Gandhi Mahal got famous for standing with protesters, but former workers say it’s toxic for women

Clockwise from top left: Former Gandhi Mahal employees Claire Baglien, Emma Kopp, Krista Beier, Rafael Gonzalez, Yadari Núñez-Márquez, Ocean Jurney, and Maddie Harrison.

Clockwise from top left: Former Gandhi Mahal employees Claire Baglien, Emma Kopp, Krista Beier, Rafael Gonzalez, Yadari Núñez-Márquez, Ocean Jurney, and Maddie Harrison. Images courtesy of those photographed

Gandhi Mahal has long had a reputation in the Twin Cities for promoting social justice and environmental sustainability. Owner Ruhel Islam has said he tries to live by the values of its namesake, Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian political ethicist and practitioner of nonviolent resistance.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Islam and his restaurant gained national fame when, as a fire swept through his building the night the third precinct was overrun, he was quoted in a Facebook post written by his daughter as saying, “Let my building burn.” The post was shared more than 33,000 times, and in subsequent national and international news stories as Islam implored people to focus on justice for Floyd instead of the loss of his business.

Islam’s progressive inclinations extended to his views on women, at least publicly. In 2017, an initiative by the Pangea World Theater to celebrate Women’s History Month on Lake Street featured the role of women in local businesses, and quoted Islam as saying, “I care especially for the women. I grew up with four sisters — a lot of siblings — so I respect that it is very important to respect all the women. Not for one day but every day.”

But former employees paint a far darker picture of Gandhi Mahal, and the restaurant, which has announced plans to reopen as “Curry in a Hurry” in Seward while the original location is rebuilt, is under investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights for sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation.

The investigation stems from a complaint filed by a woman of Bengali heritage who was a founding employee of the restaurant when it opened in 2008. Though she left after two years, Islam asked her to return to work as a manager in September 2017. She is named in the complaint, but has asked to remain anonymous in this article to protect her family’s privacy. She’ll be referred to here as “Ava.”

The case, filed on May 29, 2019, is currently pending with the Department of Human Rights’ investigation unit, said Peter Christian, a lawyer representing Ava. Christian said Ava is considering filing a civil suit and will make a decision after the completion of the investigation.

Sexual harassment is endemic to the dining industry. A 2014 survey of current and former restaurant workers found two-thirds reported “high levels” of harassment by management, and four-fifths by coworkers.

But former employees at Gandhi Mahal said the harassment they encountered there was unique. They describe an environment in which managers ignored the concerns of women employees about a myriad of issues, including the placement of security cameras, unwanted touching, sexual comments, discrimination, and retaliation for speaking up, all while the restaurant publicly promoted its progressive values.

“I've experienced it in most of my jobs, but I've never experienced or seen anything of this caliber in any of the service industry jobs that I've held before I worked at Gandhi Mahal,” said former server Emma Kopp, who has worked in the service industry for a decade.

Seven former employees who worked with Ava at Gandhi Mahal, some of whom also experienced sexual harassment there, have voiced their support of Ava, including four individuals who submitted declarations in support of her complaint with the MDHR.

Michael Cain, a lawyer representing Gandhi Mahal, sent the following statement:

“Gandhi Mahal takes this accusation of discrimination seriously. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights is investigating this matter in which Gandhi Mahal has fully cooperated. Out of respect for the process and everyone involved, Gandhi Mahal will not comment on the merits of the accusation.”

According to the complaint, Ava’s difficulties at the restaurant began in January 2018, when she became aware of unwanted sexual comments from a male staff member toward former server Maddie Harrison, who was the only woman working during an evening shift.

Ava said she brought the issue to her fellow managers shortly after it happened, and then spoke to the restaurant’s human resources representative about it, demanding that the male staff member “be held accountable for his behavior,” as “female servers were becoming uncomfortable working with the male staff member alone.” She said she was told by the HR representative and the general manager that the issue would be dealt with.

The male staff member quit in March 2018, Ava said – though she says the restaurant recorded his departure as a termination – but not before relaying a threat to rape and kill her to the general manager when he was confronted about the reported sexual comments. Ava took out a restraining order against the male staff member following the threat.

Ava continued to raise sexual harrassment concerns with Islam and other restaurant leadership. In return, she said, she was retaliated against.

After learning of false rumors that she and the GM were having a sexual relationship, Ava confronted Islam and other restaurant leaders multiple times to insist they be dealt with. But in a mid-June 2018 meeting with Islam, part-owner Rahmen Arshad, and the GM, she said she was banned from working in the office with the other managers, who were all men. Citing the rumors, Islam, Arshad, and the GM said they wouldn’t be able to control what was said about her if she continued using the office.

On July 2, 2018, the restaurant’s HR representative informed Ava that she would need to begin using a timecard to clock in and out — a change that applied only to her, no other managers. Ava was also told this change came directly from Islam. According to former employees, the two were close personal friends.

