Greensboro ‘bet on’ Comer before racism allegations, business crisis

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Restaurateur Lee Comer addressed Greensboro City Council in March 2015 before the city approved $375,000 in loans for Morehead Foundry. (screenshot)

The city of Greensboro loaned $375,000 to help a restaurateur realize the dream of opening a multiplex food-service hub. Now, restaurateur Lee Comer is accused of racial discrimination and a host of other violations, but other employees and longtime associates say they don’t buy it.

Lee Comer, a respected restaurateur who built a brand around fresh and locally sourced ingredients with her Iron Hen restaurant, promised members of Greensboro City Council that if they approved a $375,000 package of loans, her next project would be “the pride of Greensboro.”

During the hourlong discussion on the item in March 2015, council members argued over who ate at Iron Hen more often. Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann praised the granola at the restaurant, noting that it was made by a local, woman-owned vendor. Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson seconded with an “amen.”

The loan package received approval over the objections of Councilman Jamal Fox, who warned that the deal wasn’t financially viable.

Fox read from a staff report on the proposal: “The level of support is not aligned with the project return on investment to the city. Owner’s equity is not aligned with [urban development investment guidelines] criteria.” He added, “So my question is: If it’s not aligned with the UDIG or it’s not aligned with the return on investment to the city, why is this coming forward to us?”

Council approved the $275,000 loan in a 6-3 vote, with Fox and fellow council members Tony Wilkins and Zack Matheny dissenting. Using money from the city’s parking fund, the city took first position to secure the loan. The separate $100,000 urban investment loan passed on an 8-1 vote, with only Wilkins opposed.

The loan also had to clear a hurdle for minority and women participation. City Manager Jim Westmoreland, who has since retired, observed during the meeting that the $100,000 loan came with conditions for job creation and MWBE, or “minority women business enterprise” participation. Comer committed to modest goals of 5 percent women and 5 percent minority participation.

“We have two different female-owned businesses who are in the process of getting certified themselves that will take us well beyond your 5 percent goal for women,” Comer told council members. “We’re working diligently on the minority part of it. I have a staff person that works on that eight hours a day ever since we got our goals.

“We hire all different types of people, all demographics,” Comer added. “Anyone who’s ever been in my restaurant, which I think you all have, you can look to the people that I hire. It’s across the board.”

Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann praised the project.

“It takes a building that’s been sitting empty and doing nothing for seven years and turns it into something with energy and life and beauty and usefulness,” she said.

Councilman Mike Barber said the concerns raised about the project amounted to “a red herring.”

“It is to enhance and help people who are willing to invest and bet on Greensboro, North Carolina,” Barber said. “So that’s really why we’re here.”

Comer agreed to invest $3.2 million to and to create 29 new full-time jobs and 61 part-time jobs paying at or above Guilford County’s living wage of $9.12 per hour.

Since proceeds for the combined $375,000 loans were disbursed to Comer and business partner Dr. Fareed Al-Khori in 2015, Comer’s venture has run into financial difficulties, and the restaurateur recently became the target of wide-ranging allegations of racial discrimination and other labor violations in the wake of a mass staff exodus.

Comer’s team repurposed an early 20th Century industrial building into Morehead Foundry, a modern food-service multiplex that arranged Four Flocks & Larder, Revolution Burger, the Baker & the Bean and the speakeasy-style bar Hush around a shared kitchen, along with event space and Comer’s catering business. The multiplex sits along the Downtown Greenway, fulfilling a civic goal to activate sleepy areas along the downtown fringe.

One year after Morehead Foundry’s opening, Comer was forced to sell the property to Burlington investor Shawn Cummings. As a condition of the sale, the city agreed to subordinate its interest in the property.

Concern over Comer’s termination of a line cook who is pursuing a worker’s compensation claim after slamming his finger in a door, along with uncertainty over payroll, led to walkouts in July, including at least three members of the management team at Morehead Foundry. Comer confirmed on July 16 that Morehead Foundry was temporarily closed. While a partnership with Raleigh-based Lonerider Brewing Co. appears to be indefinitely on hold, Comer is attempting to reposition her business. On July 23, the restaurateur announced the launch of Hen in a Hurry!, a pre-prepared meal subscription service modeled after Blue Apron. A press release promises that the first 100 people to sign up will receive T-shirts that say, “Local is the new black.”

