[Updated] Boulevard Brewing Co. becomes lightning rod for criticism following tepid response to sexual harassment allegations
[Update 1/26/21 6 p.m.: A new statement/apology from Boulevard has been added to the end of this article.
Update 1/27/21 12 p.m.: A statement from one of the former employees mentioned in the post is attached.
Update 1/27/21 5:30 p.m.: Jeff Krum has resigned. Details added to the bottom of the piece. This includes the departure from the VP of Marketing. At 6:50 p.m. this was updated with the joint statement from employees at Boulevard.
Update 1/29/21 5 p.m.: John McDonald is returning to the company.]
Over the weekend, Kansas City found itself in the national spotlight via a viral Reddit post. The author, a former female employee of Boulevard Brewing Co., accused the company of multiple instances of blatant sexism and harassment. She provided a detailed account of situations involving herself and other women in the employ of the local brewery, and shared her experience with having human resources and management ignore or diminish the claims of herself and other employees.
When the world thinks about Kansas City, behind BBQ and our sports teams, Boulevard Brewery is obviously in the top five. With an organization that represents the city as the whole, seeing coast to coast admonishment of the institution’s behavior is a distressing situation. One that calls for a swift and engaging response.
Instead, Boulevard has stumbled through a series of reactions that have only drawn greater public ire and has even emboldened the workforce to consider taking their own immediate action against the company.
For a KC staple, this is a problem. One that requires immediate attention and hopefully a productive solution. To shine a light on that, we’re breaking down the current situation, as it stands on Tuesday afternoon. This article documents the initial post, the company’s responses, the community’s stance, and information regarding the situation internally.
This is a fluid situation and the article will be updated as new information comes in. If you have more information you’d like to contribute, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the purpose of the piece, The Pitch interviewed six former employees and more than a dozen current employees of Boulevard Brewing. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of personal and professional retaliation.
The Reddit Accusation
In a Reddit post made over the weekend, one ex-employee described the harassment and hostility she faced while working at Boulevard Brewing Company. Her bad experiences culminated when, upon suspicion that she and another woman were pregnant, the boss stood them up in the lab in front of other coworkers, and demanded to know if they were pregnant. The employee said the boss discounted the other woman, saying “the only way you could be pregnant is by your cat,” but continued to demand answers from her.
After reporting the incident to HR, the employee said it started a cycle of reporting the boss’ bad behavior and then being punished by him for reporting it. Despite his hostility being well-known, the employee was still asked to come up with her own solutions to fix his behavior, and then said she was called anti-social for acting on those solutions.
“It was made clear that I was the problem for not handling it better,” the employee said. “They had asked me in my interview if I could handle working with men, so it was my problem.”
These were not the only incidents, the ex-employee said in her post. She detailed a male employee that harassed women at the company. After he was initially chastised, he apologized, but then continued to harass the same women—trying to give them notes or gifts, following them to their cars, and sending them multiple emails. However, nothing was done. When one of the victims quit because of the harassment, HR told her they did everything they could. The man was later allowed to retire early, and the company threw him a party. The man reportedly still attends events at the brewery and claims of his harassment continue among the Boulevard community.
The ex-employee continued detailing Boulevard’s maltreatment towards women in the company, including discriminatory hiring practices.
She wrote that she knew of multiple female candidates with years of experience that were not hired because the boss thought that women were lazy. Instead of hiring an experienced female candidate, the boss hired a man with no experience to be an intern and then quickly promoted him to a similar position.
As has been the case in recent months, this public social media post opened the gates for an avalanche of similar statements and accusations from members of the community—reminiscent of recent calls for accountability from Alamo Drafthouse and Betty Rae’s Ice Cream.
Another ex-Boulevard employee responded on the thread, sharing that she also experienced this kind of discrimination in the workplace. She was asked in the interview if she planned to have kids, and if she knew when she planned to. There were many more comments of ex-employees corroborating the original poster’s claims of harassment and hostility in the workplace.
The First Response
Boulevard’s response to the matter just amplified the fact that they don’t take these issues seriously. In their statement, the company stated that the situation was “thoroughly and impartially examined” last year, when the ex-employee made her complaints.
