Former Employees Accuse Coffeehouse Owner Of Sexual Harassment
There were a lot of things to like about working at Biddle’s Escape, said Raiona Gaydos.
Gaydos, then age 24, took a job as a barista at the Wilkinsburg coffeehouse in July 2012, a couple of months after it opened. With its mismatched thrift-store tables, and walls hung with work by local artists, Biddle’s looked funky, like the casual neighborhood hangout it quickly became. Gaydos was impressed how the owner, Joe Davis, made Biddle’s Escape a creative space for employees. For instance, with Davis’ support, Gaydos started a community literary magazine, called “BE Quarterly.” And she enjoyed the company of her co-workers, most of whom were other young women.
There were some drawbacks, she said: Davis could be hard to find when workers had a question, and because he seemed to like hanging out with employees, the boundary between socializing and work that employees might have been paid for was sometimes blurry. Overall, though, said Gaydos, “It seemed like Joe wanted to build a place where everyone’s talents could be used, which I really appreciated."
One night that August, Gaydos was closing up when Davis, who lived across the tree-lined street, invited her to his back porch for a beer.
That night, she said, Davis assaulted her. “He like tried to kiss me a few times, and I like turned away, and was like, ‘Don’t be whatever,’” she said. “And then he kind of accosted me. He basically just like aggressively tried to kiss me again, and I just was -- I just gave in.”
Gaydos said she felt her job was on the line, and that she “left feeling very uncomfortable.” She never reported the incident. Nor did she mention it to Davis. “I kind of brushed it off and focused more on the good things that were going on at Biddle’s,” she said.
Gaydos said she didn’t discuss the episode with anyone at all until more than four years later, in late 2016, after other Biddle’s employees told her that Davis had also grabbed them and attempted to kiss them without their consent.
Britta Borgman also became a Biddle’s barista in July 2012. In a complaint filed with the state Human Relations Commission, she alleged that following an election-related event at Biddle’s, in May 2015, Davis “uninvited … put his arms around her, drew her into him and tried to kiss her on the lips.” Borgman’s complaint states that she pushed Davis away, but he continued to sexually harass her verbally, even after she left the building.
Borgman filed the civil complaint in October 2017. It charges Biddle’s with “unlawful discriminatory practices” and seeks the elimination of those practices, back pay, and other damages. Borgman declined to be interviewed for this story, but recently confirmed that attorneys for her and Davis were seeking to settle the case amicably.
Another incident allegedly occurred on Aug. 1, 2016. Former Biddle’s barista Katie Masterson said that as she was cleaning up after the coffeehouse’s monthly backgammon night, Davis approached her behind the counter, bear-hugged her and tried to kiss her. She says that she pushed him away, but that he persisted. He complimented her rear end and asked if she could spank it, she alleges. Then he followed her as she cleaned up, and insisted on walking with her as she left the premises to go home.
Gaydos, Borgman, and Masterson all said Davis was drinking prior to the alleged incidents. None of the three filed criminal charges. But their stories suggest a troubling pattern of behavior by Davis, who is well-known in the community and in 2017 ran for Wilkinsburg Borough Council as a write-in candidate.
Davis did not respond to multiple phone messages seeking comment for this story.
In the #MeToo era, workplace sexual harassment has garnered more attention. But research suggests that employees in the hospitality industry – hotels and restaurants – are more vulnerable than most.
“It’s a problem that’s not unique to this industry, but it’s particularly prevalent in this industry,” said Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at liberal think tank Center for American Progress who specializes in employment-discrimination issues.
Frye notes that most restaurant owners and managers are men, while most staffers are younger, lower-paid women. Fear of retaliation, along with high turnover, often discourages reporting of sexual misconduct, she says, especially at small establishments.
“A lot of small restaurants, they don’t have the traditional human resources functions, people don’t know where to file complaints,” she said. “They may feel particularly beholden to a supervisor, manager or owner in a different way than if they were in a big company.”
A 2014 report by advocacy group the Restaurant Opportunities Center, for instance, found that 90 percent of female restaurant workers had experienced sexual harassment by restaurant owners, managers, co-workers or customers. In 2018, McDonald’s workers staged a national walkout over the issue. Complaints of sexual harassment at higher-end restaurants have led to the resignation of such high-profile chefs and restaurateurs as Mario Batali and John Besh.
