. This unsettled her: She hadn’t given Nolintha permission to give out her phone number. She was also put off by the language Nolintha used to describe his conversation with the employee, which seemed to amount more to a heart-to-heart than disciplinary action. 

“It was really powerful,” Nolintha texted Dye, in a message she shared with the INDY. “He was really upset with himself. But I assured him that we knew who he is but that doesn’t take away from the need to address what happened.” 

In addition to the sexual harassment workers say they experienced from managers, the company was harboring an accused sexual predator, Jordan Hester. (Read the INDY piece on Jordan and Casey Hester here). 

No Accountability 

For Dye, the incident with the drunken coworker made her more aware of the restaurant’s patchwork HR process, which was unwieldy, at best, for a company that employed more than 200 people. 

For several other women, Hester’s treatment at the company drove that point home. Over the years, his name has traveled among the whisper networks of Raleigh’s hospitality industry. Despite his public claim that he hired women bartenders to give them a leg up in the cocktail world, employees say Hester routinely upbraided and demeaned them. The INDY spoke with several female bartenders who left the restaurants and derailed their careers at the restaurant because of him. 

Dye began to advocate for better reporting systems at the company. As a department head, she reported directly to Nolintha but says that, because she was one of the only managers not to have had a prior personal relationship with him, she did not feel protected. 

The sentiment against upper management was not all negative. In early June, manager Sarah Yopp and flower shop creative director Deana Nguyen both wrote statements in support of staff. And employees say that they felt some managers, including Vanvisa Nolintha, maintained professional conduct.

“I don’t want to say anything about Vanvisa, besides the fact that I think she’s a good manager and that I like and respect her,” says Patricia Heath. “I think she and her brother have their own, different relationship, and a whole other power thing going on there, with Van having more power over that relationship.” 

Nevertheless, reporting to upper management could be fraught, and employees say and there were not clear pathways for addressing issues. Most managers had longstanding loyalties to Nolintha or porous boundaries with staff. Jessica recounted how manager Luisa Jaramillo would often yell at her, then quickly flip to effusive praise and physical touch. (The INDY reached out multiple times to Jaramillo, who did not want to comment, and Whitney Wilson, who never replied.) 

Jibreel Parks, the employee who was called a slave, says he isn’t one to “rock the boat.” A laid-back musician, Parks says his frustration with the February incident was exacerbated by the fact that he felt his hands were tied. Nolintha—whom employees recall saying that he “didn’t see color”—took several weeks before involving the entire staff in an attempt to resolve the matter. Employees say there were no Black staff in positions of management, and that it was rare for Black front-of-house staff to be hired. 

“Kate called me a slave and then it’s like, ‘Damn, am I a slave to my circumstances?’” Parks says. “Because I can’t even quit. I’ve got bills. As much as I’d like to pack my bags and go, I wasn’t in a financial situation either way where that was a realistic option.” 

Several employees recounted instances where Nolintha discouraged them from pursuing outside opportunities or going back to school. They worried crossing him would jeopardize other job opportunities in Raleigh. No one wanted to find themselves several years out of college and blacklisted, with no other career experience. 

“Once you were in, you were in,” Lindsay, the employee mentioned in the sidebar, said over email. “It was so much more than a job. It was a way of life. And if you didn’t feel it or buy into it, you were out. Van had such a mystical way about him, and his story and teachings were so moving. He was a moral and ethical pillar of the downtown Raleigh community, and his reach was growing fast. We literally used to joke about being in the ‘Bida Cult.’”

Though the company emphasized vulnerability and empathy, those qualities did not seem to be rewarded in an HR context. 

One employee, a rape survivor, recounts feeling jolted when, on her way to serve guests, she walked past a whiteboard with a rape joke scrawled across it. When she told a manager that she was upset, the complaint turned into two separate meetings with managers, one of which dragged late into the night and involved Jaramillo grilling her on her sexual trauma and concluding that the employee hadn’t “gotten over” it. 

In December of 2018, Dye sent an email to management detailing her frustration with a beer club the restaurant ran, with suggestions for a more streamlined process. A few days later, Nolintha asked her to come in early to work. 

“I showed up and he fired me, pretty much on the spot,” Dye says. “And he said that the reason was that my email threw the brewery under the bus, and there was no coming back from that for me. I just remember thinking the whole time, ‘A man groped me and still works here.’”

Moving Forward 

On June 9, Nolintha announced he was stepping away from the company permanently and would begin the process of ending his financial interest in Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana. That same day, a restaurant spokesperson announced that Jordan Hester no longer worked with the company; shortly thereafter, Jaramillo and Wilson also resigned. 

Denise Cline, a high-profile Raleigh employment lawyer, was brought on to investigate allegations of misconduct. 