The company committed to creating a taskforce headed by female leaders of the company to reinvestigate the allegations and empower the women at Boulevard. While this could potentially right some wrongs at the company, the taskforce being formed only after the ex-employee went public shows how to what degree this issue was a priority.
Admitting that the company could have handled the situation better and with more sensitivity, but not owning up to the harassment shows that the ex-employee was right when she said that any issues at the company were blamed on the person who reported them.
The Follow-Up PR Statements
Natalie Gershon, VP Marketing at Boulevard Brewing Co. returned our request for comment to the following questions:
Do you have any firm processes that will be enacted to protect female employees?
We are focused on ensuring that the feedback offered by our team is heard and that any allegation of harassment or discrimination is investigated and acted upon. Today, we convened the beginning of a task force, headed by several female leaders, to create a structure for broader meetings throughout the week. We are working hard to ensure that any employee can come to the table with concerns about our organization and opportunities to improve. In addition to our internal discussion, we are connecting this week with many female leaders throughout the city, to learn how to better advocate for the women across our organization.
Have you changed any internal processes? Please give an example of definitive things that will be changing.
We are developing a platform for immediate, anonymous reporting. In addition, we are working on a change in the leadership structure to ensure that HR has the autonomy needed to conduct thorough, impartial investigations. At the end of that investigation, we would recommend that the findings are reviewed by a panel of employees outside of the department, then bringing a summary and recommendations to leadership.
Do you have any further comment beyond the PR statement released?
We know there is work to do here. There is work to do across our industry. Boulevard, as a company, cannot fall in line with the industry standards. We need to be leaders. We need to drive that change, and ensure that women feel safe, supported and respected in the workplace. It starts with us, and it starts now.
These allegations are just one more example of many that show how toxic brewing culture can be. While there are plenty of highly qualified women in brewing, many in the industry still treat their job as a boys’ club, leading to intolerable conditions for female employees.
There were over 500 comments on Boulevard’s statement on Facebook, and an overwhelming majority of them were not in favor of the company. Many saw through the marketing team’s attempt to sweep the allegations under the rug. Even more of them said the apology was empty and left them without any belief that real change would be made.
On Twitter, not one response of more than 50 was in support of Boulevard’s statement.
Members of the local beer community have begun to put aside their professional and personal fears to speak out and demand accountability, in light of the tepid reactions.
The Internal Response
While Monday morning brought The Pitch contacts from a limited number of people directly involved in the original statement, by the time the public response had landed our inbox was flooded with current employees that wanted to make us aware of how disgruntled they had become with the community facing position of their employer. So much so that we are still trying to work through the remaining interviews, and will update with further detail as the process continues.
Corroborated stories among the staff include detailed accounts of a minimal and/or nonexistent HR department, who bent to upper-management and protecting Boulevard at every opportunity. This aligned with the glimpse at a longtime “boy’s club” culture, wherein even those who worked up the courage to report issues felt sure they would not be taken seriously, and many more simply remained silent out of fear of being blackballed by the company—and the KC beer community at large.
More pressingly, it has been reported to The Pitch by multiple parties that current employees are threatening a mass departure if the situation is not handled more adequately, as they feel they can no longer work at a professional institution that would publically portray itself so poorly. As one current worker says, “99% of the staff is furious with the statement, which was written by one high-level member of the company. They’ll need to do better immediately, or they risk losing everyone.”
The Bigger Picture
Sexism in the beer industry, especially locally, has faced a long time call to reckoning. Women and minorities have been attempting to speak out about the boy’s club protections of an industry that seems unwilling to give new voices a seat at the table. We’ve seen in the past year alone how diverse voices like Eleven Three KC have been harassed by the beer enthusiast community, simply for asking breweries to take action towards greater accountability.
Perhaps now that the eyes of the country are upon one of our most beloved community cornerstones, Boulevard will pivot into finding a way to display true leadership to the rest of the beer scene, by walking the walk of “it’s never wrong to do the right thing.”
This article will be updated as new details emerge, including further statements we expect to receive later today. A follow-up piece about the LA beer community and how to battle sexism, according to brewers/owners in the city, will be releasing tomorrow. If you have further information to contribute to this story, please reach out via email@example.com.
