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Mike Isabella disputes sexual harassment charges

Unlike others in #metoo era, this group is pushing back

Mike Isabella and his partners strongly pushed back against allegations of sexual harassment at their Washington, D.C.-based restaurant group saying the charges are completely false.

The detailed response, which comes from an attorney representing the multiconcept operator Mike Isabella Concepts, or MIC, is somewhat unusual in this #metoo era, in which the accused within the industry more typically have issued public apologies or stepped down voluntarily from leadership positions, often only mildly denying allegations.

Mike Isabella
Photo: MIC

The growing cadre of restaurateurs facing charges of sexual harassment include Mario Batali, Ken Friedman and John Besh.

MIC, on the other hand, said the charges were completely untrue, offering a lineup of women in leadership roles at the company who described positive experiences working there. 

The MIC statement is a response to reports that broke on Monday when Chloe Caras, the former director of operations of the recently opened Isabella Eatery, filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and retaliatory termination.

In the complaint, which was reported by The Washington Post, Caras said Mike Isabella and his “all-male partners created a sexually hostile work environment and condoned a climate of contempt for women at MIC’s restaurants that stands out in an industry that is notorious for sexual harassment.”

During her three years with MIC, Caras said she was routinely subjected to unwelcome touching, sexual advances, vulgar and explicitly sexual remarks and gestures, sexist insults and texts calling her vulgar names.

She said she was propositioned by Isabella multiple times and she was subjected to degrading acts, including an incident when he pulled her hair and mimicked a sex act. Female patrons were ogled, the complaints said, and the group’s owners openly bragged about exploits with.

Though Caras raised complaints about harassment she experienced — as well as the harassment of other female workers — she said Isabella “took no corrective action to reform the sexist culture he created and perpetuated.” 

The lawsuit also notes that MIC did not establish a human resources department until October 2017, though the group had about 1,000 employees, and had no internal mechanism to report harassment. 

A key point in the complaint is a night in December when Caras objected to an offensive comment by an intoxicated Isabella. Caras said she was fired by Isabella and told not to return, which the company disputed. 

Caras also said Isabella falsely told the state employment commission that she had abandoned her post to deny her unemployment compensation.

MIC, however, in a statement said the allegations of an unwelcoming or hostile work environment are false, saying Caras — who was a co-owner of the group — had never reported being harassed until the dispute over her unemployment claim.

The statement said the mimicked sex act incident was also untrue and the allegations are unsupported by any evidence, “but countless MIC employees can confirm that these types of behaviors simply do not occur at the restaurants.”

The Washington Post report included other former employees who described harassment.

Sara Hancock, a former pastry sous chef, said Isabella kissed her cheek without consent and described the workplace as "like a frat house."

But MIC said those stories come from former employees who are Caras' friends.

The statement said that Caras “engaged in the very same banter, language and horseplay that she now claims created a hostile working atmosphere.”

“Harassment, discrimination, bullying, abuse or unequal treatment of any kind whatsoever are not tolerated at MIC,” the statement said. “As a manager and co-owner herself, Ms. Caras was responsible for enforcing these policies.” 

The Isabella statement, however, conceded that “unprofessional words and profanity have been customary and historically acceptable in the restaurant industry, promoted by social media and popular television shows.” 

Isabella and his partners said they have “recognized the need for change” and will “continue to be a stalwart of positive transition in the culinary industry.” 

However, MIC is also prepared to litigate these issues “in the public forum,” the statement said, saying the lawsuit was filed only after MIC refused to meet Caras’ financial demands.

Bregman supplied the names of other women at the company, who disputed Caras’ allegations of rampant sexual harassment, saying they had not experienced anything like what the lawsuit describes. 

Katarina Famoso, for example, chef de cuisine at the MIC restaurant Kapnos Bethesda and an MIC employee of about seven years, said there was vulgar language, as is common in the industry, but that she never felt uncomfortable. 

Isabella and partners at the group behaved “like big brothers to me,” she said in an interview. 

Famoso also said her kitchen had zero tolerance for sexual harassment, and that she had fired a server for grabbing the buttocks of a line cook.

Dhiandra Olson, assistant general manager of Requin at the Wharf, also said she was treated like family, and that women at the company are encouraged to move into leadership positions.

Olson said she started as an entry-level server five years ago and had quickly been given the opportunity to work her way up to management.

Caras’ allegations were “really surprising,” Olson said. “I have worked so closely with these guys for five years, so, to me, it’s unbelievable.”

Rochelle Cooper, executive pastry chef at the group’s Kapnos restaurants, said she is concerned that the group will “have a shadow cast upon it” as a result of the allegations.

“I’m the first to say ‘times up’ and ‘me too.’ Everyone is waking up,” she said. “We’re for the movement. But you have to be right about it.”

Cooper said she can’t speak to Caras’ experience, however. 

“I can’t tell you whether this happened or not, but it doesn’t happen where I have worked,” she said. “It’s a great environment to work in.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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