At three in the morning on Saturday, June 19th, Jess Bernstein was checking her email. She was preparing for a 4am shift at Birchwood Cafe, where she had been working for the past five years, once as a bar lead, then in the bakery.
“I almost wanted to go back to bed,” said Bernstein. “It definitely did not set the day up for success.”
That day, the cafe hosted a successful block party to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday. But a few days later, owner Tracy Singleton laid off 18 employees via email. Framing in articles by the Star Tribune and Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal suggested the owner was removing racist staff members. However, the workers were dealing with an increasingly toxic work environment while supporting the cafe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bernstein shared her story with Workday, along with a statement from the former workers, email correspondence, and now-deleted social media posts.
A statement from the workers describes their work environment (see below). Rumors of a mass layoff were circulating. Bernstein heard them from general manager Diane Beck. Workers were fired during the pandemic, including an executive chef who worked there for more than a decade. Bernstein also saw coworkers quit because of a lack of respect and increasing workload. Her mental health started to go downhill as more of them left. “People that I cared about were being fired and not treated well,” said Bernstein. “At one time, I was excited to go into work every day. That disappeared. I would sit in my car beforehand and take deep breaths to get ready.”
The cafe’s image has been one of progressivism and anti-racism. Heavy Table, which first reported on the mass firing, called it an “institution,” a radical operation with connections to local farmers and a Fair Wage Share. But the former employees say the gaslighting around the Juneteenth event was only one example of Singleton’s problematic behavior. Bernstein said Singleton is unaware of how her actions affect her employees.
In 2017, Unicorn Riot reported on workers that held management accountable for perpetuating a toxic workplace, and Singleton publicly acknowledged the harm she caused over a year later (trigger warning: sexual assault). The workers fired in June have invited Singleton to publicly recognize the harm she caused over the pandemic. In the Star Tribune, Singleton said that she’s working with labor organizers to pursue restorative justice with her former employees, but they have not been contacted. Workday reached out to Singleton for a comment on the reorganization of her business, but has not received a response.
Before the Juneteenth event, staff raised concerns that city permits weren’t obtained, worrying that the police could be called in on the celebration. The city of Minneapolis requires permits for events held in the street, and even though Singleton told her staff she had been in conversation with city planners, they missed the deadline to apply. From 4 business days to 6 calendar days before an event, a permit can cost $200.
The morning of the event, Bernstein read Singleton’s post to her employees on ScheduleFly which was a response to a private email from staff with their concerns. In an earlier ScheduleFly post from the 16th, Singleton acknowledged safety concerns and said there wouldn’t be any repercussions to employment status related to their attendance at the event. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), workers have the right to speak up about safety hazards without fear of retaliation. Singleton claimed she had been planning on rehiring staff, but they say they weren’t informed about this decision.
In response to the staff’s concerns, Singleton asked her employees: “revisit your views that I am not providing a safe space for POC, I am following their lead in everything. And if anyone is held accountable it will be me.” Singleton asked them not to bring “negative energy,” do the work to set up for the event, and clock out at 2 pm. On the day of the event, Singleton and other event hosts asked them to stay. In an email, Bernstein told Workday that chef Austin Bartold didn’t ask them to stay. And it wasn’t that they didn’t feel safe because of the event itself, they worried about the potential for police to be called on an event without a permit, knowing the history of violence from the Minneapolis Police Department. After working hard morning shifts to set up for the event, they exercised their right to leave the workplace. Then, they arrived the next day on Father’s Day as scheduled, before the cancellation of 120 reservations on the outside patio were made due to rainy weather.
In the Star Tribune and on social media, Singleton said she laid off her employees as part of a reorganization, calling it a “prairie burn.” In the Star Tribune, Beck called the act a “symbolic gesture.” In an email from June 14th, Beck described the concerns behind hosting an event in the street without permits after the death of Deona Marie Erickson in Uptown. Bernstein said the comments accusing the workers of racism and equating their employment status to a sacrifice have negatively affected them.
The cafe has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and revitalization programs. After being closed for nearly a month, it is opening up to the community for patio reservations beginning today, July 23rd, from 4 to 9pm.
The former employees’ statement:
We, a collective of former Birchwood Cafe employees, are compelled to bring to light the behavior of owner Tracy Singleton. We do so with the intention of making our community aware of the disparity between the restaurant’s public image and Tracy’s treatment of staff. Birchwood presents itself to the community as a bastion of progressive values including mental health awareness, workers’ rights, anti-racism, and supporting local farms. Tracy’s practices and the environment she fosters demonstrate the opposite of these ethics. We find it important to share these experiences to prevent future harm when Birchwood reopens.
Throughout the pandemic, a small, devoted core staff kept the cafe afloat with very little support, direction, or leadership from Tracy. During this time, the mental health of many of her staff members suffered immensely; many of the employees were overworked, having to shoulder responsibilities far beyond the scope of their position or level of compensation. Requests for additional workers and pay increases were largely ignored despite receiving two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program loans, an SBA Restaurant Revitalization grant, and extensive community investments through the restaurant’s Community Supported Restaurant initiative.
During this time, numerous individuals in leadership positions were fired or forced to resign due to working conditions. Tracy unilaterally fired the Executive Chef/General Manager of 13 years towards the beginning of the pandemic. Exactly one year later, she fired another Executive Chef—a ten-year employee—citing their poor mental health after allowing them to be overworked for many months. Other kitchen and bakery members resigned thereafter for two primary reasons: Tracy’s blatant disregard for their co-worker and the resulting workload becoming too great for the remaining staff.
By June 2021, those remaining were concerned about the ambiguity of their positions and heard rumors of a mass layoff, which created a tense environment; though staff were promised updates on their employment statuses, they were met with denial and a refusal to engage. Instead, on Sunday, June 13th, Tracy announced that the restaurant would be co-hosting a block party the following Saturday in celebration of Juneteenth. Staff were made aware that Tracy had not obtained proper permits from the city to shut down the street. This led to legitimate questions regarding how guests and workers would be kept safe, and worry that police might get involved. Rather than address these concerns, Tracy responded by publicly posting the employees’ private messages, stating: “The chaos you are feeling at work today are your feelings, created by you,” and classifying the concerns as “very white behavior.” This form of gaslighting and condescension represents the treatment that staff has endured behind closed doors on a regular basis.
After laying off eighteen staff members over email the following Monday—citing COVID-19 impacts as the reason—Tracy wrote on Facebook, referring to the laid off staff: “…It was a beautiful feeling to walk into the cafe this morning and realize that so much negative and dark energy is no longer here; the white supremacists have left the building.” She went on to share a narrative on Birchwood’s public account that staff had walked out during the block party on Juneteenth when in fact employees were explicitly instructed by Tracy the evening before to leave once the event had been set up. The staff clocked out as directed and returned Sunday, the next morning, as scheduled only to receive public castigation from Tracy for not being present at the party.
While the block party and subsequent treatment of staff have been made public on social media, we hope to make clear that this is just the latest example of how Tracy has treated the people that have kept Birchwood running as disposable. Her disregard for the mental health and working conditions of her employees stands in stark contrast to the values she claims to champion. We share these truths with no ill will towards Tracy and the future of Birchwood. Rather, we offer this statement as a way for our community to understand the complicated truths of the restaurant they have supported for the past 26 years, and extend an invitation to Tracy to publicly recognize her pattern of harm in order to live up to her proclaimed politics and better serve community through the restaurant’s next iteration.