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Philly-area breweries illustrate how craft-beer culture turns toxic, and how it can be avoided

Philadelphia Inquirer - 6/13/2021

Jun. 13—The onset of craft beer's social reckoning last month was years in the making. After decades of being walled off from open criticism, the industry faced a wake-up call when allegations of sexism, discrimination, abuse, and worse poured out of Massachusetts brewer Brienne Allan's Instagram inbox.

"It's good that it's finally coming to a head. That means that we're reaching a tipping point," said Nancy Rigberg, a 35-year veteran of the brewing industry and co-owner of Center City's Home Sweet Homebrew, launched in 1986. "Societal change takes a long time, but sometimes ... that dam just really needs to break and you need to send out the flood and see what happens."

The reckoning raised a widespread issue: Toxic workplaces can flourish easily in an industry built around an intoxicating product. To understand how this happens — and how it can be avoided — The Inquirer interviewed local brewery owners and employees.

Troubles at Evil Genius

Ardmore's Tired Hands Brewing Co. received much attention after its founder stepped down recently, but another local brewery repeatedly surfaced in Allan's posts: Evil Genius.

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The Inquirer interviewed nine former Evil Genius employees, most of whom were hired in 2017, when the brewery's Fishtown taproom opened. By their accounts, prospects at the brewery seemed bright at first, financially and culturally. Schedules were flexible, shifts were lucrative, and tips were pooled to promote camaraderie. Front-of-house employees made fast friends.

And in the beginning, owners Trevor Hayward and Luke Bowen were approachable — they didn't want a corporate vibe, something evidenced by their playful beer names. They'd help behind the bar during peak hours and stay after close to drink with employees.

"It was fun. ... Yeah, you had to do certain things like clock in, clock out, clean the dishes, but really there were no rules," said Emilie, a former Evil Genius bartender who asked to be identified by first name only. She and other employees initially enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere, even as they saw others recognize red flags.

"There were a couple employees early on who I think had picked up on things very quickly ... and they actually quit," remembered Megan Rupert, a former bartender and bar manager who worked at Evil Genius' taproom from when it opened until the pandemic closed it in March 2020. "At that point ... I kind of thought those people were like the outcasts a little bit. You know, why wouldn't they want to stay and party with us and get drunk with the owner?"

But as the taproom gained traction and staff grew, problems that stemmed from a lack of discipline began bubbling up and the relationship between management and staff soured.

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One employee, Corey Kavulich, was alleged to be particularly problematic; multiple employees accused him of inappropriate and threatening behavior. Former coworkers said he would drink during his shifts as a bartender and occasionally become belligerent with customers. He was soon promoted to events manager; it removed him from serving customers but did not stop the behavior.

At least two of his coworkers said Kavulich bit them on the neck after hugging them. "He thought he was being funny and cute and playful, and it wasn't. It was disgusting," said one employee who was bitten but did not want to be identified. Kavulich did not return a request for comment before publication; according to Bowen, he left the brewery in August 2020.

When asked for comment, Hayward referred The Inquirer to two Instagram posts on Evil Genius' account, one from staff and another from the owners acknowledging mistakes were made.

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A post shared by Evil Genius Beer Co. (@evilgeniusbeer)

Former bartender and bar manager Yvonne Hatfield said she had to assign another employee to escort Kavulich out of the brewery after he threatened to stab a kitchen manager one night. Hatfield reported the incident in a 2017 email sent to Hayward and general manager Garrett Williams, which was reviewed by The Inquirer. (At this time, Williams was not Kavulich's manager.)

"I'm hesitant to say anything because this has happened several times before with outcomes I just don't quite understand," Hatfield wrote.

She recalls Hayward taking her aside later and speaking with her about it. "[He] pretty much just washed it over, said it wasn't that big of a deal," Hatfield said. "I was trying to tell Trevor that this was a history, a pattern of behavior with Corey. ... Nothing came of it."

According to numerous employees who reported these incidents to Hayward, the recurring punishment for Kavulich's behavior was to stop drinking at the brewery — a condition which was short-lived, employees said. Meanwhile, Hatfield and Rupert were demoted on separate occasions. Hatfield's demotion came after she was accused of leaving the safe open at the end of a shift.

Rupert was demoted following an interaction with Kavulich in which he allegedly confronted her about a staffing decision, then harassed her until she agreed to speak with him in a locked bathroom. "He made me hold his hand while he told me why my decision was wrong," Rupert said, adding that the confrontation ended only when Hayward knocked on the bathroom window.

Rupert raised the incident with Williams, who, she said, put her off then told her a few days later she was being demoted. "He basically told me that his hands were tied and there wasn't anything we could do," she remembered.

Williams said his pull as a manager and advocate diminished over his three years at Evil Genius. After a point, "I didn't have a voice with the owners," he said.

