Morehead Foundry, a Greensboro restaurant complex next to the Downtown Greenway, has temporarily closed following an employee walkout and allegations of racism against its owner.
Lentz Ison, the director of operations for Fresh. Local. Good Food Group, posted his letter of resignation to owner Lee Comer on Facebook on Sunday.
“I have been directed to make decisions and take action that are unethical and are not in the best interest of staff/ and the community we support,” Ison wrote. “For example, being asked to not hire eligible persons due to race.” In his Facebook post, Ison added, “I have never before been asked to fire someone just because they injured themselves and filed for workers comp, out of retaliation.”
Comer, a restaurateur who owns the Iron Hen, opened Morehead Foundry in November 2016 as a restaurant complex near the southwest corner of the Downtown Greenway. The refurbished building includes kitchen space for Fresh. Local. Good Food Group’s catering service, along with Four Flocks and Larder, Revolution Burger, the Baker & the Bean and Hush speakeasy.
Reached by phone on Monday, Comer responded, “His allegations are completely false in terms of the context that he made them.” She added, “When you look at how many employees I have, there are far more African Americans than whites. My record speaks for itself. I have a very diverse staff, including gay, straight, transgender and Hispanic.” Comer also said Ison “was in charge of all hiring and firing of any kind. If he wanted to make a change, he should have made it.”
Ison said he stands behind his assertion that Comer discouraged him from hiring African Americans.
“The racial things were talked about multiple times,” said Ison, who took the job of director of operations in March. “She thought they were working for a couple months to get unemployment. She based it on race; it was not based on an economic thing. It left a bad taste in my mouth. She would say, ‘I don’t want to hire any black people.” While acknowledging that Morehead Foundry’s staff is racially diverse, Ison said that’s the to the credit of the management team and not Comer.
Ison and Bar Manager Ryan Hill said they walked out last week after learning that paychecks to lower-level employees had failed to clear. Hill, who joined the team on June 28 at Lentz’s invitation, told Triad City Beat that on one occasion he witnessed Comer screening a group of customers based on race. Hill said he received an inquiry from a party of 150-200 people who wanted to pay individually for food and drinks. From the restaurant’s perspective a more ideal arrangement would be to take a lump-sum payment for food and open bar, but Hill said he was willing to make it work.
“She asked: Were they black?” Hill recounted. “And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she intimated that she didn’t want their business. She said something to the negative of, ‘No, thank you.’”
In light of the flurry of discussion on Facebook and media interest in the controversy, some of Comer’s current employees came to her defense.
Lori Loftis, the executive baker and bakery manager at the Baker & the Bean, said since the time she started working at Morehead Foundry in August 2016, she’s “never been instructed to not hire a black person, never been instructed to not hire a Hispanic.”
Alex Dummit, Comer’s executive assistant and director of sales, also said she’s never heard Comer say anything like what Ison is alleging.
“As a hiring manager, I’ve never been discouraged from hiring anyone unless they weren’t qualified,” she said. “I know Lee has hired plenty of African Americans.”
Ison said the turmoil that led to his sudden July 12 resignation began with the firing of an employee who slammed a door on their finger the previous weekend.
“They filed a workers-compensation claim after they shattered their fingertip,” Ison said, adding that Comer “directed us to terminate him. Because of that it felt like retaliation.” Ison said the official reason for the employee’s termination is that he walked out to his car without clocking out.
Reached a second time on Monday, Comer said she has retained a lawyer, who advised her to not comment further. Dummit said the employee was fired not because of the injury, but because “he was not working on company time,” although she doesn’t know the specifics of the employee’s alleged violation of workplace policy.
Darick Palmer, who was hired as a bartender at Morehead Foundry in April, said he doesn’t encounter Comer enough on the job to comment on her racial attitudes, but harbors skepticism on the claims against her.
“I was referred to come to this job by a black man who was a friend of the owner who I attend NAACP meetings with,” said Palmer, who is himself black. “I don’t think he would be involved with her if that was the case.”
Palmer levied a criticism of the restaurant industry in Greensboro that he said applied to Lentz’s team just as much as any other food-service operation in the city: They overlook the African-American market, and they allow their standards of service lapse when it comes to black clientele.
“I don’t think [Comer] is any more guilty of [racism] than any other restaurateur in Greensboro,” Palmer said. “If you walk into a situation you don’t like and you can’t change it, you don’t want to be part of it. Or maybe you’re okay with it. The problem I keep running into in Greensboro in particular — I’m a lifetime service-industry person — is that these restaurants have low numbers. Whether it’s the ownership or the managers or the staff, they always forget to reach out to upper-middle class, recently graduated, young black people.”
Comer said on Monday that Morehead Foundry has “temporarily closed for us to reorganize and figure out what our next step is.” She added, “The closing of the foundry was something that was in process well before [Ison] made his malicious allegation.” Notwithstanding Comer’s statement, Lonerider Brewing abruptly announced a delay of a new “beer den” within Four Flocks and Larder on the same day as Ison’s resignation and one day before the planned July 13 opening.
Comer also said she’s suing Ison for violating a confidentiality agreement that applies to the company’s social media policy. Ison responded that he’s not worried about getting sued because the confidentiality agreement only applies to the duration of his employment. He added that he can’t be sued for defamation because everything he’s said is true.
Ison’s allegations against Comer and his public resignation resonated with Wesley Phillip Painter, a former Iron Hen employee who now lives in New York City. Painter said he resigned from his job as a cook at the Iron Hen in 2010 after Comer loudly objected to him training a dishwasher who was intellectually disabled to prepare food.
Arriving at work at 5:30 a.m. for a catering job, Painter recalled, “I could hear her yelling in the office. I could hear her talking about this kid. She said the word ‘retard.’ She said, ‘I don’t want this retarded kid touching my food.’ I thought: This lady doesn’t deserve a second more of my time. I walked in the office and said everything I wanted to say. I said, ‘You have no idea what it takes for him to get to work every day. You don’t appreciate him. He’s helping you out. We’re all helping you out.’ That’s the only job I’ve walked out on. I’ve never forgotten the feeling. It’s an incredible feeling.”
Dummit, who has worked off and on for Comer over the past eight years, said she’s never heard her boss use the word “retard” or make fun of anyone for an intellectual disability.
“Yes, she’s a hard person to work for,” Dummit said. “She raises her voice. She definitely is not a fair person who believes everyone is equal. This is a capitalist society. She does not believe that if someone works harder they get the same pay. She gives everyone the same opportunity. That is not discrimination. I’ve never heard her discriminate based on race.”