After Triad City Beat published allegations by former Director of Operations Lentz Ison on July 17 that Comer engaged in employment discrimination and retaliation, several former employees have come forward to corroborate Ison’s claim, while also alleging widespread abuses, including maintaining a hostile workplace and sexual harassment, along with alcohol law violations.

City officials say that Comer is current on payments for the $275,000 parking-lot loan. As of July 1, the balance was $271,316. In 2017, the loan was modified to allow an interest-only payment of $577 per month. Beginning Aug. 1, the monthly payment balloons to $2,961. Comer declined to comment on the future of Morehead Foundry for this story. A woman who answered the phone at Cummings’ office in Burlington said he was on vacation and would not be available to comment. The woman declined to identify herself.

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, who voted for both loans, acknowledged in hindsight that there were warning signs about the project.

“I thought she took on too much,” Johnson said. “I didn’t say that publicly in the beginning.”

Mayor Nancy Vaughan argued that Morehead Foundry’s current financial troubles don’t call into question city officials’ judgment.

“I don’t think that we can project whether a business is going to hit its benchmarks or not,” Vaughan said. “She had a great concept. She activated a corner that was in a blighted area of the city.

“If she can’t make it work, I’m sure some other investor can step in and make it successful,” the mayor added. Vaughan cited as an example a $200,000 loan approved by city council in 2012 to a trio of investors to develop a parking lot, renovate a vacant building and open a new restaurant off of South Elm Street on the southside of the railroad tracks. The restaurant, known as the Worx, closed in 2017, and the original investors sold the property to an Atlanta-based concern for $2.6 million in March 2016. But the parking lot, now known as the Railyard, set the stage for an explosion of redevelopment by developer Andy Zimmerman and others, including the opening of HQ Greensboro, the Forge maker’s space, Boxcar Bar + Arcade, Greensboro Project Space and Horigan’s House of Taps. Gibb’s Hundred brewery also opened in the area, but has since relocated to State Street. Soon after selling the property, the original investors paid off the $200,000 loan, city records show.

Kathi Dubel, the city’s economic development and business support manager, wrote in a July 25 memo shared with city council members that the $100,000 forgivable loan requires that the new jobs created through the project must be retained for two years after issuance of a certificate of occupancy. Dubel reported that Morehead Foundry employed 36 full-time workers and 157 part-timers as of Dec. 31, 2017. The second and final employment report is due at the end of this year. City Attorney Tom Carruthers confirmed to council members prior to approval that the loan has a “clawback” provision if the employment goals are not met

As previously reported by City Beat, Lentz Ison, former director of operations for Comer’s Fresh. Local. Good. Food Group, wrote in his letter of resignation: “I have been directed to make decisions and take actions that are unethical and are not in the best interested of staff and the community we support. For instance, being asked to not hire eligible persons due to race.” Ison told City Beat that Comer told him on multiple occasions: “I don’t want to hire any black people.”

In previous comments, Comer told City Beat that Ison’s “allegations are completely false in terms of the context that he made them.” Comer added that she employs far more African Americans than whites.

Ison’s characterizations are supported by Jon Richardson, who said he worked as a line cook at Revolution Burger from late 2016 into early 2017.

“She tries to keep black people in the dish pit,” said Richardson, who is African-American.

He added, “There was an African-American employee who applied to be a server and a bartender. Lee looked at her and said, ‘I don’t want you serving my guests.’ She wanted the front of the house to be as white as possible.”

Richardson said that during his tenure, Comer hired a white employee to the position of lead cook even though he was being trained by the other line cooks, who were all black.

“There were five of us that were completely eligible and that were willing to do the job,” Richardson said. “We all made it clear that we wanted it. We thought we were competing with each other.”

