Former employees of Sava’s bring numerous allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct
A version of this story appeared in print on Monday, Feb. 17.
School of Music, Theatre & Dance junior Chloe Castro-Santos was working at Sava’s, a popular Ann Arbor restaurant, in 2018 when the head chef Gustavo Salazar Esquivel allegedly propositioned her for sex.
This was the summer after her freshman year at the University of Michigan, and he had just helped her during a particularly busy shift. She tried to thank him for his assistance.
“I was like, ‘Thank you so much for helping me today, really appreciate it.’ And he was like, ‘I helped you, so you help me.’ And he alluded to oral sex,” Castro-Santos said in an interview with The Daily. “It traumatized me because I was at work. I’m just trying to make my rent and go home.”
On July 28, 2018, Castro-Santos emailed a resignation letter to Sava’s management. She alleged that she had been repeatedly sexually harassed while working in the restaurant’s kitchen and that Sava’s management, including the restaurant’s owner and SavCo Hospitality CEO, Sava Farah, had failed to address this.
“I have the upmost (sic) respect for Sava and the establishments she has built from scratch and that is why it was so heartbreaking to see what was willingly condoned and even on a certain level encouraged in her restaurant,” Castro-Santos wrote.
About one year after Castro-Santos’s email, former Sava’s employee Ghia Parow alleged that Esquivel and a male cook committed sexual misconduct against her.
Parow posted on her Facebook page about the incident. Before she made the post private, it was shared 628 times, with many former employees sharing their own stories of alleged sexual harassment and misconduct at Sava’s and Aventura, two restaurants owned by SavCo Hospitality.
Esquivel, who also goes by “Gustavo Salazar,” according to confidential Sava’s documents obtained by The Daily, did not respond to multiple messages from The Daily requesting comment for this article.
“I think Gustavo was very good at his job but I don’t think that should matter,” Castro-Santos said in an interview with The Daily. “If you’re choosing to give your money to this company, you’re making a very clear statement about what your values are and whether you value the quality of human life for women.”
Sava’s is widely considered a staple of the Ann Arbor food scene. Last year, The Daily ranked it as the “Best Romantic Dinner” in its yearly Best of Ann Arbor series. Aventura, a Spanish inspired-restaurant and bar, and Wilma’s, a trendy, health-minded cafe, are other SavCo Hospitality-owned local favorites.
An investigation by The Daily uncovered numerous previously undisclosed allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct from former Sava’s employees against other employees since June 2018. The allegations range from sexually explicit verbal statements to groping, unwanted touching and propositions for sex.
The Daily found evidence that SavCo Hospitality management was repeatedly made aware of many of these allegations.
The Daily contacted Sava Farah and SavCo Hospitality requesting comment for this article, and was referred to Chief of Staff Janelle Zini.
“We are beyond disappointed that an institution like the Michigan Daily would engage in such inaccurate and irresponsible reporting,” Zini wrote in a statement to The Daily. “These claims are so far from the truth that it would be absurd for us to respond. We have no further comment and are focused on continuing to take care of our staff and guests.”
Zini noted that SavCo Hospitality could not turn over more confidential employment information, citing SavCo Hospitality’s obligations as employers.
Management disputed these allegations to staff. In an email to SavCo Hospitality employees sent Tuesday evening, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily, Zini and SavCo Hospitality Training & HR Manager Maggie Jennings reiterated their belief that they could not respond to The Daily’s reporting.
“In order to maintain confidentiality of all parties involved, SavCo is unable to respond to these claims even when every ounce of us wants to take this opportunity to illustrate the reality of each of these mischaracterized situations,” Jennings and Zini wrote. “What we can say is that we stand behind the way any instances of misconduct or harassment have been, and will continue to be, handled and addressed.”
The Daily was provided with a statement from Laura Peretick, a server at Sava’s for the past seven and a half years. Peretick is also president of the Employee Experience Council, a group that she wrote “gather(s) once a month to discuss how to improve the employee experience, and create positive change in our restaurants.”
Peretick said in her time working at Sava’s, she never once felt “unsafe.”
“I am very proud to work at Sava’s, and to be a part of an organization that truly cares about it’s (sic) employees. My immediate managers, as well as upper management take our well being very seriously,” Peretick wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily. “I have seen lives transform here because Sava’s gave them a chance. I have seen countless times my managers go above and beyond for my co-workers.”
Peretick said she believed Sava’s handled allegations of sexual misconduct with integrity, adding that she was involved with the investigation into Parow’s allegations.