The former Biddle’s employees contacted by WESA include three others who did not claim they were harassed, but were among those who confronted Davis about the alleged incidents and attempted to change practices at Biddle’s to prevent them.
In her complaint, Borgman wrote that she and her supervisor at Biddle’s arranged to meet with Davis following the incident in 2015. Davis “apologized profusely, and … admitted his behavior was unacceptable.”
But the employees contacted by WESA say it was only in late 2016, after the incident with Masterson, that word spread among the mostly female staff about a pattern of alleged harassment by Davis.
Several employees held a meeting with Davis on Oct. 26 that year. Masterson read aloud a statement about his alleged misconduct.
“He just kept saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ but never really copped to anything, he just kept saying the word ‘sorry’ over and over again, and didn’t really say anything else,” said Caitlin Crawford, the kitchen manager who helped arrange the meeting.
Both Borgman’s complaint and Masterson, in an interview, confirm Crawford’s account. Barista Katie Hagerty did not attend the meeting, but says she confronted Davis separately about his behavior and the need to create a safer work environment.
“He said, ‘I agree with you,’” she said. “But he would stop short of admitting any wrongdoing.”
“It was deeply upsetting to me, because I feel like I had trusted him,” added Hagerty.
The women said they asked Davis to address other issues, as well. They requested that he curtail his drinking during business hours, and – because they were often asked to do tasks they considered outside their roles – that he provide more clearly defined job descriptions. They say they arranged the meeting because they valued each other and much of their experience at Biddle’s.
“My perspective was the coffee shop was a good place to work despite him,” said Gaydos. “Because of all of the other people that worked there, who I was friends with.”
But the employees say that, in some ways, things got worse.
“He didn’t want to implement any of our changes, because I think he both had to face what he had done wrong and he just said that wasn’t the way he wanted to work,” said Crawford.
The women say Davis fired one employee who confronted him. Others saw their hours cut, or their duties increased without more pay.
Partly because Davis was their boss, and partly because of his prominence in the community, employees were concerned about speaking out further. “For someone to know that you criticized them that doesn’t want to be criticized that has power over you is definitely threatening,” said Samantha Proctor, another former Biddle’s barista.
Masterson gave her notice in November 2016.
“We all saw the good in the place enough to want to actually work to change it. And that just didn’t happen,” said Gaydos, who quit in December. In January 2017, Proctor stopped coming into work because of the alleged assault on Masterson. Crawford also quit that month.
In her complaint, Borgman alleges that the work environment at Biddle’s became quote “increasingly hostile” for her. Davis fired her in June 2017. Her discrimination complaint states that she and Davis disagreed over ownership of a laptop computer he had given her, and that after she was fired, Wilkinsburg police came to her door to retrieve it. Some former Biddle’s employees cite this episode as evidence that Davis sought to retaliate against employees who confronted him.
Of the former Biddle’s employees who have accused Davis of sexual harassment, Borgman was the last to leave. She is not discussing her civil complaint other than to say that she and Davis are seeking to settle it amicably.
Crawford, the former kitchen manager, says she is speaking out about Davis now because she hopes it will prevent future harassment.
“I think exposure can go a long way. I just want people to be safe,” said Crawford. “I don’t want him to hurt anyone else.”
Frye, the employment-discrimination expert, says preventing harassment requires employers to be proactive.
“It’s important simply to go beyond telling people to come forward,” she said.
Employers should have posted policies prohibiting harassment, conduct trainings based on those policies, and hold staff accountable for violating it, she said. Some approaches might be industry-specific; in restaurants, for instance, getting rid of the tipped minimum wage, which makes waitstaff dependent for income on customers who might feel freer to harass them, is one possible strategy.
Mostly, though, she said, “We actually have to have tools that are capable of resolving [workers’] situation in a way that protects survivors, and doesn’t put their livelihoods at risk.”
Editor's note: This story has been edited to correctly state the year that Joe Davis ran for Wilkinsburg Borough Council.