Richardson said he overhead Comer using the N-word in a conversation with a manager, and both parties laughing about it. Richardson said he resigned because Comer cut his hours back, and he believed he was being treated unfairly because he is black.

Crystal King, who identified herself as a former director of administration under Comer, echoed Richardson’s statement in a comment on City Beat’s Facebook page.

“Not only does she use the N-word like it’s a normal word, on several occasions she called white employees ‘white trash pieces of s***,’ King wrote.

Amiel Rossabi, an attorney in Greensboro with expertise in civil rights and employment law, said allegations of an employer using racial slurs could give rise to hostile work environment claims. Rossabi emphasized that he does not represent Comer.

With regard to employment discrimination, Rossabi said, “Sometimes employees think they’re more qualified. That’s not limited to color. The white person might actually be more qualified. It will be determined based upon whose proof is more correct.”

As to alleged statements by Comer that she wants to minimize African-American employees’ interactions with guests, Rossabi said, “That’s silly. That goes back to the original Civil Rights Act. It’s simply treating people differently because of their race.”

Comer declined to comment on the allegations of racial harassment and other alleged violations.

Contrary to the assertions of Ison and Richardson, others who have worked for or alongside Comer say the allegations of racial discrimination don’t match their experiences.

“Throughout my time working there I never heard her or witnessed her be derogatory to people of color,” said Kacey Foster, who said he was hired by Comer to a position of service manager. “I was told before I started working there that she was a hard person to work for. That is fairly true. She does come down hard on people. I believe she has high expectations.”

Foster said he put in notice after returning from vacation and learning that Ison had reassigned him. Foster said he was working at the time the management walkout occurred.

Darick Palmer, a black employee who was hired by Comer to a position as bartender at Morehead Foundry, has previously said that he never witnessed Comer make discriminatory or derogatory remarks about employees of color.

“Lee and I met waiting tables at Longhorn,” said Davina Coker, who has known Comer for 15 years. “As a black person I have never heard her speak in a derogatory way to black people or any other nationality.”

Coker recalled that she attended the grand opening of Morehead Foundry with “people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds showing support in celebration of [Comer’s] accomplishments.

“No one had a bad thing to say about her during that event and I don’t have a bad thing to say about her now,” Coker said. “I’ve watched her build success from the ground up, and as a young black female who is also building a business I am proud to call her my friend.”

Comer has also been accused of discriminating against at least one customer based on race.

Travis Morris, who is black, told City Beat that he approached Bar Manager Ryan Hill about holding an event at Morehead Foundry for 100 alumni who graduated from Greensboro’s four high schools between 1986 and 2000. Hill, who participated in the management walkout in mid-July, has previously said that the number of guests was in the range of 150 to 200. Morris and Hill said they worked out a deal where food and drink would be available for purchase on the premises during the event, which was to take place on July 28.

Hill previously told City Beat that he brought the plan to Comer, and she asked if the party was black. Hill said he responded affirmatively, although Morris told City Beat that, in fact, the guests would have been a mixed-race group. Hill said Comer rejected the proposal after he told her the guests would be black.

“She said something to the negative of, ‘No, thank you,’” Hill recalled.

Hill called Morris the next day and informed him that the event was off, and that he was no longer employed with Fresh. Local. Good Food Group. Hill apologized and gave Morris a phone number for a contact at Comer’s company.

Morris said Comer’s representative told him they could do the event if Morris would pay a $6,000 guarantee and $1,200 for rental of the building, along with an extra $500 if the event went over time. Later, Morris said after he declined, the representative came back with a new offer for a $3,500 guarantee and $1,200 for the rental. Morris said by that time he had lost trust with Comer’s group, and questioned whether they would even be open on July 28.

“Truthfully, because I was black I think they thought I was stupid,” Morris said. While praising Hill as “professional,” Morris said the overall experience of trying to work with staff at Morehead Foundry was “devastating.”

Even before Morris brought his proposal to Hill, he said he felt devalued by the waitstaff at Four Flocks & Larder.

