Birchwood Cafe owner apologizes for mishandling rape accusation

Owner Tracy Singleton admits she did almost everything wrong when one Birchwood Cafe employee accused another of rape.

Owner Tracy Singleton admits she did almost everything wrong when one Birchwood Cafe employee accused another of rape. Bre McGee Star Tribune

Most of the time, Birchwood Cafe's Facebook posts are just like those of any other restaurant.

It's food porn for potential customers: avocado toast on a happy hour special; a waffle topped with hunks of bacon and an egg; an overhead view of the "quinoa, millet, snap peas, watercress, pickled fiddles, red cabbage" that come in a Birchwood Bowl.

That's why the lengthy post on May 30, one which began "Dear Community," is so arresting by comparison. Its content was no less dramatic. 

Owner Tracy Singleton's message told the story of an accusation of rape against one of her employees. Singleton admits the restaurant's response to this accusation was poorly handled from the start. By the end of it, numerous staff members had quit working there, and Singleton was publicly labeled an enabler of "rape culture."

According to Singleton, in February 2016 she and other Birchwood managers received an email from a current employee, informing them that another current employee had raped the first employee's partner in 2015. The alleged rape had occurred before the second employee was hired by the restaurant. 

Singleton says she and other managers called everyone who'd received the email, telling them to read it but not discuss the matter at work, which she now says was a mistake: one recipient had been open about being the survivor of a recent rape, and reading the story triggered her. 

If that mistake was negligent, the next was deliberate: Acting on the advice of a lawyer, Singleton told employees the rape accusation "not be openly discussed." She fired the employee who'd sent the email, while retaining the one who'd been accused of rape.

The worker who'd been open about her assault soon quit, as did "other members" of Birchwood's staff, including the alleged rapist, who stayed on about eight more months, Singleton writes. "And though I knew my handling of this situation was flawed and caused harm, I did nothing to right this wrong."

The owner was soon confronted with the situation publicly, as survivors led a "public action" at Birchwood Cafe, calling Singleton out for not being supportive of victims -- and, therefore, reinforcing rape culture. Part of the protest was filmed by Unicorn Riot.

The protest registered with Singleton, who writes: "I did not stand with the survivors and for this I am truly sorry."

She agreed to participate in a "restorative justice process," though now writes it was "ultimately unsuccessful," as one of the survivor-participants quit, citing "ongoing harm."

Singleton's other agreement with the group was to release a public apology about the episode. That, it seems, was the impetus for this Facebook post, which ends with Singleton's hopes that her experience will "challenge all business owners to do better in supporting survivors and to be trauma informed," and encouraging readers to donate to the Sexual Violence Center in Minneapolis.

Read Singleton's post in full below.

Dear community, As the owner of the Birchwood Cafe, it is my responsibility to create a safe space for our employees, guests and community members. Space to work, eat, share, and think with each other, and with me. At the core of this responsibility is trust, and for the last twenty-three years, the values that inform everything we do have been cultivated in trust.
I am writing this statement because in 2016, I failed to provide a safe space for our Birchwood employees and community members thereby compromising the trust many of you have in me and in the Birchwood Cafe.
In February 2016, the leadership team and select employees received an email late at night from one of our shift leads accusing another Birchwood employee of raping the shift lead’s partner the year before the accused employee was hired at the cafe. One of the individuals who received the email was a survivor who had let us know she was struggling with trauma from recently being raped.
Our first response was to call everyone on the email thread. A manager left a voicemail that night with the rape survivor with instructions to check her email and not discuss the issue at work. This voicemail was not trauma informed and she was triggered upon reading the content.
The next day I began to assess what action we would take with regard to the parties involved under the Birchwood Cafe employ. I attempted to address the issue within the context of our legal responsibilities and documented conduct code. Legal counsel advised that this was a private matter not to be dealt with at work. I continued to request that the email and it’s contents not be openly discussed. I terminated the shift lead who sent the email and we continued to employ the individual accused of rape.
The rape survivor, retraumatized and frustrated that we did not also fire the person accused of rape, requested that she not have to work with the accused. By changing her schedule and not his, my attempt at accommodations did not provide relief. Rather they served to inconvenience her and isolate her from trusted coworkers with whom she found support. The shift lead’s partner who had accused our employee of rape reached out to me too and by declining their invitation to meet, I silenced them as well.
Within two weeks of our supervisor sending his email, the survivor quit because she did not feel supported or safe. Other members of our staff also left in response. Within eight months the employee accused of rape had left our employ. And though I knew my handling of this situation was flawed and caused harm, I did nothing to right this wrong.
In April 2017, the two survivors staged a direct action at the Birchwood Cafe. Unicorn Riot, a decentralized, educational, non-profit media organization filmed the direct action. During this public protest they called me out as a business owner who perpetuates rape culture. With hindsight and new awareness my mistakes are clear; as a business who claims to fight for justice, we upheld a grave injustice in numerous ways. I silenced and marginalized the survivors' voice. I protected those who of us in power and compromised the well-being of survivors, community and staff. I denied my own past trauma and denied them sensitivity, compassion and care. I reinforced a culture of survivor blame and survivor shame and perpetuated systemic harm. I did not stand with the survivors and for this I am truly sorry.
I know I should have stepped up and done something sooner. It took the survivors’ courage in speaking out to awaken my intention to act. Shortly after their protest we engaged in a facilitated restorative justice process to try and repair the harm that was done. Though we agreed that I would release a public apology and work to change the culture at the cafe, our restorative process was ultimately unsuccessful. I am deeply sorry that one of the survivors opted out due to ongoing harm I caused. It has been almost a year since I made these commitments. And though we have made several important changes within our workplace and raised awareness of rape culture within our staff, I must acknowledge that all my learning, personal growth and positive changes enacted within my business have come at a great cost to the two survivors I originally harmed.
Sexual violence is a community crisis that demands a community response. I hope this story cultivates both personal and community conversation on the prevalence of sexual violence in our society. I hope our experience highlights the gross shortcomings in the status quo and the need to hold people in power accountable when they cause harm. May this awareness challenge all business owners to do better in supporting survivors and take responsibility to be trauma informed. May we learn that to truly stand with the survivor means we do not stand with the perpetrator and we must stop providing them platforms whether they be friends, family or employees. May my mistakes and ongoing learning spark action toward ending rape culture in our institutions and in our community. May continued reflection and work incite healing, forgiveness and the renewal of trust.
Sincerely, Tracy Singleton Owner, Birchwood Cafe