How reporting on a top Atlanta restaurant group’s handling of COVID-19 exposed the city’s inner class disparities and with it, even bigger problems
ATLANTA — Yesterday, we issued a statement that we received word from an employee at Superica Krog that the establishment had one employee report to upper management they tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to return to work before receiving a negative COVID test. According to our source, whose account was corroborated by another Rocketfarm Restaurants employee, the employee was told they wouldn’t have their job if they didn’t come back to work. This person also told us of unsanitary conditions, such as rodent infestation, another employee being forced to work with bronchitis, and another employee crying during line-up because they felt they were being overworked and exhausted by the conditions. They told us the morale of the staff at this location is extremely low, as employees are overworked, afraid for their lives, and frustrated with how the management has handled the entire pandemic in general.
The report prompted a deluge of other employees — not just from Rocketfarm Restaurants but in other establishments across the city — privately messaging us backing this report and asking if they could share their stories anonymously, as well. One employee at RFR told us our reporting actually strengthened them to send in their resignation letter they’d been sitting on throughout the course of the pandemic.
One employee of JCT Kitchen & Bar, a RFR establishment, told us, “The entire staff is sick of the way we’ve been treated since reopening. I’ve read the comments on your post about Superica and it’s just like management of this company to try and act like everything is okay. It isn’t.”
Many others came forward and told us the report was true; further, they said none of it was a surprise. And it isn’t shocking. We also aren’t surprised that we came under attack.
Another account was created to host a safe space for restaurant workers in Atlanta to come forward and share their stories anonymously not only about oppressive conditions during a global pandemic, but also accounts of racism, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of mistreatment. While Atlanta had not before had its own restaurant workers’ confession page, it’s not a new concept and none of these things are new problems. There is an account based in New Orleans on Instagram for the city’s restaurant workers called @melatmidnight and there’s a page called @BlackAtEmory that shares anonymous stories of students sharing their experiences of racism during their tenure at Emory University.
Since COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve always offered anonymity to our sources, who range from organizers to protesters to health care workers, to offer them a sense of security and to create a safe space for them to speak the truth. Additionally, we back up every story before we incorporate it into our reporting and ask thorough questions along the way; we don’t report anything unless it is backed by truth and we’ve had a chance to fact-check. We always issue corrections when there are miscommunications or needs to clarify. The difference between us and most media outlets is that we believe protesters, workers, and victims and prioritize their voices in our coverage. In our Black Lives Matter coverage, we never seek official statements from the police, the mayor’s office, or the governor’s office; they’re busy doling those out to other news sources, anyway. Their voices are already heard and diluted through major public relations companies and communications directors. We seek to hear from the unheard.
Yesterday, when people were challenged with the idea that one of the city’s most renowned chef-owner’s locations was failing to manage COVID-19 precautions and procedures safely and transparently, some jumped up and declared us fake news because we could not (or in this case, would not) provide names of our sources, therefore claiming we have “no proof.” Other people chimed into the comments to back up the statement along with RFR’s general treatment of its workers. Superica Krog is certainly not the first restaurant in Atlanta or the country to have an employee contract a case of COVID, fail to make it publicly known, and force that employee to return to work before being able to produce a negative COVID test. We aren’t sure why some people found it so shocking or hard to believe, or why they felt it was so easy to denounce what employees had to share in the interest of public health and safety. Again, a restaurant worker put their livelihood on the line in order to make this information known, and their voice was hushed and not considered, while others thought it was reprehensible we did not reach out to Fry for an official statement (even though we have seen plenty of statements from him and the restaurant group throughout the pandemic and frankly only knew what to expect; they would probably lie and act like it wasn’t a big deal).
Since then, we have opened our inbox to other employees RFR, including some higher ups, that wanted to come forward and speak out on how the restaurant group has operated and treated employees throughout the pandemic. Not a single one of them denounced the statement or what this employee shared with us, and only offered more information to further corroborate the story. It was multiple people across various restaurants within the group, and the response was overwhelming as well as deeply appreciated by us at this publication.
How we conducted our coverage yesterday is by no means a new way of reporting; journalists have reported using anonymous sources time and time again throughout history, especially in times such as these, when government fails to lead and withholds important information. We can look in history at the Vietnam War era and the beginning of citizen’s journalism, when journalists were accused of being more critical or even biased, when they simply were challenging the status quo through alternative and more innovative ways of reporting; and we can look at the present day and see that the Trump administration stripped the CDC of control of coronavirus data. We are also living in a time when the mainstream media fails to report on demonstrations of a movement that’s thwarted against white supremacy and systemic racism and police brutality.
