Sommelier Felicia Colbert Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A Rake’s Progress reputation preceded its 2018 opening thanks to the star power of its co-owner, James Beard Award winner Spike Gjerde, and celebrated executive chef, Patrick Opie” Crooks. The restaurant welcomed former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama for an intimate birthday celebration before it even opened to the public. For the two and a half years that the restaurant operated, it was acknowledged for its refined, if pricey, hyper-local menu, eclectic cocktail and wine program, and unique setting in a repurposed church.

Behind the high-profile visits and critical acclaim, however, was a work culture former employees describe as “toxic” and “chaotic.” A Rake’s Progress closed in June, citing financial stressors from the COVID-19 pandemic. Former employees are now speaking out about verbal attacks and practices they viewed as racist and discriminatory at the restaurant. 

While A Rake’s Progress is no longer in business, Gjerde and his team continue to expand their presence in D.C. and are on track to open a food hall in Buzzard Point. Several members of the management team have subsequently taken jobs at other high-profile restaurants in the area.

According to sommelier Felicia Colbert, who left A Rake’s Progress before it shuttered and says she experienced “overwhelmingly hostile behavior” and racist remarks, “accountability is now the new standard.” 

“As Spike [Gjerde] and Corey [Polyoka] are set to open a new concept in the District next year, perhaps their investors would like to know why their last investment didn’t work out. Or perhaps the Brown and Black people that they will rely on for labor would like to know who they are working for,” Colbert says.

She says her goal in speaking out is “restorative justice” for all the Brown and Black people who were allegedly fired by an overwhelmingly White leadership team at A Rake’s Progress and to raise awareness about how BIPOC employees are treated in restaurants more broadly. 

“Our industry is changing,” Colbert says. “People have never been more receptive to hear the truth … With all the articles coming out from individual confessions to corporate apologies, people are ready to hear and understand just how systemic racism is affecting every part of people’s lives and what they can actually do to change it.”

“People don’t realize how frustrating it is to be a bartender of color, to be a server of color, to be queer, to be a woman, to be a woman of color in this industry, and realize that the people hiring and firing are, for the most part, straight White men,” adds Max Davis, an Asian American former bar manager at the restaurant. 

Davis, Colbert, and three other BIPOC former staffers who spoke with City Paper on record emphasize that, while discrimination and harassment in restaurants is nothing new, the behavior they witnessed at A Rake’s Progress was particularly egregious. 

Other former A Rake’s Progress employees declined to comment using their names, fearing reprisal within the city’s relatively small hospitality industry at a time when jobs are scarce due to the pandemic. “People already have a low expectation of how they will be treated working at a restaurant, and A Rake’s Progress was no different,” one says. “Maybe there were good intentions, but the execution failed miserably.” 

A review of the restaurant’s robust employee materials—including a document called “The Soil,” which detailed the restaurant’s basic tenants, a harassment and discrimination policy sheet, and additional protocol materials for managers—reflects these good intentions. Mike Favazzo, director of human resources for Gjerde’s restaurant group, Foodshed, shared documents ranging from anti-harassment policies to management complaint procedures with City Paper

“I believe that, as a company, Foodshed has done a great deal to be proactive in this regard,” Favazzo says in a statement, referring to the company’s anti-discrimination efforts. “The fact does not escape me that we all need to evolve and be better as a society, to be anti-racist instead of not racist, and to practice that with every decision, both professionally and personally.” 

Despite these extensive policies, several employees of color at A Rake’s Progress describe an environment where they say they frequently witnessed and experienced discrimination, including an alleged use of a racial slur. 

Cameron Loftus, a White line cook, says he overheard Andrew Partridge, a White sous chef, use the N-word when referring to a Black cook in the kitchen. Loftus told Colbert and Crooks, who supervised Partridge, what he heard. According to Colbert, Crooks refused to believe Patridge used the N-word, so she went to Foodshed’s human resources department. Loftus says he assumed Crooks took the situation to human resources. Either way, the restaurant group launched an investigation. Weeks passed before Partridge left A Rake’s Progress. 

