Some Rocket Farm Restaurants employees allege discrimination Rough Draft Atlanta

The bar at Marcel. (Courtesy of Marcel)

Rocket Farm Restaurants, the group owned by Atlanta chef Ford Fry, has been accused by current and former employees of discriminatory practices and ignoring harassment complaints for a decade. Rocket Farm denies the claims, saying they’re “confident that many of these points are inaccurate.”

Rocket Farm operates 30 restaurants from Atlanta to Houston, employing hundreds of people. Locally, restaurants under the Rocket Farm umbrella are Marcel, Beetlecat, The Optimist, Little Sparrow, Bar Blanc, St. Cecilia, Little Rey, No. 246, and several locations of Superica. 

Four former and two current employees have been speaking with Rough Draft over the last week on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation. They allege that when gender-, sexuality-, and race-based discrimination matters were brought to human resources, the company did little to address the issues. 

Whether servers, front of the house, or kitchen staff, employees said they felt abandoned by the restaurant group after human resources failed to document issues, resolve conflicts, or discipline employees for the bad behavior allegedly happening at the group’s restaurants. In at least one case of sexual harassment and bullying, an employee said human resources advised them to quit. 

These claims recently became public when a Marcel employee published an anonymous online manifesto about Rocket Farm’s upscale steakhouse and cocktail lounge in the Westside Provisions District. Since then, more employees have come forward to describe uncomfortable, unprofessional workplace behavior, and discrimination allegedly tolerated and left unaddressed by Rocket Farm for years. 

Complaints go back to 2014

Employees believe people of color have been kept out of leadership positions at Rocket Farm. The AJC reported similar findings when Chef Tiandra Peele described her experience at Marcel: “‘Because I’m Black, a woman and a lesbian, I was being targeted, because my management were white people who don’t really understand me,’ she said.” Peele told the AJC she was wrongfully terminated in January 2024 following a “dispute over recording her hours.”

Black employees were placed in “back of the house” positions so as not to be front-facing with customers, an Optimist employee told Rough Draft.

This employee reported that some people of color who were hired at The Optimist from 2018 to 2019, and who had worked at highly respected Atlanta restaurants, were not hired at positions consistent with their previous experience. 

“They could have come from the InterContinental [Hotel] or the St. Regis, [Black employees] were starting as a server assistant,” said an employee who came to work at The Optimist from an upscale Midtown restaurant with a mostly-Black staff. “It was shocking to me.”

“I think it’s the culture of the entire company … I do know that things have been brought to human resources because I’ve talked to a couple of people who used to work there, and nothing changes. I worked there in 2017 and 2018, and when I talked to [two other employees] the same kind of behavior was going on, but it was worse.”

A subjective points system determined The Optimist employees’ eligibility for a raise or promotion. After a year of working in a higher position but not receiving enough points to advance, the employee quit. 

“I felt like that was a way to keep African Americans stifled in their position, to be honest with you,” the employee said. 

“I stayed quiet for months, did all these things that I was asked to do, and still was not being promoted. So I put in my two-week notice and subsequently, I was terminated four days after I put in my two weeks.” 

By this point, the employee had already met with Crystal Kelly, who served as human resources director at Rocket Farm from 2013 to 2019, about the points system. 

“I hardly ever got points. It’s ridiculous to think that you should get a raise based on a point system. What about your tenure?” the employee asked. “[Kelly] listened. She told me the point system had always been in place, and that it’s not a perfect system.” 

Kelly was the director of human resources in 2014 when an employee wrote a letter alleging abuses in detail by a chef at one of the group’s Buckhead restaurants. The employee who wrote the letter told Rough Draft that what happened next is the same experience other employees described: After a phone call or in-person meeting with human resources, silence. The employee never worked in a restaurant again. 

Kelly, who has a law degree from Tulane University and a master’s certificate from Cornell in Human Resources Management and Services, was promoted to Vice President of Human Resources at Rocket Farm, and served in that role from 2019 to 2021 when she left the company. 

