Update, October 31, 2019: Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Founders Brewing Co. and former Founders employee Tracy Evans have agreed to settle their messy, ongoing lawsuit, Brewbound reports. The settlement was announced today though terms have not been disclosed; the racial discrimination lawsuit Evans had filed is now dismissed. “I don’t know what happens from here within the doors of Founders Brewing Co. I do know this; we have legal resolution and we have started looking at how ALL of this is affecting human lives,” Evans said in his statement.
Though the case is legally resolved, the matter of whether the public’s perception and support of Founders has been affected in the long term remains to be seen.
Original story, October 28, 2019: For months, the beer industry has kept its collective eye on the lawsuit brought by a former employee of Founders Brewing Co., America’s 14th-largest craft brewery, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The suit, filed last August by former employee Tracy Evans, alleges a company culture of racism and discrimination, and claims that Evans, who is Black, was wrongfully terminated as he sought to bring a complaint to the company’s human resources department. Founders has repeatedly denied the claims and defended its corporate culture.
In January, Founders hired a diversity and inclusion director, Graci Harkema. But over the weekend, Harkema resigned from her position and posted a statement to social media in which she accuses the company’s leadership of only being “concerned with winning the lawsuit.”
“In every conversation and with every action, you’ve been most concerned with winning the lawsuit,” Harkema states. “You are most concerned with the ego of ‘winning’ than you are about the loss of customers, loss of reputation, and loss of employees’ well being.”
The fallout was swift. Founders was criticized on social media, which is perhaps to be expected, but it was also forced to close its Detroit taproom indefinitely over concerns for employee safety stemming from the lawsuit. Per the Detroit Free Press, Founders says it hopes to reopen the taproom in the future. Some Michigan bars and retail shops have also reportedly stopped selling Founders beer in the wake of the ongoing lawsuit.
Months ago, The Takeout directed readers to an important essay from Beer Kulture that took the craft beer community to task for its silence on the Founders lawsuit. At the time, public criticism of Founders was quieter—those days are gone. This weekend saw an escalation of the backlash against the brewery, fanned not only by Harkema’s resignation but by the release of the transcript of a deposition of a manager in Founders’ Detroit taproom, in which the manager repeatedly refuses to answer the question of whether he was aware that Evans was Black. (The two had met a few times prior to Evans’ hiring.) The damning headline on a Detroit Metro Times story about the deposition reads: “Founders Brewing manager claims he didn’t know Black employee is Black.”
Founders’ leadership team has been further accused of digging itself into an already deep hole. Founders co-owner Dave Engbers defended the deposed manager in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, saying the backlash against the brewery is misinformed and based on sensational headlines. Regardless of the outcome of the court case, Harkema’s resignation, the public reaction to the deposition transcript, and the closure of Founders’ Detroit taproom all signal that this lawsuit has become a matter of broad national attention. Safe to say it’s not just the beer industry watching any longer.