“The more our boss spoke up, the more it seemed that she was penalized and allowed to do less and less of her managerial duties,” former server Krista Beier wrote in a statement.

Also in summer 2018, a relative of Islam who was also a manager began making inappropriate and unwanted sexual comments about Ava while frequently asking about and commenting on her romantic life.

This manager is the focus of much of the MDHR complaint, and of the concerns raised by employees. He will be referred to here as “John.”

According to the complaint and the former employees, John tracked Ava with security cameras, monitored her location, and asked other staff members where she was, or who she had spoken with, even if it was unrelated to work.

Former servers said John would often get drunk during his shift, which unnerved staff.

“As he got more and more intoxicated, that's when his behavior would become more erratic,” former server Yadari Núñez-Márquez said.

John would sometimes ask employees to drink with him and ask personal questions about their dating lives and opinions about women employees.

“Really very direct, like, ‘Who are you sleeping with here? You don’t think she's hot?’ Very much that sort of locker room talk, which made me really uncomfortable," former server Ocean Jurney said.

John often gave gifts to employees he was not close to, including cash and expensive jewelry. Former workers now believe this was an attempt to buy their loyalty and silence as abuse of Ava escalated.

Receiving a particular bracelet meant someone was “part of the family,” Núñez-Márquez said.

Harrison said that in the summer of 2018, she saw John taking photos of security camera footage with his phone. Then, as he browsed through his photos, she noticed it was filled with photos of Ava working, she said.

“I was so furious when I saw him taking those pictures because it made me feel worried about Ava and feel unsafe, personally,” Harrison said. “It felt like a violation of everybody's privacy in the restaurant.”

According to Ava’s statement, John and Islam both had access to security camera footage on their personal phones and watched it “even when it was not relevant to the functioning of the business.”

The cameras became a concern for all of the women on staff. Ava and others said security cameras were angled in ways that captured their breasts while they were standing at a cash register or their backsides as they bent to restock shelves.

Over time, Núñez-Márquez said, more cameras were added to the restaurant’s front of house and basement, where the manager's office was located.

Ava said she brought these concerns and others to Islam’s attention, but he dismissed them, and the retaliation against her continued: On July 28, 2018, she discovered that her manager’s access to the restaurant’s point of sale system had been revoked. She said she texted Islam, John, the HR representative, and the GM, but they refused to meet with her, and did not explain why her access was revoked.

Other sexual harassment concerns were also left unaddressed by restaurant leadership, former employees said. Núñez-Márquez said that during her shifts, a male staff member repeatedly brushed his crotch against her as they passed in the kitchen, and that nothing was done about it after she brought it up to management and at a larger staff meeting.

For the women employees, working at Gandhi Mahal became more difficult as the situation grew worse and their concerns went unanswered.

"I dreaded going to work every day,” Kopp said. “I was sick to my stomach about it. I didn't want to show up.”

Former server Rafael Gonzalez also felt something was off.

“When I started working there, there was this energy that I got from the men that own and run this place,” Gonzalez said. “There was this appearance or this image that they had in the community about being led by women, and how the whole restaurant was there to be a safe community space… We all saw that the whole women-led image was a hoax, it was fake.”

Former workers said they repeatedly brought up sexual harassment concerns to Islam, but no concrete changes were made.

“We as employees were very vocal about these things, and while Ruhel did call some meetings to work on issues, nothing changed,” Beier wrote. “He stopped short of any discipline in most situations, especially regarding his family.”

The former workers say Ava was persistent in trying to draw attention to the sexual harassment, which they feel led to the instances of retaliation.

Islam also attacked Ava’s credibility in his communication with former workers, they said, calling her things like “crazy” and “mentally unstable.” He also accused her of stealing money, Ava said.

Some efforts by employees to raise concerns were documented. During the summer of 2018, Claire Baglien was working as Gandhi Mahal’s “sustainability coordinator,” a position she held for about two years. While she was proud of the work she did, like playing a key role in building the restaurant’s aquaponics program, she had grown increasingly concerned with the way male managers treated women employees and sent an email to Islam in early August outlining her views.

Baglien wrote that women employees did not “feel safe or respected in the workplace,” and that many thought Ava was “not respected as a female leader in the restaurant.” She also addressed the surveillance, writing: “Front of house staff, servers especially, feel like they are being watched with the installation of more cameras,” and urged Islam to train male staff about harassment and potential consequences.

She never received a response.

On Sept. 10, 2018, Baglien and Harrison met with Islam to discuss what they saw as the continued harassment of Ava and deteriorating working conditions for women at Gandhi Mahal.

“[Islam was] just very, very, very incredibly dismissive of how this was affecting us personally,” Harrison said.

