Current and former employees say the restaurant group failed to support them, alleging that it tolerated abuse, dismissed complaints about cultural insensitivity and used nondisclosure agreements to silence employees.
When Thea Merl interviewed at Rose's Luxury in 2013, the longtime D.C.-area resident had just moved back from New York and says she'd "heard good things" about the soon-to-open restaurant.
In its nascency, Rose's Luxury — the first of three eateries in a restaurant group led by James Beard Award-winning chef Aaron Silverman — positioned itself as a game-changer in the upscale-dining industry. Silverman, in interviews and fundraising campaigns, described it as a happiness-inducing, no-frills neighborhood spot for an "innovative" meal, one where the unofficial motto is "fuck perfect" and staff are taken care of "extra well."
Merl, a server and sommelier, recalls sitting down in 2013 with Silverman and other staff members to discuss what they disliked about past work experiences and how Rose's Luxury would be different. They shared stories of abuse, in which chefs had screamed at or thrown food at employees, she says. They talked about collaboration, she says, adding that the environment at Rose's was a "creative" one.
But the "revelation in dining" lauded by Bon Appetit ultimately failed its original mission, say several people who worked for the company.
Current and former employees of the restaurant group have stepped forward in recent weeks to say they felt undervalued and unheard, experiences that suggest the company has not made good on its promise to put staff first. The criticism comes amid social media backlash for a Black Lives Matter Instagram post the company made in late May (which it later walked back as "virtue signaling"), as well as a nationwide conversation regarding racism and toxicity in the industry. In its post on BLM, Rose's Restaurant Group touts a longtime "ethos that values the strength in [its] diversity" and affirms support for its "BLACK and marginalized colleagues."
In conversations DCist had with 17 people who have worked for the company, many describe an internal culture that belies those claims and has not departed from industry norms — one in which management threatened to revoke health insurance, tolerated abuse, looked the other way on sexual harassment, dismissed complaints about cultural insensitivity, and asked employees for silence with nondisclosure agreements.
"They were supposed to be the safe space," Merl tells DCist. "And they evolved into just another restaurant."
'We Always Put Our People First'
Rose's Luxury was a knockout hit in its first two years. Bon Appetit crowned it best new restaurant in the country. GQ named it No. 1 on its list of most outstanding restaurants. Its no-reservation policy led to lines so serpentine, customers hired people on TaskRabbit to hold their spot.
Silverman, a Montgomery County native who's often characterized as a "perfectionist," said in a 2015 TEDx Talk titled "How I Built The Number One New Restaurant in America" that his company's success is "100% due to our employees."
"We look for people, not positions ... but in order to get these people, you have to create an environment that they want to be in," Silverman says in the talk. "We always put our people first; they are your main stakeholders. They are the core of your business. More so than your customers or even your investors."
One of his frequent talking points has been that the company provides health insurance when most restaurants don't. Since its inception, Rose's Luxury has offered full-time employees insurance and eventually added other perks, such as a gym membership and paid parental leave. In 2019, Silverman instituted a "people program" charge to bills at Pineapple and Pearls to fund additional benefits, such as a 401(k) and extra paid time off.
But four RRG employees describe instances when Silverman explicitly or implicitly threatened to discontinue their insurance after finding staff performance unsatisfactory.
On one occasion early in the restaurant's history, Merl says Silverman lined staff up in the dining room shortly before the start of dinner service and berated them for an error made the night prior.
"[We were] being yelled at by a red-faced Aaron as an entire staff in the front of the restaurant, and he threatened our health insurance," she says. "And then we opened the restaurant to work a shift."
Silverman tells DCist via email that offering health benefits "in an industry that seldom does" has been a key company principle since its founding, as well as "a personal passion point."
"If at any point someone came away with [the impression that benefits were threatened], that's on me and I sincerely apologize," Silverman writes.
In 2016, the company expanded with fine-dining venture Pineapple and Pearls next door (a recipient of two Michelin stars where the per-person tab hovers around $300) and a third eatery, Michelin-starred cafe Little Pearl, which opened a few blocks away the following year. Before the pandemic, the company employed 135-140 people, says Silverman, who spoke to DCist via phone and email.
Employer-provided health insurance helped motivate one Pineapple and Pearls chef, who asked that DCist not use his name due to concerns about his privacy, to join the company, the chef says.
"[It was] mainly to work in an environment and learn from someone that was supposedly doing something really new at the time, such as taking care of their employees, supplying health insurance and creating a work environment [that's] suitable and sustainable," he says.