In a written statement to City Paper, Partridge denies using the N-word. He also says he left A Rake’s Progress of his own volition with no severance pay. Gjerde says he terminated Partridge’s position within 24 hours of becoming aware of the situation involving the racial slur. Other sources say Partridge was given 48 hours to voluntarily resign with severance pay, despite the fact that, per A Rake’s Progress’ written handbook and mandatory sensitivity training seminar, the use of racial slurs was an offense that would warrant termination.

Loftus also says he witnessed an abundance of microaggressions toward several Black staffers, including Colbert. “I was a confidant for [Colbert] at work,” Loftus says. “I listened to her many times talk about discrimination from dining guests, from coworkers, and from managers. And, you know, I don’t think it was until recently that I really heard the pain that that inflicted on her.” 

Davis, the former bar manager, recalls people making racist statements in managerial meetings. He says a White manager, Ashley Dugdale, often complained that the way Black female staffers wore their hair was “unprofessional.” Colbert says she too heard Dugdale express this opinion repeatedly. She also says she overheard Dugdale say, “You know how Black girls are” and “white is right” in a one-on-one conversation with another employee, and that she once overheard Dugdale say, “just whip him,” when discussing what disciplinary actions to take with a Black employee. 

Both Davis and Colbert say they voiced their concerns about Dugdale to management and HR. Favazzo says he interviewed witnesses who were present when Dugdale allegedly said “white is right” and “just whip him.” The witnesses told him the “white is right” comment was uttered at the bar, in the context of a glass of white wine that was being exchanged. “While not in good taste, in my judgement, at that time, the comment was not severe [nor] part of a pervasive and repetitive behavior,” Favazzo says. He also determined that “just whip him” was actually the colloquialism “whip him into shape.” 

While Dugdale declined to comment on specific allegations, she did tell City Paper, “I’m learning. I’m human.” She also says she supports former A Rake’s Progress employees who are speaking out.

With regards to comments directed at Black female employees regarding their hair, Favazzo says he cannot recall any such matter being brought to his attention. He offers that ownership directed managers to hold the entire team accountable for adhering to uniform guidelines, which included a provision on hair that reads: “Hair may be colored in natural tones as well. No fluorescent or other non-traditional hair colors are permitted. Hair may be worn in any cut or style that is neat and professional; longer hair (past the collar) must be pulled back neatly and tied appropriately.”

“I understand entirely that the hair of a Black woman is a point of great importance and weight, and the company would not condone a statement that did not respect that,” Favazzo says. “But there is a provision in those uniform guidelines that requires the hair to be well-kempt and pulled up off the shoulders.” 

While Favazzo did not make further comments, citing employee confidentiality, he did share that Dugdale was “made aware of the allegations against her, and strategies about how she could improve on this front were discussed, with a focus on thoughtful reflection and careful deliberation about her tone, word choice, and general use of language when managing the team.”

Language was frequently an issue. Gregory Allen, a Black former captain, or lead server, who says he was fired from his position at A Rake’s Progress, says Dugdale was one of several managers who would routinely practice code-switching. “Every time there’d be a Black staff member, they’d be like, ‘Yo, what’s up, how’s it hanging?’” Allen says. “Whenever a White staff member would walk in, they’d say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ It’s really frustrating because there’s no reason to do that. I’d rather you treat us all the same.” 

When Allen expressed his concerns about racial tensions within the restaurant to Dugdale, he says her response was, “Can you just not talk sometimes?” Allen describes Dugdale as a combative manager. “She talks very condescendingly to the staff all the time … especially to Black women,” he says.

Allen says he was originally hired for a position he believes he was overqualified for. Despite having service experience, he started as a food runner. An unnamed hiring manager told Allen he would be promoted to captain after a few weeks of training, which he says he never received. Allen says he was eventually promoted to captain several weeks later, after he says he told management they were exploiting his labor. 

During the 11 months Allen worked at A Rake’s Progress, he says he observed Black employees being held to different standards than their White counterparts at the restaurant.

