Former employees and activists likely left a sour taste in the mouth of Amelie’s French Bakery ownership on Saturday, July 11, when dozens of attendees showed up with protest signs in the parking lot of the North Davidson Street complex to call on the establishment to change policies and address worker mistreatment, racial discrimination and false claims of community partnerships.
Nada Merghani and Tatiana Marquez of Feed the Movement CLT and Jasmine Sherman, founder of Greater Charlotte RISE, were principal organizers of the press conference-turned-protest, which saw representation from community-based nonprofits, former Amelie’s French Bakery employees, local business owners and people who attested that the popular Charlotte bakery had and continues to harm marginalized community members. Speakers shared personal stories of experiences with the local chain bakery’s leadership and read a list of demands they said were necessary to bring the business back into compliance with community values.
Saminah Chapman, a former barista, said she was initially excited to work at the hip, alternative store. But after a while things began to change. “I watched people I trained get promoted to management while I was constantly given excuses why I wasn’t. All of the leadership positions were given to white people,” she said.
Chapman also recalled a patron verbally assaulting and physically threatening her. He was never banned from the shop. She reported it to higher ups but the man returned freely, ordering drinks and watching her prepare them.
“Nothing was done to ensure I was protected. I left Amelie’s feeling undervalued, stereotyped and heartbroken. It was sad that the place I’d once loved so much had treated me so poorly and created an environment so toxic,” Chapman said.
Another former employee named Emma, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, agreed.
“My story as a white person who worked at Amelie’s is far less important than the stories of people of color who worked here and experienced racism from this company,” Emma said, adding they were sharing in the labor of holding Amelie’s accountable.
“I worked night shift for no time at all before being promoted to a management position. I was chosen instead of people of color who had been working there much longer than me, and throughout my time at this company I noticed that there was very little upward mobility for people of color, while white people were encouraged to pursue and hold positions of power,” Emma said. “At any given shift the white people on staff are making more money per hour, whether that’s due to being chosen for promotions over people of color or being prioritized for performance reviews that lead to a raise.”
Donation claims put spotlight on Amelie’s French Bakery
Justin Miller, a former kitchen manager, quit the bakery in 2014 and filed a wage theft complaint with the Department of Labor against ownership. The investigation turned up 46 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Amelie’s paid thousands in back wages. Rumors of worker mistreatment continued to persist. Then last month, Amelie’s stirred the hornets’ nest.
The establishment started with an innocuous tweet condemning racial injustice: “We cannot be silent, we are in this together,” it read.
A week later, on June 6, Amelie’s social media accounts posted that the bakery was showing “support to the Black community with donations to Black owned charities and organizations,” and “looking forward to working with” Feed the Movement CLT, Greater Charlotte RISE and five others, including Block Love Charlotte, which Queen City Nerve profiled in April. The problem: Feed the Movement and Greater Charlotte RISE hadn’t heard from Amelie’s and were never planning to work with the bakery. The backlash was swift.
“Amelie’s is not an ally to the Black, brown or queer community, and is using their donations … to cover up the truth about their disturbing and toxic work culture,” Sherman tweeted.
Mary Jayne Wilson, Amelie’s director of operations, inboxed Sherman with a private apology acknowledging that “not fostering a relationship with you before posting our intentions … came across as dishonest and misleading.” The bakery deleted the original post and published an apology on social media on June 26.
“We listed these organizations because we wanted to be specific about who we would like to work with and not be ambiguous,” the statement read. “We now understand that it seemed as if a partnership was already established or that we had already donated to these organizations.”
Activists make demands of Amelie’s ownership
Sherman and Merghani began reaching out to the other organizations and found that almost none of them had had any substantive outreach from the company. With Sherman’s and Merghani’s public responses on social media, they began hearing from current and former Amelie’s staffers. The two collected over 40 complaints of abuse.
“They referred to Black baristas as the help, did not take action against assault claims, refused to pay overtime despite working some employees over 50 hours a week and requested Latinx staff not to speak Spanish because it made people uncomfortable,” Merghani said.