Yet the chef says the workplace culture at Pineapple and Pearls under Silverman was "definitely not healthy by any means," citing a lack of support from management, as staff toiled in an "almost robotic" way to keep the fine-dining restaurant successful. Though the chef says he'd worked in kitchens where chefs would "throw undercooked pieces of chicken" at employees' faces, he says he would have preferred that treatment to the "discouragement" he felt at Pineapple and Pearls.
"That outlet of camaraderie and help and assistance that should be supplied from upper management was not there," the chef says. "That's just a foundation of creating a good work culture."
On at least two occasions, the chef says Pineapple and Pearls sous chef Jonny Black grabbed him by the arm during dinner service.
"He would grab my bicep area and just squeeze it really, really hard ... and he would tell me to do something or cuss me out or something really quietly," the chef says. "I'd see him do that to multiple people."
In interviews with DCist, Black denied the allegations.
"If I've ever touched someone's shoulder or arm, that's possible; we work in kitchens, we were close to each other," he says. "But I've never assaulted anybody."
Black — who worked at now-closed New York eatery Corton under Paul Liebrandt, a lauded chef who in a 2011 documentary threatened to put Black's head "through the fucking wall" — says he worked with "intensity" at Pineapple and Pearls.
"The kitchens I came up in were intense kitchens that in today's light would be seen as hostile," Black says. "I've changed, and I apologize for any way that I came at anybody and the intensity with which I showed myself."
Black says he sat down with Silverman and other management in the latter half of his tenure with the company to discuss the way he spoke to employees in the kitchen.
"I was told I just needed to chill out, and that this was not that kitchen," says Black, who left the company for another job in March 2017. "We discussed, like, 'Hey Jonny, this isn't New York, this isn't a three-Michelin star kitchen.'"
While Silverman says he spoke to Black regarding an "unacceptable" comment he'd made, Silverman writes he "did not see any inappropriate or aggressive touching" and that such behavior is "absolutely not acceptable." He says the restaurants do not have any reports of verbal or physical abuse regarding Black.
"We needed a formal HR system to better address this incident (or any others), and we've since added that function with new, formalized policies for misconduct and disciplinary action," Silverman writes. "It's critical that we swiftly address racist, hostile, or otherwise inappropriate comments in our workplace."
Rose's Luxury was named Best New Restaurant by Bon Appetit in 2014.
'Stop Oversexualizing My Body'
A 2013 Rose's Luxury employee handbook obtained by DCist states that the company will foster "a work environment free from harassment." It includes both "comments" and "physical conduct of a sexual nature" in its definition of sexual harassment.
"Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that Rose's Luxury will not tolerate," the handbook says. It adds that policies apply to employees, managers and any "third party doing business" with the company.
Yet Merl says that she was sexually harassed while at work — and that the conduct was indeed tolerated by management.
On one occasion, she says a restaurant patron inappropriately touched her while she was serving the table.
"[The guest] got up, walked behind me, grabbed my behind and shook it," she says. "And instead of that person and their party being ejected from the restaurant, our general manager decided it was better for himself to serve the table so they could enjoy their experience instead of getting kicked out — while I continued to work."
Merl says that then-general manager Andrew Limberg and another manager, Michael Richmond, were present when she reported the altercation. A second employee, Janine Copeland, also tells DCist she witnessed the incident between Merl and the guest. Limberg declined to comment for this story. Richmond declined to comment on the incident.
"If this is indeed how it was handled, it was handled incorrectly," writes Silverman, who says he wasn't aware of the encounter. "The manager on duty should have immediately removed that guest from the building. We have removed multiple guests over the years for far less atrocious behavior."
Copeland, a former server, says management made her feel uncomfortable with repeated comments about her clothing and suggestions that she was dressed inappropriately.
Early on, she says, Rose's Luxury encouraged her to express herself at work. Her personal style was a focal point in a 2015 Washington Post article about the rise of casual service at upscale restaurants.
"I've always thought Rose's will be the last restaurant I work at because I can be myself," she says in the piece, which notes that her work attire one evening was overalls and a T-shirt, paired with a bandana in her hair.
While the company does provide some sartorial guidance for its servers (e.g. no "visible undergarments" or "athletic wear"), Silverman eschews uniforms and wrote in a 2016 essay for Vice that he advised servers to "dress in something they'd wear on a first date."
"We were planning on building some guidelines for our uniforms," Silverman wrote. "But when everyone started showing up in their outfits mixed together in the group wearing their own things, I realized, 'Shit. Why don't we just roll with this?'"