Following our statement, Fry later tweeted out simply that Superica Krog Street did not have any employees test positive for coronavirus. He also shared the dates that other Rocketfarm locations have closed due to positive COVID-19 cases in its staff, prompting people to wonder why the Krog Street location would be any different from the others. The truth is we don’t know why. Further, we know that employees are often kept out of the loop of why businesses operate the way they do. We do know the restaurant is located in a market while the others aren’t, and there likely are business relations we aren’t fully aware of as to how restaurants in the market may conduct their business. All we know is that this situation was handled differently than the others.
And yet, we learned throughout the day, that the patterns beyond Superica Krog’s management of an employee testing positive COVID-19 — the exploitation, overworking its staff members with no further compensation (and yes, the money is there), forcing them to work sick, sexual harassment, etc. — appear to be the same throughout almost all Rocketfarm Restaurants. We realized what we reported just broke the tip of the iceberg. (And we realized not everyone liked it.) Again, this happens in the news all the time. Stories develop and are further corroborated as more and more witnesses come forward. Look at the #metoo movement.
We live in a culture that places the burden of proof on the oppressed rather than the oppressor. People appeared to be more concerned with the timelines of the infection — which has taken teams of doctors and health professionals around the world to get a grip on in the past four months and they still don’t have it all figured out — and the fiscal ramifications of the business over what we really felt the urgency to report. The report simply was that sources within the restaurant shared with us that an employee at Superica Krog contracted COVID-19 and the restaurant insisted they come back to work while threatening their loss of income. We deemed this a potential threat to public health and safety, so we blew the whistle. This course of action is protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act as it was passed in 1989. No journalistic integrity or ethics were compromised in this reporting, as much as some folks aren’t willing to hear that because it appears they would rather continue to believe everything is fine in this restaurant and its operating restaurant group. I’ll also note that this was not the majority of people who engaged with the post online; it was definitely a small but loud group.
We felt it was the people’s right to know what was happening in an establishment that not only allows guests to dine in without masks, as no Rocketfarm Restaurants location enforces an official mask requirement, but is connected to an entire market near the Beltline, which has been one of Atlanta’s infectious hotspots throughout the pandemic. After we reported about Superica Krog, we also received a report about New Realm Brewing not reporting a positive COVID case, as well as a Hooters in downtown Atlanta. We would not have learned about these locations and others if our initial statement wasn’t made. It seems restaurant workers realized that someone in the media was willing to hear them and actually report their stories, even if they wanted to do so anonymously. Eater Atlanta has done similar coverage, allowing workers to come forward and share stories anonymously, but they do not provide establishments’ names. This is decent coverage to provide context to the general atmosphere of how restaurant employees in Atlanta are treated, but it doesn’t do much to inform those who genuinely want to know what businesses are behaving this way.
Fry mentioned the company is not legally obligated to report positive cases to the Georgia Department of Public Health and that is true; but our question is, well, why not? Why aren’t businesses required to report positive cases of COVID-19 within their establishments so the general public can know about it? Why is the CDC no longer able to manage the data of the coronavirus? Why do we live in a time when police officers are not held accountable by law? We ask these additional questions because they’re truly all connected; and while we don’t hold the answers, we do know this means the burden falls on the people to become their own informants, their own sources, and their own accountability systems. Because, sorry folks, public pressure works. Additionally, other restaurants take the extra step of reporting positive COVID cases to the Department of Public Health, such as the team at Vortex in Little Five Points, whose general manager we spoke to yesterday.
We could spend a lot of time refuting comments in the post one by one, but that will exhaust us quickly, and we shouldn’t deter ourselves from the bigger issues our communities are facing. Yesterday, we saw in real-time people exude their prioritization of profit over people, demanding we release the name of our source and further violate their sense of security and safety to “protect” a restaurant owner who’s been regularly accused over the years of gross mistreatment of his employees.