“I sat at the bar at Four Flocks for a long time, and no one came over until Ryan came out.” Morris said. “There were Caucasian people at the bar. They were being attended to.”

Rossabi said that, assuming the facts as presented by Morris and Hill are accurate, the conduct described would be a classic violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“This goes back to the real heart of the Civil Rights Act, with whites-only restaurants,” Rossabi said. “To the extent that there were accommodations for blacks, they were inferior. That’s where this accommodations law comes from. It’s in essence unchanged. The hope is that [the need for it] would have gone away by now.”

Discrimination would have to be proven through evidence, Rossabi said.

“The various questions you have are, ‘How does this restaurant deal with white people who want to do the same thing?’” Rossabi said. “Does this restaurant ask if the people are white or black? If the restaurant is told they’re white, does the restaurant owner ask for a guarantee? If that restaurant treats people differently solely based on race, that’s a violation.”

Rossabi said the only way he could imagine a question about a person’s race being legitimate in the context of planning a large event is if the person asking the question was trying to ascertain the identity of a particular person based on their race.

“If a hundred black people wanted to rent a space, and the restaurant owner had prior experience with that precise group stiffing him, he can say, ‘I’m not going to rent it to them without a guarantee,’” Rossabi said. “If it’s James Smith — ‘Oh, is he black or white? Because there’s two James Smiths and the one who’s white stiffed me.’ That’s the only way you could ask.”

Comer, along with one of her management employees, is also accused of sexual harassment and state alcohol violations.

Seth Ramsey, who said he started working at Morehead Foundry in January or February, said prior to an incident of sexual harassment he had refused to comply with a request by Comer to make margaritas to take off premises.

“That is illegal because under NC ABC law, alcohol is not to be given away for free,” Ramsey said. “It has to be comped in some way. It has to be consumed on the premises.”

Jámie Taylor Lynne Richard, a former server, told City Beat that on one occasion when she was serving a large graduation party at Four Flocks, she watched Comer pick up an 18-year-old guest’s soda, take it behind the bar and pour whiskey in it, and then set it back down in front of the guest. Richard said when she told a supervisor that the guest was underaged, “I was told to mind my own business.”

One night, Ramsey said, Alex Dummit, Comer’s executive assistant and director of sales, brought a guest into Hush and asked Ramsey to make a drink.

“I was taking too long for her, and she told me I was ‘the worst f***ing bartender ever.’” Ramsey recounted. He said Dummit came around the bar, and started “dry-humping” him, and then texted Comer.

Reached by City Beat, Dummit declined to comment on the matter.

“When Comer comes down to see me, she pulled me aside and grabbed my ass,” Ramsey said. “I’m sorry — I can’t describe it any other way than that. Her nails dug into my ass cheek so deep I had a bruise. She said, ‘Next time I ask for my f***ing alcohol I better get it, or you’ll be f***ing fired.”

Ramsey said he walked over to Four Flocks and told the staff he was quitting, while asking for a bartender to cover him at Hush because he had a trainee working under him.

“I was abashed; I didn’t necessarily know how to feel,” Ramsey said, recalling the experience. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault. So that brought back some bad feelings. I’m resilient; I knew I would land on my feet. I couldn’t do anything about it because I knew if I tried to go after her the camera footage would be deleted.”

Meanwhile, it’s the charge of racism that has carried the worst sting, so far.

Davina Coker’s mother, Rose Knight, has monitored the public-relations bloodbath with dismay from her home in Delaware. Knight met Comer when her daughter befriended her as a High Point University student. The two working shifts together at Longhorn Steakhouse. Knight said her daughter “keeps me up with what they are doing as young women getting ahead.”

“I watched my daughter every day,” Knight said. “My daughter has her own business. She has been working diligently and hard at it. She gets up at 7 in the morning and sometimes she doesn’t even get home from work until 9 o’clock at night. That stuff hurts. You have young people that don’t even want to work; you have these young ladies who are busting their ass. Just because you don’t like her, you want to take food out of her mouth?”

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