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Food & Drink

‘It Felt Like a Gut Punch’: Service Industry Workers Alarmed by Kim Bartmann’s James Beard Nom

The Minneapolis restaurateur was named a semifinalist in the James Beard Foundation awards earlier this week.

Staffers spray painted Tiny Diner in 2020 with messages including "run me my check." (Bartmann's responses are in blue: "I did!")
Sarah Brumble

For the last two years, there have been no James Beard Awards.

The James Beard Foundation, one of the most respected award-granting bodies in U.S. food and drink, initially postponed the 2020 awards due to COVID-19. In the fall of that year, they canceled them. This time, the New York Times reported, it wasn’t just due to the pandemic, but because of concerns about bad behavior from nominated chefs and the fact that there wasn’t a single Black chef among the winners in 23 categories.

The foundation conducted an internal audit and published 21 pages worth of findings last year, including suggestions to avoid honoring alleged bad actors. The James Beard Foundation pledged to diversify its judges, voters, and winners, and it introduced a code of ethics.

“The James Beard Foundation is hoping updates to the way chefs are scouted, vetted, and voted on will increase the diversity of award winners, and avoid the scandal and protest that comes when it turns out a James Beard recipient is actually abusive, or otherwise undeserving of the title they’ve been given,” Eater reported last year.

The 2022 semifinalists, announced earlier this week, look like the most diverse group in the foundation’s 30-year history. But in the Twin Cities, many in the service industry are shaking their heads about one honoree: Kim Bartmann of the Bartmann Group, a semifinalist for “Outstanding Restaurateur.”

Bartmann, whose eight Minneapolis restaurants include Tiny Diner, Red Stag Supperclub, Barbette, and Book Club, was recently investigated by the state Attorney General’s office for alleged wage theft. A settlement reached last year required the company to issue workers $230,000 in unpaid wages, tips, and damages.

“I was surprised and disappointed [by the award nomination],” says Mely, a former Bartmann Group employee who worked at several of the company’s restaurants from 2014 until the pandemic. “The dust hasn’t even settled from the case. Some employees still await payment. And she’s knowingly accepting a nomination that she’s publicly violated the ethics of.”

(Mely is one of several Bartmann Group employees we spoke with for this story, some of whom are quoted here, with others speaking on background.)

In March of 2020, workers say Bartmann sent emails to staff saying that she did not have the money to pay them for their last checks, and suggested they apply for unemployment. A group of employees working with Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota (ROC-MN) sent over a demand for their final wages, filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office, and launched a petition to get their money back.

“It just felt like kind of a gut punch,” says a current Bartmann Group employee—we’ll call her Hattie—who has been with the company since before the wage-theft investigation began. She understands that the pandemic affected restaurants disproportionately and sympathizes with owners who were put in a difficult situation due to COVID. But she also believes the Bartmann Group’s actions—essentially, “fronting our tips to cover business expenses, and then being unable to pay people after they closed”—are the kind of thing you can’t just sweep under the rug after the fact. At the very least, she thinks you probably shouldn’t get a prestigious restaurateur award for it.

Current and former Bartmann employees have been echoing those sentiments online since the semifinalists were announced. They’ve expressed their disappointment in service industry Facebook groups and Reddit threads, where many workers are calling for people to contact the James Beard Foundation and share their frustrations. “Stealing of wages or tips” is among the unethical practices listed in the JBF’s new code of ethics.

The nomination has restaurant workers wondering whether the James Beard Foundation was unaware of the allegations, or if they knew but didn’t think it was a disqualifying event.

Racket asked the foundation that question via email, and we were forwarded the following statement from Adrian Miller and Allecia Vermillion, chair and vice chair, respectively, of the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee:

“Our process includes screening and vetting semifinalists and nominees using an external consultant. While we have taken every step to ensure that participants in our programs are aligned with the values of the James Beard Foundation, we know that no such system is infallible. We stand unequivocally in support of workers’ rights. An Ethics Committee has been established to independently review allegations involving a potential breach of the Foundation’s Code of Ethics. 

Any credible allegation violating the Code of Ethics may disqualify an Entrant, Semifinalist, or Nominee from consideration for a JBF Award or result in a Semifinalist, Nominee, or Winner being prohibited from using the James Beard Awards association, including its seal, logo, or image. To report allegations involving a potential breach of the Code of Ethics by a 2022 James Beard Award Entrant, Semifinalist, Nominee, or Winner, you can you send an email to awardsethics@jamesbeard.org, including your name, contact information, and as much information as possible about the issue.”

Eli Stein, lead organizer for ROC-MN, shared employee confusion about the semifinalist nod’s arrival on the heels of that investigation settlement.

“It is surprising to me that Kim Bartmann and the Bartmann Group restaurants are being considered for this award by the James Beard Foundation, as she is still paying out owed wages and damages from a 2021 settlement of a massive wage theft case across all of her restaurants,” Stein told Racket.

The whole situation “just sucks,” Hattie says, because Twin Cities restaurants like Owamni and Union Hmong Kitchen—both of whom scored 2022 semifinalist nominations in separate categories—are having the experience “soured” by the actions of someone else in the industry.

The foundation says its Outstanding Restaurateur “uses their establishment(s) as a vehicle for building community, demonstrates creativity in entrepreneurship, integrity in restaurant operations, and is making efforts to create a sustainable work culture.” Hattie doesn’t understand why they feel that applies to Bartmann.

Mely agrees: “There are so many incredible restauranteurs that deserve to be celebrated,” she says. “Not only did she steal from us, she is robbing someone of that opportunity.”

Hattie says she still works for a Bartmann Group restaurant because it’s not all bad. She likes her coworkers, she likes the neighborhood. The ownership is not one of the things she would list as a positive. And she doesn’t feel like the restaurant group has taken responsibility or owned up to its mistakes in a meaningful enough way to make Kim Bartmann worthy James Beard Awards consideration.

Bartmann told the Star Tribune she’s being criticized because of misogyny, citing a “gastro-ceiling” that’s “in full effect.” The employees we spoke with for this story—many of them women—don’t see it that way.

Hattie points to a statement staffers received in August, in which Bartmann apologized for the uncomfortable position employees had been put in “due to the media and press coverage.” To her, that felt like scapegoating—not a real apology, and not an honest reckoning with the restaurant group’s actions.

Hattie says there’s been minimal communication from the company about the settlement. (“Almost zero.”) And if there are new systems in place to increase transparency and improve communication, it’s not been made clear to restaurant staffers. She still isn’t sure if she’s supposed to be getting money from the settlement: “There’s no clarity on it.”

“If they had moved forward from any sort of place of true accountability and reconciliation, I would feel differently,” Hattie says. “But the fact that there’s been none of that, and then to be nominated for one of the most prestigious awards in the country … How do you, in the same calendar year, lose a wage theft case against the state?”

Asked what outcome she’d like to see, Mely says Bartmann could start with an apology.

“I believe this is a great opportunity for Kim,” she says. “She could step forward and admit her wrongdoings—she really hasn’t—apologize to her former employees—never did—and commit to change.”