Why are people in Atlanta, in this case, so concerned about Fry over the employees who have worked up the courage to disclose sensitive and valuable information in regards to public health and safety? While Fry’s employees were working tirelessly during the initial outbreak of the pandemic, fulfilling the duties of the cleaning crew the group fired to save on costs for the same $2.13 an hour, which is illegal, he mostly sat comfortably at home or on vacation? According to one of our sources, RFR has managed to be just as profitable as it was prior to the pandemic after the initial blow of the outbreak all restaurants had to suffer. This is undoubtedly due to the hard work of Fry’s employees, from upper management all the way down to bussers.
As we began to be flooded with responses to the post from other restaurant workers wanting a chance to speak, I assisted in the launching of Atlanta’s new restaurant confession page on Instagram called @nocallnoshowatlanta and have since passed the mic to the community to have as their own. This magazine’s focus really isn’t intended to take down or call out restaurants; our intent is to seek justice, serve as a platform for the marginalized, and challenge the status quo. The messages the other account has received and are going to share after vetting will shine a light on many exploitative, oppressive, and discriminatory practices in Atlanta restaurants across the board. As for why Fry came into the limelight in yesterday’s reporting, that’s because he owns and operates 10 restaurants in the city and that’s a lot of employees in Atlanta’s restaurant scene. It’s also as simple as the fact that the claims against Fry and his establishments are especially egregious and have affected many restaurant workers’ lives.
Further, we’ve been receiving reports of skepticism towards RFR and Atlanta restaurants’ handling of the virus for weeks, but from the outside looking in, it was nothing we could report on because no one had yet come forward with anything we felt substantial to counter what was already being publicly shared. The reporting you’re going to see from us in the coming weeks in regards to RFR and other Atlanta establishments is going to be coming from inside the restaurants themselves; that is straight from source. It’s the main line. (Get it?) It really doesn’t get more direct than that.
Further, some seemed bothered by the statement that we know less about this virus than we did two months ago. If we know so much about it, then why are cases still spiking in Georgia when earlier this year we were expecting to flatten the curve by now? (There are also reports circulating on social media of the state’s data being altered before being shared with the public, just FYI. Someone has reached out to us to speak on this and their own research on it, but only if we will speak with them anonymously. They’ve attempted to contact the Department of Public Health in regards to this with no response. Gasp.) Why are infants across the country contracting the virus when as little as two or three months ago a majority of Americans thought only immunocompromised and the elderly could contract it? How are some people contracting the virus even after following CDC guidelines, as the management team at El Myriachi so transparently explained when they had to reclose after having an employee test positive last month?
The following paragraph consists of other things we learned from multiple employees in various RFR locations, ranging in position from salaried employees to servers to server assistants to hosts. All separate accounts aligned with the others and only supported one another, providing us with a clear tapestry of what it’s like within the company. Their identities will remain anonymous until our sources choose to reveal themselves.
First, on June 6, it was seen in the public sphere in Fry’s #blackouttuesday post on his personal page on that he chose to overlook former and current employees’ personal accounts of systemic racism within his establishments while he “liked” every comment that was a show of support for him. One of our sources shared with us that many of those comments from former and current employees were later deleted. (You can expect an article from us about how white establishments continuously bury, silence, and ignore Black voices at a later date.) While we recognize Fry does not manage every restaurant’s social media page, he is still the head of the company, and this type of response weighed extremely heavy on those who work for him.
With the rise in cases in Georgia, many employees begged RFR to require guests to wear masks in the group’s restaurants. According to our inside sources, the company continuously refuses to do this because they say they want to remain neutral and not make anyone who does not want to wear a mask feel uncomfortable. It was not until Mayor Bottoms announced the mask mandate for Atlanta that the group revised its policy and were allowed to require guests to wear masks. Even with the mandate in place, the marketing team still refuses to mention the mandate on the social media posts from each of the restaurants. Several employees who returned after the initial reopening have since left because of their concerns being ignored. The turnover, coupled with staff missing work while they are forced to quarantine for COVID-19 or related symptoms, has left RFR in a panic and they are desperately short-staffed. The restaurant group requires a 10-day quarantine period, even though those who contract the novel coronavirus can be asymptomatic for up to 14 days and CDC guidelines suggest a self-quarantine for that period of time.
These are just a few things and I’ll be leaving the rest for another time and space. Readers should also know that employees who have come forward have attempted to resolve these issues internally, but were only met with silence, forced resignations, threats of loss of income, apathy, and even bullying. Like many pushes for reform, public outcry and pushing for change in more outwardly forms of resistance is oftentimes the last attempt towards change we see. For a current example, simply look around as we see citizens across the country fighting for Black lives and to bring down Confederate statues after their efforts have been exhausted in court systems and more civilized forms of unrest.