He ticks off a list of leaders in the restaurant during the time he was employed there who were White, including the owner, general manager, director of operations, and head of HR. “It was really hard working there, seeing the White people not do as good of a job as the Black people and seeing them get rewarded for doing a mediocre job,” Allen says. “Seeing Black men get fired when they could have been retrained or seeing Black men get fired when the White people aren’t also getting fired, it’s highly problematic.”

According to Favazzo, A Rake’s Progress fired five dining room employees in leadership positions, two of whom identify as BIPOC, during the course of being open. Favazzo, who was let go from Foodshed due to the pandemic, was not able to provide a count of all the people who were fired from non-leadership positions. With the restaurant no longer open, he says he no longer has access to employee records.

“One of the things that they brought up when they fired me was that I’m angry,” Allen says. He says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and was upfront with his team at A Rake’s Progress about it. Allen admits to being involved in several verbal altercations with managers and Crooks.

He describes an incident where Crooks lost his temper over something Allen believes wasn’t his fault. Crooks allegedly berated Allen in front of other employees when a table of diners assigned to another server had been waiting for their food for almost an hour. He says Crooks accused him of not doing his job by failing to report that unusual wait time to the kitchen. Allen says he did, in fact, report the wait time to the floor manager, who was above him in rank. 

Allen says he reported the incident to HR, but never received an apology from Crooks. “I don’t enjoy the power dynamic in the restaurant industry where people who can fire you can yell at you with no remorse,” he says. “We’re human beings first.”

Eventually, Allen says he filed a request to be transferred to the banquets team because it was more lucrative than working as a captain. Events held at The LINE Hotel were large drivers of revenue, which led to larger gratuity payouts. Allen says A Rake’s Progress fired him shortly before the transfer, while Gjerde says Allen made the decision to resign. “I didn’t resign from banquets because it’s the most lucrative part of the entire hotel,” Allen says. “I believe I was removed from that option after getting into an argument with [Crooks].” 

Allen was not the only person who took issue with Crooks’ behavior. Davis says he also reported incidents involving the executive chef to HR. Originally hired at A Rake’s Progress as a bartender, Davis says he was tapped to take over the responsibilities of bar manager with neither the title nor the pay to match after Morgan Stana was promoted from beverage director to general manager. It was only after he proposed he formally take over the role of bar manager that he was brought into a salaried position. 

Stana did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Crooks declined to comment on  the accusations his former colleagues made against him. 

Davis says his friction with Crooks began soon after he took on this new role. He believes Crooks was unhappy that the restaurant wasn’t garnering the media attention and number of guests the leadership team anticipated, and says Crooks pressured him to fulfill his responsibilities at the bar while also helping Stana with general manager duties. 

He reported Crooks’ aggressive behavior after he says the chef lost his temper and refused to let Davis greet a table of VIP diners when he was technically a member of the management team. Despite bringing this grievance to HR with Stana’s support (according to text messages City Paper reviewed), Davis says the environment became so toxic that he decided to leave. He says he initially gave three months’ notice, but left after one. 

Davis, along with several other employees that City Paper spoke to on and off the record, faulted the lack of leadership at the restaurant for much of the chaos. “The owners weren’t really there, you know?” Loftus says. “They just kind of hoped this behemoth of a restaurant would kind of just run itself.” He describes a “carousel” of general managers. “I can’t even remember them all,” he says. 

“By far the general consensus was that it was one of the most toxic and unhealthy restaurant environments to work in … Turnover was horrendous,” another former employee says.

Taylor, one of the restaurant’s first general managers, who says he served the Obamas during their meal and asked to be identified by a pseudonym, agrees leadership was largely absent. He says those who were present on a daily basis did not have the experience to effectively perform their jobs.

As one of the first members of the team, Taylor balanced administrative work with weekly trips back and forth to Baltimore, where Gjerde’s restaurant group got its start, all while getting a feel for what would make the restaurant a best-in-class experience. 

