Former employees of The Big Biscuit, a Lawrence breakfast spot, say they suffered racial and verbal harassment from the restaurant's management and that their complaints fell on deaf ears.
Now, one of the former employees has gone public with her claims and has filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Big Biscuit's owners are also investigating the claims.
The former employee, Grace Oliver, said she filed the claim with the EEOC Friday. The weekend before, she posted her grievances with the restaurant on social media and other online outlets.
Oliver said she was hired on the spot during an interview and began working Aug. 26. Her last day was Sept. 13.
"When my training began in August, I was very excited to be a part of a highly-rated restaurant that was in my home town," Oliver wrote on social media.
However, her excitement soon evaporated, she said in an interview last week. During her first Saturday on the job, she said, she began to notice signs of harassment.
Oliver, an Asian-American woman, said she was partnered with another Asian-American woman that Saturday to be trained. To her horror, a manager used his fingers to narrow his eyes and began "speaking in gibberish with a Japanese accent," she said.
Neither of the two women is Japanese.
"I found the situation off-putting, but I didn't know if it was something I should bring up or not since it was my first day," she said. "And he would continue to make degrading caricatures of Asian Americans, just daily, until I brought it up, and then he stopped harassing me, but I don't know if it continued with (the other employee) or not."
Other complaints or concerns about racial or other harassment were not taken seriously, Oliver said.
"Any time somebody brings it up they're told to walk it off or smile more or that it was a joke," she said.
Jason Paetzold, one of the business' owners, said he became aware of Oliver's claims on the weekend of Sept. 10 and launched an investigation.
"This is something we just received," he said. "I can't stress how important and carefully we take these."
Paetzold said he was personally at the restaurant investigating on Thursday.
EEOC Director of Communications Kimberly Smith-Brown declined to comment on Oliver's case specifically. However, she said complaints are generally filed by those who feel they have been mistreated; then the EEOC investigates and determines whether it will file a lawsuit against a company.
Oliver said when she confronted the manager in question that another manager, Daniel Slabotsky, was nearby and within earshot of the conversation. She said Slabotsky did and said nothing.
Slabotsky said he was only familiar with Oliver's recent claims on social media and declined to comment further on her specific allegations.
In all, The Big Biscuit has 12 locations in Kansas and Missouri.
Slabotsky said the Lawrence location has around 35 employees.
Oliver's public outcry prompted another former Big Biscuit employee, Annie Landis, to speak out as well.
Landis said she started at the restaurant in February and walked out midshift in May.
"After you get over that honeymoon phase of being a new waitress or waiter, things start to change," she said. "I witnessed a lot of racial, homophobic, sexual comments and aggressive vocabulary. I got a lot more of the aggressive side of things."
One instance that stuck out in Landis' mind occurred when she became ill at work. The manager refused to let her leave, even after she threw up in front of staff twice.
"He just wasn't having it; there was just no way I was going home," she said.
Fortunately, other servers relieved her from the shift, but the manager soon started treating her worse, she said.
Another time, Landis said she saw the same manager making fun of an American Indian server.
"She's very into her culture and proud and he would do mocking Indian sounds, putting a feather above his head and saying he could put smoke signals up," she said.
Attempts to reach out to the manager for comment were unsuccessful.
Landis said she does not plan to file a charge with the EEOC because she feels other servers were treated worse and she doesn't want to clog the system with her own complaint.
Oliver said her resignation and subsequent complaint with the EEOC are "on behalf of all the employees who want to leave but can't because they can't switch jobs for some reason."
Since she went public, Oliver said she felt encouraged by other employees speaking out as well and she hopes the EEOC complaint will spur change within the restaurant.
"My goal is to show the management at The Big Biscuit that their actions, whether intended to be harmful or not, do have consequences," she said. "And to see if they can issue a meaningful apology to the people who have voiced their displeasure at being employed there."
Paetzold said the company's internal investigation is ongoing.