Over time, however, Copeland says her self-expression became a problem for management and coworkers. Despite the nebulous dress code, she says management frequently targeted her for her clothing choices, and that her outfits became a "running joke." At the restaurant's five-year anniversary party — which she attended after she'd left for a new job — she received the award Most Likely To Not Abide By The Dress Code.
Silverman says he did not create the award Copeland describes, and that it is "not appropriate."
Copeland also says that on several occasions, Richmond asked her to put on a bra or cover her nipples with Band-Aids, which she says he gave her.
"I used to be like, 'Stop oversexualizing my body,'" Copeland says of the comments she says she received from Richmond and others. "I came here to work, not to show off my nipples."
Richmond, who left the company in 2018, declined to comment on Copeland's allegation that he brought her Band-Aids, but he tells DCist that the dress code was "undefined."
"As the manager, that is a hard thing to put an enforcement mechanism on," says Richmond, who says issues with the dress code were discussed at the restaurant. "We never had a proper reset. ... We never had the 'stop everything, let's address these things' conversation."
On one occasion, Merl says Silverman told her she "looked like a cab driver" when she wore a dashiki to work.
Silverman says he recently spoke to Merl about the remark and that he is "truly sorry as that comment does not reflect [his] personal values" or those of the restaurant. He also says that he is not aware of the allegations regarding Band-Aids, and that suggesting they should be used to cover an employee's nipples would be grounds for termination.
"But let me be clear, it's my responsibility to create an environment where this NEVER happens, whether I know about it or not," Silverman writes. "Since that time, all of our managers have received harassment training. In addition, multiple channels have been set up for employees to report complaints and concerns with management, coworkers and/or guests."
Despite the mistreatment she says she endured at work, Copeland says the company still had something to offer. During her tenure, she worked with several other Black women — something she says she had rarely experienced in the industry — at a nationally celebrated eatery that was doling out benefits.
"I know if I worked in any other restaurant that had a similar stature, I would've been going through similar stuff, and that's why we stayed," Copeland says. "That's why we excuse it away, because at least I have benefits and a fucking gym membership to wash down this bullshit."
Some dishes at Rose's Luxury that have loose ties to Asian cuisine have been presented in take-out boxes.
'Open Door Policy'
According to a 2014 Washington Post profile on Silverman, the chef set out to depart from traditional restaurant practices by leaning on the voices of his entire staff, not solely on upper management. From the outset, the company established an "open door policy" for soliciting feedback from its employees.
"All employees should feel free, and are encouraged, to make suggestions and offer constructive criticism on ways to improve everyone's overall work environment," the 2013 employee handbook reads.
Yet some people who worked for the company say that sometimes when they identified issues regarding cultural insensitivity, Silverman and other managers dismissed their concerns.
Former Rose's Luxury bartender Chelsea Silber and Merl both say they questioned management about the way particular menu items were plated. Some dishes with loose ties to Asian cuisine, such as fried tofu, were presented in take-out boxes. Fried chicken was placed on ceramic plates made to look like paper plates, while Italian dishes were more likely to be on "gilded plates," Merl says.
Silber recalls a time when Island Wings were presented in a plastic basket and management asked staff for feedback.
"I definitely voiced my concerns over that because almost every single other dish on the menu was presented in a very beautiful either ceramic or slate piece of plateware," Silber says. "It felt offensive to serve something like that with no context." She says Silverman "shut down" her complaints.
Silverman tells DCist that the company has used a variety of servingware and that they have recently learned that "some of our presentations were perceived as culturally insensitive."
"We're committed to educating ourselves and soliciting staff feedback to make sure we are not presenting our food in a way that is offensive or disrespectful," Silverman writes.
In 2017, Merl says she suggested the company provide gender and racial bias training, after participating in such training at another D.C. restaurant. She says she met with Silverman and Limberg, who by then was RRG's director of operations, to suggest bias trainings for staff.
"[I] was point-blank told by Aaron and our director of operations at the time that they didn't see the need for it," Merl says.
Silverman tells DCist he recalls the conversation.
"While I was and still am supportive of these trainings overall, I should have been more receptive to Merl's specific, important input," Silverman writes.
'A Way To Silence Me'
One former employee of Rose's Restaurant Group alleges that she was asked, with the promise of continued health insurance, to stay silent about her "many uncomfortable experiences as a Black Woman in that space."
In February 2019, former Little Pearl employee Krystal Mack posted on Instagram that she was laid off in 2018, months after she says she reported alleged "racially charged jokes" made by a chef at the restaurant. The chef, BJ Lieberman, who left the company in July 2019, tells DCist he participated in a subsequent human resources investigation and left a mediation with Mack "feeling like we had spoken our truths to each other" and that he "felt really good about [their] relationship moving forward."