Update: 1/26/21 6 p.m.
Boulevard has issued an apology and a declaration of steps toward improvement while accepting responsibility for the issues we reported here. Here is the statement in full:
We are sorry.
In the last few days, we have heard from our employees, our former employees, and our community. We have learned a lot about ourselves. We have heard accounts of personal experiences that have shaken us to our core. It has become undeniably clear that harassment did in fact occur, clear that we have issues – serious issues that we have failed to address.
To those of you that we hurt, those we let down, those we failed to protect, we are deeply sorry.
Words won’t change anything, or fix anything, only actions. So starting today, we are taking the first steps.
Based on additional, corroborated information, we parted ways with a company executive.
We are hiring an independent third party human resources firm to undertake an independent investigation of all issues that have been raised, with full access to all our people and all our records. We will share the results with our teams, and will take all recommended actions.
We are instituting new procedures to enable anonymous reporting of workplace concerns, and reexamining our policies to ensure that all issues are handled in a thorough, independent, and fair manner.
We are instituting enhanced and mandatory harassment, bias, and discrimination training throughout the organization, and committing to improving diversity and inclusion.
This is the beginning of a long but necessary journey, a journey that has begun too late. While we cannot undo the mistakes of our past, we are resolved to do better, and to be better.
Jan. 27, Hannah McEldowney published a statement on her own experience at Boulevard. After being mentioned anonymously in the original Reddit post, McEldowney felt forced to publish her own statement. In reference to the post, wherein the original poster wrote that one of the victims of a man who allegedly continued to harass women at Boulevard quit because of continued harassment. The man was later allowed to retire early and thrown a party from the company.
“I am that victim,” McEldowney said. “I did not ever plan to publicly share my story. Unfortunately, without my knowledge or consent, my situation was included in this person’s telling of their own experience. I support women, I believe victims, and I also firmly believe that no one should tell someone else’s story without their consent.”
McEldowney continued to detail her experience at Boulevard, she left the company in March of 2019. Although there were many reasons she quit, she says, but one of the main ones was because she feared for her safety after the harassment. McEldowney described being afraid for her safety at work because of being stalked at shifts.
“About 2 years into my career I was sexually assaulted by a long standing ‘original’ employee of Boulevard,” McEldowney said. “It was a shock to my entire system.”
After going to HR and filing complaints, she was told that because it “didn’t happen on company property” they did not believe she was assaulted. McEldowney then filed a police report. After seeing the evidence of harassment, police recommended she file a restraining order.
“I was too afraid, I didn’t want to lose my job,” McEldowney said, in regards to why she didn’t file a restraining order. “I needed my job. It’s a terrible spot to be in, to choose paying bills over being safe.”
McEldowney said in her statement that Boulevard HR gave her differing responses after she told them police recommended a restraining order. At first, she detailed, HR said her would not be allowed in the building she worked in or face firing. However, when he did appear, McEldowney said that HR changed course and said that he would instead not be allowed on her specific floor.
Soon after she quit, she said that he was “eventually asked to ‘retire early'” in response to more women filing complaints.
“They even threw him a party,” said McEldowney. “Boulevard did everything they could to not let his disgusting behavior be known.”
McEldowney says she was diagnosed with PTSD soon after she quit. After being unable to work for a time because of the trauma she went to therapy. It was only after more than a year of therapy and work that she says she has been able to manage her PTSD. However, McEldowney holds that Boulevard, as whole, is not a terrible place.
“Boulevard Brewing Company is not an evil place,” McEldowney said. “There was also a small group of people that did try to help me, people even in positions of power that tried to fire this person. Sadly, the ones at the top of the chain of command refused to allow this. Responsibility needs to be taken, and change needs to happen. There is no excuse for a woman to ever be afraid to go to work.”
Jeff Krum Resignation
As of 5 p.m. on Wednesday, top Boulevard Brewing Co. executive Jeff Krum, who has worked there for 25+ years, resigned in the aftermath of the public backlash to recent events.
“As president, one of my oversight responsibilities was to ensure that all our workplaces were free of any form of real or perceived harassment or demonstrations of unwanted attention,” Krum told employees earlier today. “Disclosures of recent days make it clear that this was not always achieved.”
