When account after account of sexism and mistreatment at Tired Hands Brewing Co. appeared on brewer Brienne Allan’s Instagram last week, some fans of the Ardmore brewery were taken aback and disappointed. The stories ranged in severity from servers being belittled in public to a line cook being physically assaulted by another employee with no repercussions. After founder and co-owner Jean Broillet IV announced he would step aside from operations, several followers demanded more, calling for him to sell his shares in the company.
But there was one group of observers not at all surprised by what Allan’s Instagram detailed: former employees.
The Inquirer interviewed 10 former Tired Hands employees — most of whom declined to be identified for fear of retaliation — who echoed the stories and themes alleged on social media. Though nearly all of them couch their experiences by acknowledging that less-than-professional conduct is the norm in the restaurant and craft beer industries, they described a particularly negative environment dominated by a “dude-bro culture” and exacerbated by uneven handling of serious complaints and offenses.
“We all saw it happening, but we couldn’t scream about it until now,” said Allison Hoover, a former server at Tired Hands’ Fermentaria. Hoover and others were emboldened to speak after seeing the posts shared on Allan’s Instagram.
“What happened to me really didn’t seem like that big of a deal,” she said, “but when you place it next to all of these other people’s experiences, it gains the power.”
Troubles with HR
Hoover left Tired Hands in March 2016 after a year. She quit after a customer who she had expressly asked management not to hire — he had asked prying questions that made her uncomfortable — was brought on staff. Another employee at the time remembers the incident and management’s dismissive reaction to Hoover’s request. “I remember them specifically saying, ‘Well, that’s too bad because he knocked it out of the park in the interview.’”
“They really let me believe that I wasn’t entitled to a safe space,” Hoover said.
Until Tired Hands brought on a full-time HR director in 2018, Broillet’s wife and co-founder, Julie Foster, who is also an attorney, acted as the brewery’s HR officer. While it’s not uncommon for small breweries and startups to skip or skimp on human resources, Tired Hands employees often felt uncomfortable coming to Foster with problems.
“I went to her once with an issue when I was like, ‘alright, this is really bad,’ but other than that I wouldn’t have talked to her,” a former server said. That issue was the provocatively named beer Prismatic Clitoria, which various servers said invited drunk customers to make lewd comments. The beer was renamed Prismatic Sea after employees came to Foster, but other suggestive names followed.
This same server was later fired for drinking on the job — a practice that was by all accounts universal. “They were right to fire me,” she volunteered. “But I got fired for things that dudes did all the time.” She also recalls employees were told there was a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment.
“Absolutely false,” she said. “There were people who were not fired there who ... members of staff felt were predatory — like we would get warned about a particular line cook — and upper management knew about it, and he was not fired. Or people who would behave completely inappropriately would be promoted.”
One frequently cited instance of such a promotion occurred even after a head chef physically attacked a line cook outside a company holiday party. While none of those interviewed witnessed the incident, a few saw the bruises on the line cook’s body the next day, as did the cook’s boss.
“I was there with the executive chef who was their supervisor. He was like, ‘We got to do something about this,’” a former front of house (FOH) manager remembered. “I thought it was being taken care of. And then nothing ever happened. Nothing, I think they told the aggressor essentially to take a couple days off ... and then let him come back and run the line. And that employee just had to work under him. And then eventually, that guy got a promotion.”
The same manager was forced to leave after two and a half years on the job when it was discovered by Broillet and Foster that she and a bartender were in a relationship — a violation of company policy. But several other Tired Hands employees were in relationships or had had them, including male managers with female reports, and had faced no such consequence. In one case, a male manager had allowed his partner to assign herself better shifts, something that caused complaints.
In this case, there were no complaints filed, but the FOH manager had to choose between a demotion and a paycut, or breaking up with her boyfriend. In the end, she left. “I am the only manager, to my knowledge, still, to have gotten actually punished for that rule,” she said.
In the aftermath of the exposure and Broillet’s departure, Tired Hands senior management — department heads in production, sales, creative, and HR — has taken over brewery operations, according to Robert Berliner, a member of the transition management team.
The new leadership acknowledges the toxic culture and mismanagement. “There were many good policies on the books, but there were obstacles to achieving the kind of workplace we all wanted. Simply having good policies is not enough,” Berliner wrote in an emailed response.
Going forward, Broillet “is not going to be present or involved in any aspect of the business,” he wrote. Berliner indicated there have been conversations about Broillet and Foster divesting their stake in the company. Foster left the company in March 2021. She “also made it clear that she stands in solidarity with the staff. Julie also made a commitment to not pursue legal action against Brienne Allan or any staff for their actions in this matter,” he wrote.
Broillet and Foster did not respond to the Inquirer’s requests for comment by the time of publication.
Berliner added that plans to implement an employee profit-sharing model are being drafted and that leadership is “anxious to see it through as soon as possible.” He also said the company will restructure its organizational chart to provide more opportunities for growth and leadership. Currently, the brewery has 37 employees, one-third of its pre-pandemic roster of 112; four of the 37 are women (one holds a management position) and six are people of color (three are in management).