To be sure, many of the conditions that employees are now coming forward to discuss about in Atlanta restaurants are not new. Servers have cried in line-ups before 2020 and employees have almost always been forced to choose between their own well-being and their next rent check. As one person shared online yesterday, “Anyone who is shocked restaurants are hiding COVID positive employees and ignoring public health guidelines has never worked at a restaurant. If you have dined out with any regularity in your life, you’ve 100% been waited on by a feverish server who’s been throwing up in the back because they would be fired if they’d stayed home because no one wanted their shift.”
I worked in the restaurant industry for 15 years and nearly all my friends work in the service industry, along with both my parents. I can attest that this is true. On a personal note, I do love the restaurant industry and that’s why I choose to fight for it. And I can recognize that there are two types of restaurant owners: those who are present and fight for their staff and those who regularly exploit them. I’m fortunate to say I’ve only worked for the former; the exceptional restaurant owners in Atlanta certainly don’t go unnoticed. I’m also able to acknowledge and commend the employees that work within oppressive systems who are working their asses off trying to improve them from the inside.
As far as the difficult truths this publication will be highlighting, the same things are happening in the restaurant industry as they’ve always happened. Again, look to what we’re seeing with police brutality, systemic oppression, and racism in all spheres. None of it is new; it is just all happening in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that’s been overly politicized while our governments on all levels have failed to lead. The coronavirus has granted us all the ability to see these truths more glaringly than ever, or have simply given people more to ignore and become desensitized to.
For a long time — read: forever — restaurant workers have been treated poorly and second-class citizens, being told that “this is what you signed up for.” Outside of healthcare workers, they are the last to get holidays off and they are considered last in economic relief. In Georgia, they are paid $2.13 an hour which is below the $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage. Moreover, the $2.13 an hour is a practice rooted in slavery and past advocacy efforts in Georgia have yet to be met with any real consideration. This, again, is not new, as our mayor has regularly ignored activists who have pushed for change in other fights, including that against the displacement of Black families, justice for Oscar Cain and Jimmy Atchison, and police reform during her administration. You can see all our recent coverage in regards to these things here and here, and expect more from us in the future.
We discuss COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter in the same realms because they are related; in both subjects we see the language of the oppressed versus the language of the oppressors. Black employees are regularly subjected to discrimination in Atlanta restaurants and they also are more adversely affected by COVID-19, primarily because of the systemic oppression and bureaucratic violence that’s already been stacked against them. You can read about that here to start. There is a plethora of research out there on this topic.
So how far is far enough? What more proof do you want? What if the oppressed are simply standing up now saying they don’t want to be oppressed anymore? What if they feel they’ve tried long enough to work and resolve things within the systems they’re in only to be further worked into exhaustion? Is this not what we are seeing mirrored in forms of revolution across the country towards the police, ICE, CPB, our own media, and our own branches of government?
What if in the midst of this global pandemic, with its unprecedented anxieties and existential threat, people finally feel compelled to say fuck it and speak out? Because even during this pandemic, many restaurant owners and upper management couldn’t get it together to help their employees who have made it possible for them to be at the level of success they are at today. Rocketfarm Restaurants sees around $50 million of profits a year (again, according to our sources!) and yet, Fry wants to act as if the group is as victimized by this pandemic as the employees whom they claim they can’t give any paid time off when they’re sick. (An obligatory nod to Fry in his response yesterday simply denying the allegations while calling on people to refrain from putting more pressure on an industry that’s already hurting, implying that he is hurting. He appears to be doing fine.)
And so what if many of these things are “normal” working conditions in restaurants? Parts of our society we consider normal is why we are in this mess in the first place. For those who need to hear it, we’re never going back to normal, simply because we can’t. We’re not supposed to.
This is an important industry to take a closer look at and treat with greater care because restaurants are a giant microcosm of so much of what’s wrong in our society. It’s rooted in slavery like almost everything else we’ve seen uprooted and criticized in our society since the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. Since we’re here investigating how our politicians and government systems have been complicit in our country’s deepest shame, why not shine the light a bit closer to home where we are most immediately affected, where we are working, and where we are spending our money? Well, we did shine a light, and wow, turns out there’s rat shit everywhere! We should probably start to do something to clean that shit up!