Woodson wrote in an email to employees that the company intended to use Cline’s findings to implement change while acknowledging that many staff members had “questioned Cline’s impartiality,” due to the fact that she had been hired by the restaurant. Cline wrapped up her work in two weeks. 

All employees who were sources for this article say they declined to speak with Cline. 

When pressed by the INDY on July 23, Vanvisa Nolintha and Woodson stated that, for reasons of confidentiality, they cannot disclose Cline’s findings.

“[But] many of the management, policy and HR enhancements we are considering are a direct result of the feedback we received from the investigation,” their email adds.

 In the wake of the scandal, Patrick Woodson has distanced himself, saying he was not privy to daily onsite operations. Several employees who spoke to the INDY say, though, that Woodson was frequently made aware of employee concerns. 

“I was told at a managers’ meeting almost two years ago that the company had hired an HR consultant, and I am aware of instances in the restaurant for which the consultant’s advice was sought,” Woodson wrote in the restaurant memo to the INDY

Vanvisa, for her part, has been quiet about how aware she was of issues in the restaurants. Many of the employees the INDY interviewed say that they do not hold her personally responsible, as her brother has been the public face of the company and primarily handled decisions over the years. 

Since they were children, Vanvisa’s life has been deeply enmeshed with Van’s. He took care of her when they moved to the United States as adolescents, and Nolintha has admitted he was strict with his sister, describing himself in interviews as a “parent figure” and “disciplinarian.” 

In a story he’s often told publicly, Van Nolintha said the idea for the annual fundraiser, Bida Promda, came about because he forbade Vanvisa, who is a few years younger, from attending prom when she was in high school; the gala was his way of making it up to her. The whole city seemed to turn out for it. 

The siblings have lived together the past few years and Vanvisa is engaged to Brian Steffen, Van Nolintha’s close friend from college. When asked whether the siblings share finances, Vanvisa wrote, “Van has begun the divestment process and when the divestment is complete, we will not share any ownership.”

The downtown Raleigh business community, struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic, has largely stayed quiet as scandal engulfed Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana. In a Twitter thread, Ashley Christensen addressed the claims, writing that she had urged Nolintha to be accountable for “playing a central role in the hurt that has been inflicted at his restaurants.” 

The original Instagram page for Bida Manda, which had included an apology statement related to the racist incident, has been deleted. The Brewery Bhavana page, though, still brims with snapshots from years past. These pictures are joyful and artful, full of the familiar, minimalist white-space aesthetic. Most are of employees—posing with beer, smiling and pressed close, or taking jumping pictures at the beach. Numerous portraits of employees detail their “light and empathy,” their “intentionality,” how they “show up for the job.” It is rare to see employers celebrate employees this way, especially in the service industry. 

But social media tells one story and employees, another. Many question whether they will return to the restaurants once they reopen, while others are taking legal action against the company. 

“It crosses boundaries to talk about how vulnerable we are,” Heath, the bartender, reflects. “Or, to just describe even the intention behind things—like, ‘this is all intentional’—you don’t get to control that. It’s a job. It’s good to have a nice one that’s healthy, but if it’s requiring all this extra energy and different changes of perspective, that’s not healthy.” 

In a text message, Heath further clarifies her thoughts: “It’s great to find meaning in your work. It’s not okay to establish a framework of purpose through service and encourage or insist that your employees adopt the same mentality—that is cult-like.”

Today the company’s official line is that, once the dust settles, there will be a way forward. According to a restaurant spokesperson, Brewery Bhavana is in the process of training employees and hopes to reopen for curbside in the next few weeks. Plans for a third restaurant, Luang Prabang, however, are on hold due to the pandemic.

“At the same time we are learning from our current and former employees about their concerns, we have been overwhelmed by messages of love, caring and goodwill from employees, guests and the greater community,” the owners wrote in their memo to the INDY. “We believe we will come back stronger than ever.” 

Jane Porter contributed additional reporting to this story.

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2 replies on “How Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana Harbored a Culture of Abuse Behind a Progressive Facade”

  1. Odd that you chose not to include the fact that Jonathan Melton and Nicole Stewart both received campaign contributions from the Nolintha brother and sister team. The predator and his enabler.

  2. The real fake progressives are the mayor of Raleigh and the majority of the city council, especially Nicole Stewart, Saige Martin ,(Oops, he’s resigned in disgrace) Jonathan Melton, David Knight, Patrick Bufkin and Corey Branch. They are financed by, supported by and controlled by builders, developers, John Kane, Barnhill Contracting, Temple Sloan and other Republicans. Mayor Baldwin and these councilors are progressives like Donald Trump is.

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