As of press time, Krum remains the president of Duvel Moortgat USA. Duvel Moortgat is a fourth-generation, family-owned craft brewer based in Puurs, Belgium. The company owns and operates several breweries in the United States and Europe, including Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, MO. Whether Krum will be asked to sever ties with Boulevard’s parent company is yet to be seen.
Shortly after Krum’s announcement, via a public Facebook post, Natalie Barr Gershon (a VP in Boulevard’s marketing department) announced that she would be stepping away.
“But let me be clear,” Gershon says. “The words of the company were not my words. The decisions made were not my decisions. Like the rest of my colleagues, I was kept in the dark and offered a variety of truths from a seemingly endless bucket of lies. I did not and would not knowingly cover-up a claim of harassment, assault or discrimination.”
At 6:50 p.m. on Wednesday Jan. 27, a coalition of more than 100 employees from across every division of Boulevard Brewing Co. put out a statement on Reddit. The departments reflected include members of sales, marketing, brewing, production, quality, tours and rec, finance, and so on. The entire post is included here, as follows:
Today, we returned power to the people.
After years of begrudgingly trudging through a toxic culture and harmful work environment created and cultivated by certain members of our executive team, we finally have had enough. WE are the ones who make this brewery run, and we have become tired of being overruled, bullied, ignored, and utterly misrepresented by inept and insensitive “leaders”. Their lack of accountability and awful missteps this week were the last straw – so today, we raised our voices and our voices were heard.
Through our efforts, (former) President Jeff Krum has stepped down from the company and no longer will our brewery be clouded and characterized by his indifference, ego, pride and lack of humanity. We can find, and desperately deserve, a leader who actually represents our values and acts on them.
Our additional desire for the removal of Vice President of Marketing Natalie Gershon was also fulfilled. Natalie’s condescension, stifling of employee voices, and constant protection and parroting of Jeff’s harmful commentary had significantly contributed to the brewery’s hostile environment. No more.
The reputation of Boulevard has been severely tarnished, and our inner workings are now in a state of repair, but with these two root sources and guardians of toxicity and problematic behavior gone, it will be a much easier process building ourselves back up.
Going forward, we – as a collective – will insist on and accept nothing less than maintaining a brewery culture where employees are heard, misconduct is not tolerated or brushed aside, and we return to operating in the best interest of ALL Boulevardians, not just those at the top of the food chain.
The people have spoken. And we promise to stay loud when it comes to doing what’s right. We’re taking our brewery back.
McDonald’s return and other resignations
In addition to Gershon and Krum, Matthew Szymanski, CFO of Boulevard also resigned from the company.
Amidst all of the upheaval and scandal, John McDonald, the founder and former president of the company, is returning to the helm of Boulevard for “as long as it takes.”
McDonald acknowledges that there is a lot to do to clean up Boulevard, but remains hopeful for the company’s regrowth. He is aware of three sexual harassment complaints and plans to hire an outside HR consultant to investigate.
“We are going to be an open book,” McDonald says. “We have hired a third party HR consultant and will follow their lead.”
In regards to how Boulevard could have ignored the concerns and safety of its employees so much, McDonald says it was a compounding number of mistakes.
“I think this was many different things we failed to do correctly,” McDonald said to the Kansas City Business Journal. “We had an HR system, but it got short-circuited and wasn’t functioning the way an HR system should work at a company. It allowed a lot of unfortunate things to happen. Then things weren’t handled properly. Basically, we messed up and made a lot of different mistakes. So I don’t think it was one thing, but many things. We need a more modern HR system to take care of these issues.”
Policy is still up in the air at Boulevard, while the company outlines specific processes on how to report problems and how they will be investigated in a better way.
“We have temporary protocols in place for the near-term,” McDonald says. “We are looking forward to solidifying a long-term solution. We believe our temporary protocols will ensure there is a safe and fair reporting process in the short-term.”
While those investigations are taking place, and while Boulevard is still lacking a few top executives, McDonald and other executives are reaching out to employees to listen to their concerns. There is a lot of work to do to ensure everyone is safe and bring back the sense of community at Boulevard, but McDonald returning is a start.
More details to come as the story develops.