Taylor says he managed multiple aspects of the restaurant’s opening with little to no support or communication from his supervisor, Foodshed director of operations Hannah Ragan, Gjerde, and Foodshed co-founder Corey Polyoka. “Sometimes, you couldn’t even get in touch with those guys,” Taylor says. “They wouldn’t respond to text messages or emails, which is just in stark contrast to the image they try to portray.”

According to Gjerde, “meetings, coaching, and check-ins” between himself, [Polyoka], [Ragan], [Crooks], other managers, and other team members took place near continuously.” 

With prior experience as a general manager at major restaurant groups, Taylor applied for the same position at A Rake’s Progress. He was instead hired as the assistant general manager in November 2016, one year and three months prior to the opening of the restaurant. While the assistant manager does take over for general manager duties in the absence of the general manager, the assistant manager does not have the equivalent level of pay or authority.

Because he had experience as a general manager, Taylor almost immediately began juggling duties of both positions. “People don’t just hand young Black men opportunities,” Taylor says. “If I have to, I’ll work extra hard to get noticed and get ahead.” Finally, six months after Taylor had originally applied—and after doing both jobs for most of that time—he says he was officially offered the title of general manager. 

“I remember Hannah [Ragan] specifically saying, ‘You don’t seem that excited,’” Taylor recalls. “And I was just like, you know, well, would you be that excited about something that you’ve basically been doing anyway and haven’t been getting paid for it? That’s not exciting.”

Taylor describes the work environment as one filled with hostility, especially when he directly interacted with Ragan, who he claims had less experience working in the restaurant industry than he did. His promotion did not improve matters. “She’s my boss, but she [had] no experience in telling me what to do,” Taylor says. Ragan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

When Taylor first joined the team, he says there was no training program in place for managers. Having one is especially beneficial for restaurants that are just opening and have large teams. On top of his assigned assistant manager and general manager duties, Taylor took the initiative to create a training manual on his own. When he presented the idea to Ragan as a way to implement some structure and perhaps even make her job easier, he says she didn’t receive it well. Taylor says Ragan implied he was stepping out of line. 

A Rake’s Progress fired Taylor shortly after the restaurant opened. Gjerde says he “showed promise,” but “it became increasingly clear that [Taylor] was not capable of fulfilling many of his duties, including running service, managing labor cost, maintaining service standards, and coaching staff, nor was he showing a capacity to grow into the role.” 

Taylor, however, believes the ongoing tension between him and Ragan is the real reason he was fired days after the restaurant finally opened. “I know what I did,” Taylor says. “I pissed off a White woman, and you don’t do that. You can’t do that and expect to keep your job.”

Davis remembers the day Taylor was fired. The restaurant had just begun operating and Davis recalls his colleagues feeling overworked and exhausted. “[Taylor] had kind of sensed the vibe that we were just tired, so [he] conducted a really cool exercise during line-up, which was two hours before service began.” According to Davis, Taylor encouraged all the managers to stand in a line, look at the person next to them, and say something about how that person had made a positive impression on them. 

While this exercise was happening, Davis says Taylor was called away. Later, Davis says Gjerde entered and informed the team that Taylor had been relieved of his duties. No explanation was provided, according to Davis, Colbert, Loftus, and other sources.

“All of us were just so shocked,” Davis recounts. “To fire somebody a week after we’ve opened just seems like something must have gone down, but none of that was ever explained to us.” Davis describes the news as “a body blow to the staff” and says he doesn’t think the “management team ever really rebounded after that.”

Colbert also keenly felt the loss of Taylor, as she too says she experienced a great deal of resistance from Ragan when it came to doing her job. While Gjerde says he was aware of the issues between Colbert and Dugdale, he says he was not aware of issues between Colbert and Ragan. 

According to Gjerde, Ragan worked directly with Colbert to train her and also to improve Colbert’s working relationships with other employees. Gjerde says the restaurant “fielded multiple employee complaints regarding [Colbert] and sought independent, outside help to attempt to address the ongoing conflict between [Colbert] and [Dugdale].” 

