The Birchwood Cafe in south Minneapolis threw a Juneteenth block party this year to mark the holiday that recognizes the date enslaved people in Texas learned they were free.
Then, just days later, the well-known restaurant shut down, with most of its staff laid off and a fight spilling onto social media about racism, safety and the stresses staff faced during the pandemic and a year of racial reckoning.
Tracy Singleton, the owner, said her decision to shutter Birchwood comes as she considers reorganization options. Even before the Juneteenth party, she said she had been planning to lay everyone off after Father's Day and invite them to reapply with a renewed commitment to anti-oppression and liberation. She said whatever happens, she wants to make the restaurant a more equitable place.
"It's kind of like a prairie fire. When a farmer wants to regenerate the soil, you burn everything down ... then you can plant seeds and the seeds will flourish because the soil is so fertile," she said in an interview. "That's what I want to do with Birchwood."
But laid-off staff members have pushed back against the explanations Singleton posted online after disagreements over the Juneteenth party and staff who didn't attend. They say they did not walk out of the Juneteenth celebration and object to the way they've been treated.
"While the block party and subsequent treatment of staff have been made public on social media, we hope to make clear that this is just the latest example of how Tracy has treated the people that have kept Birchwood running as disposable," according to a collective statement 13 of the 18 laid off employees wrote in response to Singleton's social media posts.
Tensions flared after Singleton told staff the restaurant would be co-hosting the Juneteenth block party.
The event required closing a portion of the street at the restaurant, but Birchwood didn't reach out to the city until the week of the event — too late for a permit to do so. Instead, the restaurant planned to use parked cars to block off the event in the street.
Staff raised logistical concerns with Singleton, worrying that the lack of permitting and concrete barricades would create an unsafe environment for customers.
"Not properly carrying these permits and having an event run until 10 p.m. is a recipe for the cops to be called — and we can all understand why cops are not welcome at this celebration," staff told Singleton in an e-mail.
Responding on a restaurant scheduling messaging platform the day before Juneteenth, Singleton disinvited staff from the party.
"I make this decision with as much love and compassion as I have, from having been where all of you are before embarking on my own anti-racism path; please show up tomorrow, do whatever is required of you to be done to get the food and beverages set up ... and then punch out at 2 p.m. and go home for the day," she wrote.
Birchwood chef Austin Bartold intervened, asking the servers to stay. Singleton said she changed her mind and reinvited them to join the party as guests, but that none did.
The next day, Father's Day, Bartold said he had to cancel 120 reservations because of lack of staff. The staff, however, said they showed up as scheduled "only to receive public castigation from Tracy for not being present at the party."
On June 21, Singleton e-mailed layoff letters to 18 employees, about three-fourths of the staff, saying Birchwood was restructuring its operations due to COVID-19.
In social media posts, Singleton announced that most staff "walked out because they felt unsafe to be at our Juneteenth celebration," and that after the party unfolded without issue, she returned to the cafe the following morning with a sense that "so much negative and dark energy is no longer here" because "the white supremacists have left the building."
The employees countered with their statement saying they had been overworked, gaslit and condescended to while trying to keep Birchwood alive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We really cared a lot about customers, and customers really cared a lot about us," said Mike Curran, a former server and one of the 13 behind the statement. "There is a connectivity with local farmers that really felt like we were a part of an ecosystem."
Path forward unclear
Diane Beck, Birchwood's former general manager, said she was one of few people who had been apprised of Singleton's plans to lay off and rehire employees. Beck pushed back, she said, because it had felt like a purely "symbolic gesture."
"That does not feel, like, good to me to, after a year of disruption and craziness, to have to let go your staff when you've received all these funds from the federal government," she said.
Birchwood, which received about $900,000 through the paycheck protection program, has eight staff members left. There's no definite reopening date.
Jametta Raspberry, founder of House of Gristle, a catering business that shares space with Birchwood, said it was unfortunate the staff controversy boiled out of the cafe's Juneteenth celebration, which had ultimately been a beautiful gathering with music, poetry and a food justice panel. It was a disservice to the community to have an ugly social media fight overshadow what could be a successful annual block party, she said.
"Words like 'safety,' 'danger …' Words were being used that were a very stereotypical reaction of when you start bringing Black people into your space," Raspberry said of the lead-up to the party. "They can scream and holler, 'We're not racist. We're not racist,' but it's very much a racist reaction. I saw it happen and this was not prompted by Tracy."
Most of the former employees just want to move on, said Curran, the former server.
"We want to be really clear, we are fully supportive of their operations, of House of Gristle and whatever happens next," Curran said. "We just want people to know the behavior of the owner Tracy, so they can make informed decisions about how they want to connect with her moving forward."
Singleton said Friday night that she has been meeting with labor organizers in hopes of holding a restorative justice circle with her former staff. "This is a labor dispute after all and I did make some mistakes," she said in a text message. "I want to acknowledge them and do what I can to repair any harms that I caused."
Susan Du • 612-673-4028