Controversy brewed online Thursday over the recognition of a Minnesota restaurateur who was named a semifinalist Wednesday for a James Beard Foundation award.

Kim Bartmann, owner of Bartmann Group, is a semifinalist in the category of Outstanding Restaurateur, which recognizes a restaurateur "who uses their establishment(s) as a vehicle for building community, demonstrates creativity in entrepreneurship, integrity in restaurant operations, and is making efforts to create a sustainable work culture." Bartmann was previously named in this category in 2013 and 2015.

The owner of seven Minneapolis restaurants, Bartmann came under fire in 2020 after employees said she had laid off workers during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns without giving them their final paychecks. The office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison launched an investigation in 2020 and found Bartmann also had failed to compensate workers for overtime hours, in addition to the missed payroll.

The Bartmann Group reached a settlement in 2021 for more than $230,000, which included nearly $99,000 in back wages and more than $66,000 in overtime wages that Bartmann had already paid to employees. As part of the settlement, the group had to pay a little more than $66,000 in additional damages. In legal terms, a settlement is not an admission of guilt or equivalent to a conviction.

Commenters on social media, including former Bartmann Group staff, spoke out Thursday about what they see as a violation of the James Beard Awards' code of ethics, which lists "stealing of wages or tips" as a practice antithetical to the values of the awards. Several commenters urged people to write to a foundation e-mail address that goes to its ethics committee.

Bartmann said Thursday that she "did not violate" the Beard Foundation's code of ethics "and never have."

"I'll just say the gastro-ceiling is in full effect," Bartmann said. "Double standards are as strong as ever. The world is still full of misogyny, trolls and libel."

She said she had not seen the social media commentary about the awards but said she was "honored to be a semifinalist for the third time."

"I do a lot of good work and I have for 30 years," she added. "I've helped a lot of nonprofits in this town, a lot of young entrepreneurs and artists and musicians. That is the part of the restaurant business that I'm passionate about."

The controversy comes at a pivotal time for the prestigious James Beard Awards, which is returning in 2022 after a two-year hiatus brought on by the pandemic — and an internal reckoning over diversity.

During that time, the foundation "underwent a full audit of its policies and procedures, continuing the work to remove bias, increase transparency and accessibility, and making the program more aligned with the Foundation's mission and values," according to a statement.

Adrian Miller, chair, and Allecia Vermillion, vice-chair of the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee, responded to an inquiry from the Star Tribune about the award vetting process and the controversy surrounding Bartmann's recognition, saying they used an "external consultant" to screen and vet semifinalists and nominees.

"While we have taken every step to ensure that participants in our programs are aligned with the values of the James Beard Foundation, we know that no such system is infallible," they wrote in a statement. "We stand unequivocally in support of workers' rights."

Miller and Vermillion directed people to report allegations of a breach of the foundation's code of ethics to, where an ethics committee will independently review the allegations.

Bonjwing Lee, a Kansas City-based photographer and food writer with Twin Cities ties, has been a longtime judge in the Midwest region for the James Beard Awards. He wrote about the 2020 ethical controversy for the website Eater. "As far as the Beard Awards go, there's a lot of irony here.

"One of the things that I found problematic about the way the JBFA handled the 2020 awards is that there were accusations that were unvetted, unsubstantiated, and some anonymous accusations against some nominees," said Lee, who is unfamiliar with Bartmann and her restaurant group. "The James Beard Awards were trying to be judge and jury over situations it didn't really have all that much information.

"[The Beard Awards] have manufactured this problem," he continued. "You've tried to be all things to all people. It's time to sit down and figure out what the foundation is and what the awards are. We're all defining fairness when we don't know what fairness is."

With the Bartmann nomination, he said, "they might be trying to stay out of this."