A Sonoma restaurant was called out by a former employee last month for, as she described it, "forcing her out" of her job because she refused to abide by a face-mask policy that required her not to wear a Black Lives Matter mask she had been wearing on the job. Now the restaurant says it is closed for the time being after owners received death threats, and after a protest is now planned outside the restaurant on Valentine's Day.
SFGate reported Tuesday on a month-old Instagram post that was posted by q former server at The Girl & the Fig, Kimi Stout. In the video post, Stout is shown wearing a Girl & the Fig t-shirt, which she pulls off, throws in a trash can, and then she flips the bird with two hands in that direction. The message on the bottom of the video: "Black Lives Matter."
Stout left her job at The Girl & the Fig last September, but had not publicized the incident until last month. As she explained in the Instagram post and then to SFGate, she had shown up to work in August wearing the Black Lives Matter mask, and this apparently upset a customer — which she later heard about from her manager.
"He said, ‘you're not in trouble by any means,’" Stout tells SFGate. "‘However, we just wanted to let you know that we did have somebody complain about your mask and they were very aggressive about it.'" He offered Stout another mask to wear, but she refused. And then the president of the company that owns the restaurant, John Toulze, spoke to her at the end of her shift saying that he totally supported her in her choice to wear the mask.
But something changed over the ensuing weeks, and the company decided to institute a policy about masks that went with its uniform policy, requiring all employees to wear new Girl & the Fig-branded masks while working. Stout refused, and after the new mask policy was instituted, she still wore the BLM mask during a shift.
"The policy was added to our formal dress code which details the required attire or uniforms for all staff," Toulze said in a subsequent statement. "For example, in standard business conditions, we require servers and runners to wear plain blue jeans and a long sleeve, button down and collared white shirt with our signature green apron provided by the company."
She was then called in to Toulze's office after refusing to replace her mask during her shift on September 3.
"I was told by the president of the company that if I did not change my mask I would not be allowed to work and that BLM is 'too political,'" Stout said in her Instagram post. She says that she was told she'd be fired the next day if she came in with the mask once again, and she said she'd opt to simply quit then and there.
SFGate reached out to The Girl & the Fig, and they were given a formal statement through a PR agency — with the company still holding firm about its policy. Whole Foods also faced flack after story came out about employees being told to remove Black Lives Matter t-shirts. And Amazon/Whole Foods also held firm, saying its policy was that workers could not wear "visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising" while at work.
The company statement reads, in part:
We seek to have every customer who comes through our doors leave impressed by our restaurants and excited to come back again. We believe that the professionalism of the girl & the fig dress code supports an exceptional dining experience and ambiance.
However, we recognize that after a year of devastating social injustice occurring across the country, face masks have become another opportunity for self-expression and visible displays of support for important issues including the Black Lives Matter movement. We were disappointed to learn that a valued employee no longer wanted to continue employment with the girl & the fig after we created the face mask policy and resigned because they could not use their uniform to express support for this important cause.
the girl & the fig is founded by diverse ownership and prides itself on employing and supporting a diverse workforce. We support the Black Lives Matter movement and sincerely agree that we all have a responsibility to take action to dismantle systemic racism and injustice in our society.
We stand behind the girl & the fig’s face mask policy as we truly believe it’s important to a premier dining experience, but we are committed to working with our employees and the public to identify impactful ways the girl & the fig can support important social justice issues including Black Lives Matter in our community.
On Wednesday, as the Chronicle reports, the restaurant decided to close for the "foreseeable future," with plans to reopen once the fervor dies down over this incident. The planned protest this weekend sounds like a major deciding factor.
"There’s no amount of money in the world that’s worth it to ask my staff to walk through that and to ask my customers to walk through that," Toulze tells the Chronicle.
The Girl & the Fig has been open on Sonoma Plaza since 1997, in the Sonoma Hotel. It was opened by Sondra Bernstein with Toulze as opening chef, and the pair went on to open Glen Ellen sister restaurant The Fig Cafe and Wine Bar, a catering operation, and more recently Bernstein opened a noodle and ramen restaurant Noodlespring, next door to Girl & the Fig.
Toulze still insists that the mask policy had been in the works since before Stout staged her protest, and the restaurant had been waiting for branded masks it had already ordered to arrive in order to institute it. He used the example of another server who had been wearing a neon orange mask on the job that the company felt did not look right for its brand.
But many feel that the Black Lives Matter message is not a political one, and should not be seen as a cause or divisive issue, merely a statement of fact.
Toulze tells the Chronicle that he never brought up politics when discussing the mask policy with Stout, and that he still agrees with Stout that Black Lives Matter is a question of civil rights and not politics.
*This post has been updated throughout with the news of the restaurant's closure.