Shortly afterward, Baglien and Harrison, along with a group of other employees, received an email from a Gandhi Mahal general account signed by “management” asking them to provide “any kind of proof of sexual harassment,” including “dates and times” of the incidents so they “could assign a third party to investigate this matter.”

None of the staff members replied because, as Baglien explained, they felt they had notified Islam multiple times since July, and no meaningful action had been taken.

Baglien submitted a letter of resignation on Sept. 12, writing that while she had not directly witnessed the harassment, John's behavior had “created an unsafe and hostile work environment for many staff, and especially for women,” and that she personally feared she would be retaliated against for supporting Ava.

Outside forces has also urged Islam to take action. In July 2018, Islam hired a consultant and psychotherapist named Vanessa Cintrón and asked her to facilitate a staff meeting where employees could speak about their concerns at the restaurant. Cintrón was also asked to produce a summary of the meeting, which Islam later forwarded to Baglien.

In her summary, Cintrón conveyed the seriousness of the problems facing the restaurant’s leadership:

“The staff members are feeling that they are not being seen or heard and that there are gender bias, sexism, favoritism and racial issues,” she wrote. “It appears that some of these issues have been present for quite some time having the risk of negatively affecting the staff's lives, and as a result hurting the business.”

Cintrón, who confirmed she wrote the report when contacted for this article, noted that while the workers were deeply frustrated, they continued to believe in the restaurant’s progressive mission.

“It was remarkable to see that although some of the concerns are very serious, the staff continues to be committed to the mission and vision of Gandhi Mahal, and the customer services have not yet been affected,” she wrote.

She included a list of recommendations, such as moving the security cameras: “An establishment that aims to empower women, that respects them and is aware of the male privilege should not place a female in a position where her body can be exposed in any way.”

Cintrón also suggested that any inappropriate comments be addressed within three business days.

Former employees said there were no substantial changes after Cintrón wrote her report.

The workers also reached out to Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, who met with Harrison, the GM, and the HR representative at Gandhi Mahal in August 2018, asking them to address sexual harassment, the security cameras, and John's drinking. Ellison confirmed that meetings took place and those were the topics discussed.

The former workers said things improved for a few days after the meeting with Ellison, but then gradually reverted back to the way they had been before.

Harrison, Kopp, and Gonzalez left their jobs at Gandhi Mahal in September 2018, around the same time as Baglien. Jurney quit in December 2017 to work as a high school teacher, and Beier left in June 2018. Núñez-Márquez, then a student at Carleton College who commuted from Northfield to the restaurant, said she abandoned her position in March 2019 when Islam directed an employee to schedule her outside of her availability, forcing her to violate the employee contract with a “no call, no show” absence; she said she never officially quit.

Ava quit during the first week of September 2018 following an interaction with Islam in which he refused to take action against John. Islam reportedly said of him, “You know how he is,” and made clear to Ava that John would not receive any consequences.

John continued to harass Ava after she quit, including attempts to contact her directly as well as reach out to other Gandhi Mahal employees to find out her new address and where she was working. Islam declined opportunities to intervene, she said.

Ava filed a restraining order against John, which went into effect Sept. 13, 2018. It recently expired on Sept. 13, 2020. In the two years since her departure from Gandhi Mahal, she said she has struggled with frequent nightmares, PTSD, and depression, and she has been treated for insomnia.

Ava said the environment she and others experienced belies the overwhelmingly positive feelings many in Minneapolis hold toward the restaurant.

“I am sharing my story because I’m tired of being quiet, and I want to hold Gandhi Mahal accountable to our community,” she wrote in a statement. “I know these kinds of things have happened to other women and other people during their time with Ruhel [Islam] and his management.”

The attention the restaurant received for Islam’s “Let my building burn” quote left many of them with conflicting emotions.

“While I was moved by Ruhel's statement of solidarity with the community, it crushed me to see the hypocrisy,” Beier wrote in her statement. “The aftermath of the toxicity he allowed to fester continues; people's lives were broken by that environment. And nobody was held accountable.”

Ava and former employees said they believe in the restaurant's mission, but they want justice —beginning with contrition.

"I would like to see a public admittance and apology of what happened where they admit that there was sexual harassment and that there was gaslighting and victim blaming in regards to Ava. I would like for her name to be cleared, and I would like them to start taking steps to repair that damage," Harrison said.

When asked what justice would look like to her, Ava added:

"Ruhel apologizing to me and my team for the way he treated us, and be honest with his community, our community. That's all I want,” she said. “He needs to make changes in his business, and he owes that to the community who are supporting him like crazy.”

Note: An earlier version of this story used "Lucas" as a pseudonym for "John." We were informed Gandhi Mahal currently employs a person named Lucas and have updated the name. If there is a John—currently or formerly—employed by Gandhi Mahal, that's strictly a coincidence; as the piece clearly states, this is a pseudonym.