The brewery also intends to develop and post a public mission and values statement, conduct a third-party HR audit, and hold town hall-style meetings for employees.
“This new era was born from two long days of meetings that involved the entire staff sitting in a circle sharing stories and ideas. We intend to continue this process,” Berliner wrote. “Last week was about taking the keys and getting the car started. We are actively working on the changes now.”
‘Managing through fear’
For many of the former employees the Inquirer spoke to, most of whom worked as restaurant staff at the Fermentaria (a.k.a “the Ferm”), getting a job at Tired Hands was exciting at first. The brewery had gained national recognition just a couple years after the Brew Cafe launched in Ardmore, and the local buzz around it was palpable.
“They had a great reputation, and the whole thing [was that] if you’re there for a couple of years, you’ll be able to go anywhere,” said a manager.
When the Ferm opened in 2015, it had 180 seats and room for 260 people. It more than doubled brewing capacity and offered a more ambitious menu, too. The restaurant might serve 600 on a busy day. Many FOH workers said “the money was great,” enough to motivate them to stay and tolerate whatever they had to put up with — and that list could be long, from trying to tune out customers’ sexually explicit comments to waiting on Broillet and a rotating crew of brewers, friends, and visitors who frequently left no tip.
Many workers grew disenchanted the more they were exposed to Broillet’s behavior. Most women workers The Inquirer spoke to said he never called them by name, referring to them as “dude” or “bro” instead. He would routinely hold meetings in the Ferm’s dining room, where he would also lunch, creating constant uncertainty about his expectations and ultimately inviting his criticism. Several recounted being berated or publicly humiliated for small mistakes. As one manager put it, “he was managing through fear.”
Back of house, the atmosphere was equally punishing, minus the tips. Lead chefs were often temperamental, and bullying was common. A former kitchen staffer recalled having to make the brewers the evening’s specials for lunch as they prepped for dinner service. “If they didn’t like it, they would tell you. ... They would make comments like, ‘This is why we’re a brewery. People come here for the beer, because they’re definitely not coming here for the food.’”
Women chefs and line cooks were few and far between, and advancement was even rarer. An early sous chef at the Ferm was driven to quit mid-shift after a year and a half following a string of demeaning encounters with the executive chef, in which her contributions — which were popular with both guests and Broillet himself on occasion — were consistently snubbed.
“When I realized that I was never going to get to the next step ... I realized that the very few shreds of positives or benefits I was getting at this place were going to be taken away from me if I was too good, I left on the job,” she said. She’s meditated on her tenure there for years, questioning her fortitude and self-worth.
Hiring decisions at Tired Hands were sometimes based on aesthetics rather than qualifications. A former chef described a man with no restaurant experience who was hired as a dishwasher on the spot, then almost immediately promoted to a brewery position. “He looked like the typical person who would work at Tired Hands: the skate shoes, the fedora, the heavy metal band T-shirt. He came in, Jean said hello to him, commented on how he had the same pair of sneakers, and then proceeded to explain to this man what his job would be. There was no interview, he just gave the man his job,” the chef said.
“Women would come in and apply for jobs; they wouldn’t even look at applications,” he added, recalling a woman with a food science degree who was nearly overlooked. “She had written her thesis on brettanomyces [a crucial yeast in brewing], but instead of hiring her to be a brewer, he hired her to bake bread.” The chef also said a Black applicant with dreadlocks had to shave his head to be hired.
A former server shared a similar account. “The origin story about one of the head brewers at the Fermentaria was, when Jean was opening up the Brew Cafe, he walked up onto the porch, was like, ‘What’re you guys doing?’ and had a degree in English, and then became a brewer because he was taught how to do it,” the server said. “But when they were trying to quote-unquote diversify staff and hire women, people of color to work in the brewery, they were expecting people to have a degree in brewing beer.” (Tired Hands’ diversity brewing internship requires candidates to have completed or be close to completing a brewing education program or related degree.)
Hope for a better future
Much of what Tired Hands employees describe — a toxic workplace, sexism, discrimination, bullying — is commonplace in the restaurant and craft beer industries, as Allan’s cascading Instagram stories attest. To some readers, these stories may even seem pedestrian. But for many of the employees who lived through them, these moments are haunting.
“I was so proud of myself for getting that job and I was so determined to do a good job at it,” remembered the sous chef who quit. “And to leave there, I’ve never fully recovered professionally from that. ... I have tried to almost gaslight myself about: Like, was it that bad? Or is that just the industry? Is that [me] just not being able to hack the industry?”
The public dismay and attention precipitated by Allan and her sources may bring about some actual change: Perhaps workers won’t second-guess their own mistreatment and will demand better, and walk away if they don’t get it.
At Tired Hands, Berliner wrote, “There’s currently a sense of hope and empowerment, as well as a push for fairness, equity and transparency. ... Customers will not see a drop in quality of the product, but we do believe that they will see a change in the ideals that we hold collectively, both in the workplace and in the world.”