Over time, a division grew between bar staff and the office — the owners stopped interacting with FOH employees beyond ordering beers from them — and Williams lost the early leeway he had been given to establish positive workplace practices, such as having staff write nightly notes to document any problems.

When incidents arose, documentation was often as far as it went. As Evil Genius got busier, the staff asked for security on weekends to help with crowd control. Williams procured quotes, but the owners nixed the idea, leaving bartenders to deal with unruly patrons. At another point, staff were denied requests to use plastic cups instead of glass in the graveled beer garden — a concern because children and dogs would often play there amid broken glass. At one point, Rupert incurred lasting nerve damage to her hand when she tripped in the garden while carrying a glass. (She received workers' comp for the injury.)

"There's a lot more that I wish I could have done for staff members that did experience problems," said Williams, who left the brewery in September 2020. He also said he regrets some problematic behavior of his own, such as telling a female employee that women were better at cleaning than men. "I really thought that by leading my own team and setting that example, I would be able to counteract a lot of those behaviors, but ... it's great to hear so many people coming forward and saying, 'Hey, this should not be normalized. This should not be the standard that people laugh off.' "

Setting a better standard

Like Williams, other former Evil Genius employees The Inquirer spoke with for this story hope that this time is a crucible for a better industry. "Gosh, I hope we make a change," said Hatfield, the bar manager.

In response to the attention brought to Evil Genius' culture, the owners recently shared a plan on Instagram to hire an outside human resources representative; establish a "communication protocol" for reporting problems; and launch a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. But external HR and DEI committees, while a start, are no cure-all. Nor are good policies that aren't enforced.

"There's no lever to pull. It's a lot of small actions," said Tess Hart, co-owner of Spring Garden's Triple Bottom Brewing, known for its socially conscious business approach.

In speaking with Hart and four local brewery owners — Laura Lacy of Attic Brewing in Germantown, Mike Wambolt of Crime & Punishment in Brewerytown, Melissa Walter of Love City in Callowhill, and Zach Svoboda of Troubles End in Collegeville — a theme emerges: All of them made a deliberate decision to buck stereotypical craft-beer culture, which tends to be bro-centric.

Hart remembers attending the Craft Brewers Conference five years ago. "That was very eye-opening and pretty uncomfortable for me as a woman." Svoboda, who is gay, has also felt out of place at industry festivals and events. "This is just the most heteronormative, non-inclusive environment. Like, no gay people would ever want to be here."

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Instead, these owners drew from experiences outside the beer industry to inform their company policies.

"The biggest thing that we did from day one was we implemented an anonymous corporate-culture survey," said Lacy, who launched Attic with her partner after a decade administering leadership training for H&M. The survey, sent out every six months, asks employees if they ever feel uncomfortable at work, if they feel appreciated, and if they feel they're paid a fair wage. Triple Bottom and Love City also have mechanisms for anonymous feedback.

Wambolt, who comes from a teaching and social work background, takes a less formal approach to creating culture. "Ultimately, it's come down to just being a decent human being," he said.

In Crime & Punishment's six years, it hasn't always gone perfectly. At one point, Wambolt hesitated to fire a hot-tempered chef who created tension in the brewery but whose food was excellent. "In hindsight, I should have fired him after like the second week of being complained about."

Another time, Wambolt and his partners realized the staff had grown too homogenous. "After about the first year, we kind of collectively realized that in general we just needed to be more inclusive," he said. "Now I try to keep at least half, if not more than half of the staff women. It's just a better environment."

Lacy and Hart also stress diversity in hiring — and not just for employees' sakes. "Customers feel more comfortable, too," Lacy said.

Advocating for employees is another theme among these employers, which sometimes translates to prioritizing workers over customers. Attic enforces a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination; a few patrons have been banned and one employee was terminated. Svoboda and Wambolt have also banned customers that made staff feel uncomfortable. Walter has confronted other employees and customers about line-crossing behavior.

Opportunities for professional growth are another way to support employees. Pre-pandemic, Triple Bottom had an internal internship program that taught workers skills in brewing, marketing, and event planning with the help of a mentor; one intern went on to become the full-time brewing assistant. (Triple Bottom also strives to hire employees who were formerly incarcerated or experienced homelessness.) At Love City, two current brewers started as bartenders who expressed interest in learning more about production. "When we had the ability to take on a new position in the brewery, it was just the natural first place to look for us," Walter said.

These strategies converge to create workplaces that are welcoming, in hopes that employees will stick around and enjoy their work.

"I want the people that work for Attic Brewing Company to still be working here five or 10 years from now," Lacy said. "And the only way to do that is to create a healthy work environment for them and to value them as people."

This article has been updated to reflect that Kavulich no longer works at Evil Genius as of August 2020.


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