Kelly did not respond to requests for comment. 

Why now?

A website entitled “Manifeste du Restaurant Marcel” published anonymously the week of March 11 by a Marcel employee recounts examples of discrimination, in addition to claims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, alcohol and drug abuse, and wage theft. 

The manifesto documents a petition sent to human resources and signed by two dozen Rocket Farm employees. 

In September 2022, about 25 employees of Marcel signed the petition, stating, “This is not a demand, but a genuine and sincere plea for positive change.” Issues include overstaffing shifts which resulted in fewer tips for employees. 

“This change has resulted not only in a decrease in our finances but our morale which has led to apathy and frustration. We want to come together and find a solution that not only benefits our staff, but our guests as well,” the petition states. 

“Hit him where it hurts, man. They weren’t listening to us for so long, and we were talking to people for so long about this. I feel like we’ve been yelling into a void, you know?” a Marcel employee said about the petition. 

The employees who penned and signed the petition did not receive a response. 

Legal action

An employee interviewed for this article claims two cases have been filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for religious, race-based, and gender discrimination by two employees of Marcel.

The EEOC process can be drawn out for months while the parties address the issue together before the government agency makes a final ruling. 

According to the EEOC, some records remain confidential and will not be released to the public. The EEOC will not release employment discrimination charge file records before an investigation is complete, and the agency will not release investigative employment discrimination charge records to a third party (someone who is not part of the case), including the press.

Despite claims of wage abuse, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor said Rocket Farm has not been under scrutiny. 

“WHD has not received any complaints on Rocket Farm Restaurants in Georgia. We encourage workers who have questions about their rights and payment of wages to contact our office to discuss their concerns. Information shared with us is confidential and employers cannot retaliate against a worker for exercising their rights, filing a complaint or cooperating with an investigation,” said a Department of Labor spokesperson.  

Employees allege the lack of a paper trail on the part of Rocket Farm has hindered the process for filing formal complaints with the Department of Labor and proving their claims. 

In 2017, a civil action lawsuit was filed by Jeremy Storr, Jill Maddrell, and Adrian Lewis against Rocket Farm under the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

The lawsuit claimed Rocket Farm “violated the FLSA by failing to pay the minimum wage rate for all hours worked and by failing to pay the required overtime premium rate for all hours worked over 40 per week.”

Storr was a bartender and Maddrell and Lewis were servers at The Optimist, according to the complaint. Maddrell claimed that during the week ending June 4, 2017, she did not receive proper pay.   

In March 2019, the parties stipulated to a dismissal with prejudice, meaning none of the plaintiffs could reopen the lawsuit. 

Rocket Farm’s response

Rocket Farm issued the following statement on March 20, in response to the Marcel manifesto: “We are saddened by these allegations. Our people are the backbone of our company and we’ve always been steadfast in our commitment to fostering a safe and fair work environment for all. We are following up on every accusation to confirm we understand each concern to protect our team.”

Since then, Rocket Farm has not responded to questions about addressing employees’ concerns or course-correcting what’s happened internally.  

Fry also sent a personal email to Marcel employees on March 20, which was shared with Rough Draft. In the email, Fry said he was “sad” to think that staff was uncomfortable talking to leadership and to feel free to reach out to him directly. 

“You all are the heart and soul of Marcel and I want you to know how grateful I am for your efforts to create extraordinary experiences for our guests every day. It makes me really sad to think that any one of you has ever not felt comfortable talking to our leaders, and I am so sorry if this was your experience,” Fry’s email states. “Our goal is and has always been to have an open door and do everything possible to make you feel safe, supported and treated daily.” 

As of March 28, Rocket Farm has not made public a plan to address the allegations. The company released another statement that they take “these matters incredibly seriously” and from what they know right now, “many of these points are inaccurate, and any concerns we were alerted to were previously addressed.”

Representatives speaking on behalf of Rocket Farm told Rough Draft they would not comment further as it would be “inappropriate at this time for us to comment on specific employee matters.”

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