Merghani joined Sherman, Marquez and others in compiling a list of demands for the company as a form of restitution to their workers.
“Amelie’s has created a culture where a lot of the asks we requested need to be implemented,” Merghani said.
Among other things, the coalition Saturday demanded that Amelie’s French Bakery pay all staff a minimum of $15.00 per hour (currently they start workers at $7.25 an hour); hire a representative to whom employees can anonymously report grievances; end unethical practices such as the mismanagement of overtime, benefits and ignoring reports of assault; conduct a third-party investigation of allegations of wage theft or unsafe work conditions and will share results publicly, including the consequences for those found culpable; and divide 10% of gross profits between the seven organizations they misrepresented as partners for the next seven years.
“I hope Amelie’s hears our stories and makes real changes within their environment. It’s not enough to hire diversely if the people you hire don’t feel comfortable and aren’t heard,” Chapman said.
Allegations of criminalizing homelessness arise
Other participants in the Saturday morning protest took issue with Amelie’s use of police force against the homeless youth and adults in the neighborhood. Ona, who requested that her last name not be used, was a homeless teen when she began frequenting the neighborhood around Amelie’s. She utilized the services of Time Out Youth, which was then located across the street from the bakery, and was told that Amelie’s had free Wi-Fi she could use to apply for housing and jobs. She said she was made to feel unwelcome, in no uncertain terms.
Often the police were called, she said, no matter if she and her friends were sitting quietly in the public space, and they were denied service on occasions when they could pay.
“They want to donate all this food to organizations but not help the houseless people that are right here,” said Ona, adding that she was often refused the access to the free water that sits out for other customers.
Emma concurred, saying that they called the bakery about the yellow Safe Place sign Amelie’s had prominently displayed and recently promoted on an Instagram post. The signs are supposed to denote locations where youth in crisis can get assistance.
“No one at the restaurant had any idea what I was talking about,” Emma said. “It is so irresponsible and dangerous and shameful to be promoting a safe place for youth while also calling the cops on these youth and criminalizing them. Amelie’s has an opportunity now to set an example for other restaurants and to cut dependence on policing and create new relationships with community resources. The empty apologies they’ve offered are meaningless; we want to see radical change and real commitment to social justice.”
‘Small businesses shape communities’
Jason Michael, co-owner of Tip Top Daily Market, was also in the crowd of protesters. He said he came to stand in solidarity with the employees of Amelie’s, especially the Black and indigenous people of color and LGBTQ workers who spoke up about racist policies, wage theft and disparities along racial lines.
“Small businesses have a unique opportunity to shape and be shaped by the communities we serve. We are actually in our communities, not some boardroom in another state, and it is of utmost importance that we take the role seriously, acting with integrity and respect,” Michael said.
In a statement sent to Queen City Nerve on July 14, Amelie’s CEO Frank Reed claimed that many of the allegations against the bakery took place in 2014 when it was under different ownership and management, though he acknowledged that Amelie’s still has “a lot of work to do.”
“We’ve let too many things go unchecked and unaddressed, and we will no longer be complicit and complacent,” Reed wrote. “We’ve recently hired outside equity consultants to help us take a deep dive into our operations, HR practices, and our company culture as it relates to diversity and inclusion. We know that our system is broken and it needs to be fixed immediately.”
Marquez ended Saturday’s press conference by inviting any current Amelie’s employee to share their stories anonymously.
“If we look back at history, we were in this same position six years ago, when former employer Justin Miller sent in his resignation and did it in an open letter form. This is repetitive action, the same story with different faces, and enough is enough. We want to let Amelie’s know we’re watching and we will hold them accountable. And that goes for every business out here doing the same things and silencing employees,” Marquez said.
As an act of solidarity with the employees, protesters entered the bakery but instead of purchasing any goods, filled up the tip jars.
“We want the workers to know we’re with them,” Merghani said.