Colbert says she was forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for the independent counseling session. “A month-long mediation started, led by a White-presenting woman,” Colbert says. “She spoke on behalf of [Gjerde] and [Polyoka], and I ended the mediation sessions after hearing everything I needed to know about my future with the company.” 

City Paper spoke with a former colleague of Colbert’s to understand what she was like as a coworker. The former A Rake’s Progress employee, who requested anonymity, describes Colbert as “an incredibly knowledgeable wine professional who, yes, I butted heads with because of her communication style, but she tried the best she could to shield her team from the chaotic management.” 

The coworker adds that they learned more about wine under Colbert’s tutelage than in any other similar position in the hospitality industry and attributes any issues with Colbert to “personality differences.”

Colbert was making a name for herself at José Andrés’ Michelin-starred minibar when she says A Rake’s Progress’ original wine director recruited her to join the wine team as a floor sommelier. Colbert was responsible for interacting with guests in the dining room, but not in charge of managing a team or making purchases. 

“Most floor [sommeliers] make an hourly rate, plus a portion of wine sales, because the business wants to create incentives to sell more expensive wines,” Colbert says. She says A Rake’s Progress explained that her role would not involve managing other employees and would be limited to no more than 40 hours per week. 

Within six months of joining the team, Colbert’s duties expanded. “I was in charge of up to two team members and always worked over 40 hours per week,” Colbert says. “Some weeks, I was clocked in for 90 hours.” Despite this shift in responsibility, Colbert says she never received a raise in the two and a half years she worked at the restaurant, despite asking for one several times. 

Colbert says that, when she was recruited, she was told the restaurant would be open within six weeks. It ended up not opening for an additional 10 months. During these 10 months, Colbert says she made $15 an hour for a maximum of 25 hours per week, despite working well beyond that. This was a steep drop from the $60,000 she says she was making at minibar. Still, Colbert made do because she says she saw the job as a chance to helm a large, niche biodynamic and organic wine list. 

“My commission started at 10 percent of wine sales, with the understanding that the staff would be fully trained, and ended with me receiving 2.5 percent of wine sales,” Colbert says. She attributes the reason for this drop to a lack of training for her team. Whenever she tried to schedule a training, Colbert says Stana, Ragan, and Dugdale would cancel it for various reasons, like a lack of available time. 

When A Rake’s Progress first opened, Colbert says she was making anywhere from $3,500 to $4,000 per month, including commission. When she left, she was making around $2,800 per month, including commision.

Colbert says when she put in her notice, the general manager of The LINE Hotel at the time, Crawford Sherman, offered to write her a letter of recommendation. Sherman and the HR department of The LINE Hotel were aware of Colbert’s issues with A Rake’s Progress but, according to Colbert, chose not to intervene. Sherman did not respond to requests for comment. 

A Rake’s Progress formally vacated The LINE Hotel in June of 2020, a few weeks after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd. When the outrage over Floyd’s killing led to public uprisings, Foodshed sent out an email to current employees on behalf of Gjerde and Polyoka, which City Paper obtained.

“Here in Baltimore, we are taking the week to examine our lives and our engagement in a system that oppresses and harms so many,” it reads. “We don’t have the same presence in D.C., but we will be using what resources we have to support the Black Lives Matter DC chapter and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.” Gjerde confirms in an email that the restaurant group made $1,000 donations to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Black Lives Matter DC, and distributed personal protective equipment and water around Baltimore. 

Another employee who worked at A Rake’s Progress prior to its closure and asked to remain anonymous says, “The team at A Rake’s Progress was already engaged in an internal strategy to recognize and approach some of these very important topics before the broad stream awareness and uprising began nationally this spring.”

Past employees who quit or were fired feel differently, including Davis. “A lot of organizations pay lip service to the idea of diversity, but when it comes to actually showing up, they don’t,” he says. “We are not unique in this suffering,” Colbert says. “Spike, Corey, Hannah, Ashley, and Andrew get to continue on with their good reputations while people that they mistreated [or] fired have a stain on their record.”

This story has been updated to reflect that Max Davis advanced from bartender to bar manager, not bar manager to beverage director.