“This is not an organization that takes sexual assault allegations against it’s (sic) people lightly,” Peretick wrote. “To say that management mishandled the situation alleged in the Facebook post, fueling your article, is absolutely false. There was a thorough investigation that I personally was a part of. I know all parties involved in the claim very well and I solidly stand behind Sava’s.”
Castro-Santos attributed the disparity in experiences between employees to a difference in culture between the workers in the front of the house — meaning employees who interact with customers — and the those in back of the house, which includes the kitchen.
In her first month working at Sava’s in May 2018, Castro-Santos said she witnessed occasional sexually explicit verbal statements, though she attributed this to kitchen culture.
“I’d worked in kitchens before,” Castro-Santos said. “Sexist stuff sometimes happens in the kitchen because it usually is a male-dominated field.”
However, Castro-Santos alleged the restaurant’s culture worsened toward the beginning of June 2018, with the arrival of Esquivel.
Castro-Santos alleged that an employee warned her about what he thought Esquivel might do to her.
“I was told by (an employee) that I would be ‘if not groped then at least verbally harassed,’” Castro-Santos wrote in her July 28 email to Sava’s management.
She alleged in her email that another male employee repeatedly verbally harassed her. Management from the restaurant, Castro-Santos alleged, repeatedly witnessed these comments.
“(I)t became a joke on the line that he would verbally harass me daily. Everyone working in the kitchen knew about it, but nothing was ever actually done about it,” Castro-Santos wrote in her letter to management. “If I were a man … I wouldn’t be given demeaning nicknames.”
She alleged that she was subjected to more than 20 instances of unwanted touching from other employees while working along the kitchen’s narrow line in a six-hour shift.
“Men who worked there would walk behind me,” Castro-Santos told The Daily. “And when they walked behind me, they would always grab my waist.”
Three days after sending her email, Castro-Santos received a reply from Farah, who referenced her own experiences of sexual harassment at a restaurant when she was younger.
“As a woman who started working in kitchens at 13 years old, I was exposed to this type of misconduct 20 years ago — at a time when sadly, no one was willing to hear about this sort of thing,” Farah wrote. “Long since, I have vowed to run things differently in my business and I have always taken pride in the fact that our kitchen culture is female friendly, until now, hearing about your encounters.”
Farah told Castro-Santos Sava’s would take action to address her allegations.
“What you experienced and how you were treated should have never happened and I am deeply regretful for the conduct you reported and the responses from my managers that left you feeling dismissed an (sic) unheard,” Farah wrote. “As of receiving your note, we have implemented a hyper vigilant zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any type, we have re-trained every single manager on our policy and also how to properly handle these matters in the future and we have held each person in your email accountable to their actions and inactions.”
On April 6, 2019, another Sava’s employee complained to management about Esquivel, this time over sexually explicit comments she witnessed Esquivel make against Parow. One such comment Esquivel allegedly made was to call Parow “sucia,” which means “dirty” in Spanish, a slang term for whore. This employee asked to be identified by only her first name, Savannah, out of fear of professional retribution.
“I had noticed that in the kitchen they were calling her ‘sucia,’” Savannah said. “They were harassing her so I went to a manager.”
Sava’s management told Savannah they would address this issue, but Savannah alleged she saw no response to this complaint.
“They’re like, ‘Oh okay we’ll definitely deal with this,’” Savannah said. “And nothing happened.”
SavCo Hospitality terminated Savannah’s employment April 30, 2019. In a letter sent to Savannah, a photo of which was obtained by The Daily, a Sava’s manager explained that her termination was related to her telling other employees what she claims she had witnessed.
“Most recently, there were two incidents in which employees named you as the individual that told them stories regarding sexual harassment issues not being addressed in the workplace resulting in them no longer wanting to work at our establishment,” the Sava’s manager wrote. “... Both incidents that those individuals reported hearing from you specifically are untrue and have been thoroughly investigated and concluded with the individuals involved.”
The manager said this was why Savannah was being fired.
“While we can’t assume your intentions, the consequences of your behavior are beyond repair and this is why we must part ways with you effective immediately,” the manager wrote. “We can no longer condone the toxic and harmful way in which you conduct yourself.”
The alleged sexual misconduct described in Parow’s Facebook post took place weeks after Savannah reported Esquivel’s alleged “sucia” comments to Sava’s management. The Daily spoke with three individuals with knowledge of Parow’s description of these events from before they became public. All three corroborated the consistency of Parow’s account of the alleged sexual misconduct.
