UPDATE: In the days since, Founders and former employee Tracy Evans have reached a settlement, marking an end of sorts to the conflict, if not necessarily to the public haranguing the brewery has experienced.
This has been a rough week for Grand Rapids’ Founders Brewing Co., which has been Michigan’s largest brewery for several years, since surpassing Bell’s Brewery in total production. Already entangled in a pending racial discrimination lawsuit from a black former employee that has received much attention, things got worse this week when the Detroit Metro Times published leaked depositions from the discovery phase of the trial, painting the general manager for the brewery’s Detroit taproom in a still more negative light. In response, Founders was first tight-lipped, before releasing a rather snide statement. Now, they’ve taken further action: The “indefinite” closure of the Founders Brewing Detroit taproom, which speaks to the seriousness of the situation.
Moreover, this isn’t just a normal weekend for the Detroit taproom to be closed. In a case of phenomenally bad timing, this is the weekend when Founders is scheduled to release what is by far its most sought-after beer, Canadian Breakfast Stout. A release party and ticketed event were scheduled for the Detroit taproom, which have now been canceled, with the brewery noting that full refunds will be issued to those who bought tickets. Still, those who signed up for the event to obtain what can be a very rare beer are unlikely to be happy.
The brewery goes on to state that the taproom will be closed indefinitely, citing “concern for our employees’ safety,” which we have to say sounds uncomfortably to us like an insinuation that it’s the public that is the issue in this PR blowup, rather than the actions of the brewery. Likewise, Founders withdrew from the Fall Beer Festival in Detroit’s Eastern Market, again citing concern for employee safety.
Given that Founders is still opposing black former employee Tracy Evans in this lawsuit, while generating headlines for the fact that the Detroit taproom manager said he wasn’t aware that Evans was black, (he also said he didn’t know if Barack Obama was black because he’d “never met him.”), it’s a bit hard to take seriously lines like the following, in the Detroit Free Press, speaking about the company’s employees.
“We have committed to work closely with them to make any changes to the company that need to be made to ensure a positive future. Those conversations are underway. Whatever falls short—according to our culture bringing people together and standards—will be fixed. Our Founders Family will point us in the right direction.”
To be clear: You can’t simultaneously promise to improve and “make changes” and “fix” things in the company culture while you’re simultaneously arguing in court that there’s nothing wrong with the company culture, and that the black employee in question is a liar. Either Founders is indeed a healthy racial environment, or it’s not. One can’t promise to “fix” things in order to put a salve on bad press while simultaneously denying the perspective of the man of color that kicked off the incident.