Mack declined to be interviewed for this story.
Silverman acknowledges the HR investigation but says RRG "should have done a much, much better job in hearing and addressing [Mack's] feedback."
In her Instagram post, Mack shared photos of a contract she says she was asked to sign during her departure that appears to include a nondisclosure agreement.
"You will not make any statements that are professionally or personally disparaging about, or adverse to, the interests of the Restaurants (including its officers, directors, employees, clients and vendors) including, but not limited to, any statements that disparage any person, product, service, finances, financial condition, capability or any other aspect of the business of the restaurants," the contract in the post states.
The contract also states that "in exchange for signing and returning this Agreement, the Restaurants will provide you ... coverage under the Restaurants' group health insurance plan through March 12, 2019."
Mack emailed a statement to DCist regarding her experience with the company.
"Aaron Silverman was the person who made the call to lay me off and offer me health insurance as a way to silence me and keep me from sharing my experience," she writes.
The company tells DCist that while Mack declined to sign the contract, her healthcare coverage was extended.
"She was offered an agreement that would put into writing the extension of her benefits," the company writes. "She chose not to sign this agreement and her healthcare was extended nonetheless."
It adds that "several employees were let go due to poor financial performance" at Little Pearl in late 2018, and decisions were made "solely based on employee performance" and "shift availability."
While NDAs are fairly common practice in the restaurant industry, they are typically used to protect trade secrets like recipes and business plans, and NDAs with especially broad language or that try to cover nonconfidential information are more liable to be challenged in court. In 2018, a former employee sued D.C. restaurateur and chef Mike Isabella after alleged sexual harassment, which he has denied, and claimed his company used these agreements to silence victims of such harassment.
In response to a request for comment on allegations that the company has asked multiple employees to sign NDAs, Silverman told DCist in an email that RRG has offered "separation agreements" to five of the roughly 1,000 people it has employed.
"We have not offered one in over a year," Silverman writes. "I fully appreciate now how these agreements can be problematic, and we are actively reevaluating them for our company."
Silverman's third Michelin-starred eatery, Little Pearl, opened in 2017.
'We Really Tried To Do Something'
After Mack's allegations came to light in 2019, RRG tells DCist in an email that it held all-staff Q&As and a mandatory harassment and discrimination training. When Mack shared her allegations on Instagram again in May and June, amid a national wakeup call regarding police brutality and systemic racism against Black people, the company faced a fresh barrage of criticism.
"I have heard direct accounts from other former employees that absolutely underscore one thing: You do not care about your employees or supporting them," reads one comment on the company's post declaring support for Black Lives Matter. "It's the height of arrogance and white privilege to come on here and act like an authority on supporting BLM."
In a June 12 letter from Silverman shared on social media, he says he is using the "lessons of the past two weeks and the errors of the past seven years" to guide his "commitment to a truly anti-racist company culture." The company tells DCist in an email that it is taking several steps to address inclusivity, including working with a diversity and inclusion consulting firm, having managers complete an unconscious bias training, and establishing two advisory boards.
"This effort is far from over, and it's critical that we continue to make significant progress," Silverman writes in a statement to DCist. "We need to do better and I need to do better. We hope and expect to be held accountable."
While some readers praised the letter ("proud to support restaurants that can be open about their vulnerabilities and strive to grow"), some former and current employees continue to question the sincerity of Silverman's words.
"We are starting to see more non-white workers speaking up about the day-to-day harm that takes place in these spaces and demanding systemic change," Mack wrote in her email to DCist. "Michelin Stars or not, there is no future in fine dining for restaurant groups who see the just and fair treatment of their employees as an optional marketing tool that positions them as 'The Good Guys.'"
Copeland, who acknowledges that staff mistreatment is pervasive in the industry, says the company failed in that they "had a chance to hold themselves accountable and they didn't." She says her relationship with the company remains complex.
"I can simultaneously hold that I learned a lot in that space about myself, and that I was made to feel very comfortable being myself in that space, while also being made to feel uncomfortable," Copeland says. "It's a really nuanced situation; it wasn't all bad. And I think that's intentional, because when it's not all bad, it makes it hard to give value to the things that are bad."
Merl, like many of the restaurant group's employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, hasn't returned to work since March.
"I don't feel like it's the space that I signed up to be in," she says. "I feel very disgusted and let down and just hurt. We really tried to do something and it's so crazy to watch it devolve. It's painful."