The Girl & the Fig in Sonoma faces backlash over face-mask policy
The Girl & the Fig restaurant in Sonoma closed abruptly this week amid furor over allegations by a former server who says she left her job at the restaurant after being told she could no longer wear a Black Lives Matter face covering.
Restaurant co-owner John Toulze said Thursday that management and staff have received physical threats in the wake of the allegation and that social media comments have suggested the restaurant be “burned to the ground.”
“The effects of this have been devastating,” Toulze said in an online media press conference Thursday morning, regarding the charges by the former employee.
Former server Kimi Stout posted a video on Instagram Jan. 1, apparently showing her leaving the restaurant on her last day of employment Sept. 3, throwing her Girl & the Fig T-shirt into a garbage bin.
The caption to the posting read: “On September 3rd, 2020, I was forced out of my position as a server at The Girl and the Fig restaurant in Sonoma, CA for refusing to remove my ‘Black Lives Matter’ mask after a new mask policy was put into place. … Happy New Year, friends. Spend your money selectively.”
The episode, first detailed in an SFGate story (“Server at Acclaimed Bay Area Restaurant Loses Job After Wearing Black Lives Matter Mask to Work”), quickly went viral, setting off a firestorm of coverage in online news outlets ranging from Newsweek to the Daily Mail in England.
According to media accounts by both Stout and restaurant management, Stout resigned Sept. 3 after being told she could no longer use her uniform to express support for the BLM movement.
Attempts by the Index-Tribune to reach Stout for comment were unsuccessful.
On Feb. 9, the Girl & the Fig closed its doors “for the foreseeable future” after only a week of reopening, “out of an abundance of caution for the safety of our staff,” wrote owner Sondra Bernstein in an announcement. Girl and the Fig president John Toulze told the Index-Tribune that restaurant is working with the Sonoma police department to monitor the “very disturbing” social media threats to the building and employees.
Reaction to the news on local Facebook pages has been divided, with hundreds of comments posted. The Sonoma restaurant has a loyal fan base but is facing heated backlash, centered in large part over the management team’s reported addendum to its uniform policy to disallow facemask messaging after Stout had been allowed to don her Black Lives Matter covering previously.
“I was told by the president of the company that if I did not change my mask I would not be allowed to work and that BLM is ‘too political.’ I asked him why I was being forced out when only three weeks previous he said I had his ‘100 percent support.’ He simply responded, ‘Yes I did, but that was before the policy,’” wrote Stout in a January Instagram post.
As the media firestorm grew, Bernstein and Fig president John Toulze released both a formal statement and a social media post.
“This entire incident has exploded over an employee that did not want to follow the rules,” wrote Bernstein in a Facebook post on the afternoon of Feb. 10. “Plain and simple. We did not fire her, we did not force her out, she made her own decision to quit...”
Bernstein goes on to say that Stout was “actually a very good server and we were sorry to lose her.”
Bernstein and Toulze maintain that they “have always believed in Black Lives Matter” and describe it as a human rights issue and that “racism and discrimination have no place in our society.”
Bernstein stressed that a restaurant uniform policy has been in place since 1997.
“Everyone signs off on when they accept a job. If they don’t like the policy, they don’t have to take the job,” said Bernstein. Masks hadn’t been addressed specifically until 2020 because no one had worn them prior to the pandemic, she said.
A formal face mask policy for employees was added in September 2020, during Stout’s tenure. The policy states that staff should wear a Girl & the Fig branded mask provided, or a plain black or blue surgical mask to align with the dress code which require servers and runners to wear plain blue jeans and a long-sleeve, button-down white shirt with a green apron provided by the company.
Bernstein stands behind the restaurant’s mask policy and said they see it as crucial to making sure that all patrons are received with “warm, friendly hospitality,” that the staff feel it is a safe space and for the attention to be on the food, wine and décor.
In a letter to the Index-Tribune, Bernstein wrote that in the 23 years she has been in business in Sonoma, she has never used the Girl and the Fig as a platform for her own personal beliefs because she doesn’t think the restaurant is the appropriate forum.
In her communications this week, Bernstein has stressed that her restaurants and management team pride themselves on “employing and supporting a diverse workforce” and says that the team fully supports the Black Lives Matter movement.
During a Feb. 11 press call to answer further questions, Toulze said that diversity training is being scheduled for all staff and pledged to take steps toward the Girl and Fig participating in the “15 Percent Pledge,” a national movement urging business to dedicate 15 percent total purchasing power to supporting Black-owned businesses.
A group called Indivisible Petaluma announced plans for a Black Lives Matter rally in front of the restaurant on Feb. 14, but has since posted on social media both that the rally is canceled and still planned so it was unclear as of Feb. 13 as to whether it would take place.
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Kimi Stout’s Jan. 1 public Instagram post that appears to show her leaving her job at the Girl and the Fig on Sept. 3.
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