As a result of our reporting yesterday, we were accused by a few of lowering ourselves to cancel culture and were deemed “toxic.” I’ll reiterate that what we engaged in yesterday was whistleblowing while relying on anonymous sources (and to clarify, they’re anonymous to you for good reason, but they’re not anonymous to this publication). Cancel culture is focused on individuals, while calls for reform are focused on systems. We blew the whistle on a restaurant group, which is primarily owned and operated by one individual, out of concerns for public health and safety. Rocketfarm Restaurants owns 18 restaurants across four states and employs about 1,500 employees total. That’s a system. More so, we agree that cancel culture is typically a toxic response and a quick fix to try and snuff something out without addressing root causes and conditions; comparatively, seeking reform inherently begins in unearthing truths in a collective effort for an evolution that’s desperately needed. This is something the Mainline has always been about; we have never resorted to call out or cancel culture. Also, within the Black Lives Matter movement, members have canceled cancel culture, because they recognize the need to see important conversations through to prevent future harms. We wholeheartedly agree.
Is defunding the police cancel culture? No, it’s reform. More accurately, it’s a step towards abolition, because the police were originally established to round up runaway and indentured slaves to force them to pay off their debts. People want to reform and abolish the police because the system doesn’t work. Restaurant systems don’t appear to work, either. The abundance of “call outs” that we will see in the future will only further prove that point.
It’s within our journalistic responsibility to share these truths because people should know if the businesses they are supporting perpetuate rape culture, racism, sexism, and transphobia; what they choose to do with their money is up to them, but the awareness is necessary to cultivate and to hold in today’s climate. None of this is cancel culture; this is the first step towards reform.
We reminded people yesterday their greatest assets in a capitalist system are their money and their labor, because it’s true, and over the past few months, people have been specifically asking us for information about establishments they should be aware of for abhorrent practices that don’t align with their values as they continue to fight for justice. This is part of the fight in the Black Lives Matter movement. Did anyone think we were going to not extend our scrutiny to local businesses? Did people expect us to turn a blind eye to Fry’s dismissive response to former and current employees’ personal stories about being racially discriminated against in his personal #blackouttuesday post? What happened to white silence equals violence? We were able to confirm with other sources within the company that the claims the employees made, which another source told us were later deleted, were absolutely true. “Absolutely” as in without a doubt, and no question.
More so in regards to some individuals’ responses about how we potentially put employees in further harm’s way by even suggesting people boycott this restaurant group: Folks are cool boycotting Goya, but when they hear a quip about boycotting a restaurant group that’s putting its employees and patrons at risk of a deadly virus and has current and former employees speaking out about its racial discriminatory practices, they turn around and say we are hurting employees. What? Boycotts are a form of resistance that are intended to invoke change by hitting the oppressors where it hurts: their wallets. It’s also someone’s personal choice who they want to boycott. As far as the employees’ wellbeing, let’s not forget that the Atlanta community has not failed to help fund restaurant workers and countless others who have been screwed by the government and its employers during this pandemic. Let’s also not forget the vast amount of profits companies such as RFR see as a result of their exploitation that could surely be put to better use. And let’s not forget that countless Black-owned businesses are still suffering more adversely during this pandemic than white-owned establishments and reparations are still owed to them. White employees, if you feel your job and health are safe despite the conditions within RFR and other establishments and feel a boycott would hurt more than employees to work after testing positive for a deadly virus, take a moment and consider why that is and what points of privilege led you possessing this sense of security; and might I add that it is a false sense of security, as well.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the global pandemic are not over and we still have a long way to go. This publication and our reporting are not the enemy here. With all this toppling evidence and our willingness to report it in the face of adversaries and naysayers, our suggestion is stop pointing those fingers at us and start pointing them up. (Have you considered reading about Karl Marx’s conflict theory?) Independent journalists, activists, and restaurant workers certainly have far less to lose in this fight than major corporations, wealthy restaurateurs, and investors do.
At the end of the day, people can choose to ignore us and ignore these stories, just like they’ve been choosing to ignore the truth about oppressive systems for years upon years upon years. It’s bigger than Fry; it’s not one individual’s issue. It’s not one restaurant group’s issue and it’s not one industry’s issue. Profits over people is an American issue.