Parow alleged that after a private dining event, she walked towards an outside underground storage facility, which employees call the “Dungeon.” Esquivel and another kitchen employee allegedly grabbed her by the arms and tried to force her into the Dungeon.
No other individuals were present to witness this incident. The other kitchen employee did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“We’re going to rape you,” they said, according to Parow.
Ever since she first made her allegations this summer, Parow has maintained that she does not remember what happened after that statement. Though she had not consumed alcohol, she said that she “blacked out” at this point, according to interviews with Parow and two other employees.
The Daily obtained a copy of SavCo Hospitality’s investigation into Parow’s claim.
According to the investigation, Esquivel and the other chef denied pulling Parow into a storage area or threatening sexual assault. They alleged that Parow had repeatedly made sexual jokes and comments to them in the months leading up to the incident, something that the investigation notes Esquivel had once reported to another manager. Parow’s claim of the alleged sexual misconduct was found to be unsubstantiated.
The investigation also notes that “a final warning” had been issued to Esquivel.
Following a meeting with Human Resources representatives, management removed Parow from future private dining events. According to Parow, they agreed she should take time off for her mental health.
At a later meeting, Parow was given a contract releasing SavCo Hospitality from any liability if Parow sought to sue them at a later date.
“I was in no place to be signing absolutely anything,” Parow said. “I was a fucking mess. I was so scared. I was always looking over my shoulder at the time. I thought it was for my paid time off, and I needed rent. Rent was due almost … I signed it, I walked out of there.”
Parow had also signed a non-disparagement agreement as part of her initial employment paperwork. The agreement specifically prohibits Parow from speaking negatively of any “employee, business or process” of SavCo Hospitality.
Non-disparagement agreements, or NDAs, have come under scrutiny in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In December, The Daily reported on confidential NDAs reached between the University of Michigan and former employees, agreements totalling approximately $1.265 million over a six-month period. Ex-University employees complained that the agreements silenced them by stifling criticism of their former employer.
The Daily found evidence of two non-disparagement agreements, including Parow’s, that SavCo Hospitality reached with former employees. Both had been included in documents the employees signed when starting their employment. Though Parow worked at Sava’s and the other employee worked at Aventura, the terms of these agreements were nearly identical. It is unclear if these agreements are still included in incoming employment paperwork.
In an interview with The Daily, Ally Coll, the president of the #MeToo advocacy organization The Purple Campaign said these agreements have debilitating effects on public discourse around allegations of harassment and misconduct.
“(NDAs) have allowed organizations and leadership at organizations to avoid actually addressing the underlying issue,” Coll said.
Companies that reach these agreements are also emboldened, Coll explained, to not resolve claims of harassment and misconduct equitably.
“They no longer are as worried about making sure that both parties feel that their claims were fairly resolved,” Coll said.
On Aug. 12, 2019, Parow posted an account of the incident with Esquivel and Sava’s management’s response on Facebook. Though they had offered her a position at another SavCo Hospitality-owned restaurant, she had quit working for the company months earlier.
Parow alleged that management brushed off her complaint.
“They did not want to hear it. They put it away, they covered it up,” Parow said in an interview with The Daily. “They knew, just because this stuff has happened before and my Facebook post has brought out a lot of women to come forward and share. So I’m not afraid of being called a liar or anything, because it’s the fucking truth.”
In response to Parrow’s post, SavCo Hospitality shared a statement on Facebook. The statement has since been taken down.
“We want everyone to know that any and all alleged incidents that have been brought to the company’s attention have been fully investigated and handled with care. We do not tolerate any type of harassment in our company,” SavCo Hospitality wrote, according to an article from MLive. “The situation in question was thoroughly investigated over several weeks, including interviews with all parties involved … We took the situation very seriously, and we are certain we handled this matter appropriately, given a diligent investigation and several objective individuals all reaching the same conclusion.”
Farah discussed the investigation in an interview with MLive in August.
“We apologize for the experience she’s having, but we investigated, and it came out completely unsubstantiated,” Farah said.
The Daily spoke with another Sava’s employee familiar with the circumstances of Parow’s allegations of sexual misconduct. The employee declined to be named for fear of professional retribution.
They claimed Farah described Esquivel and the chef’s actions as a joke in a private conversation. This was after SavCo Hospitality concluded its investigation of the incident, and the employee believed this was the final finding.
“(Farah told me) the incident was a joke,” the employee said. “But it was okay … because Gustavo knew that it was inappropriate now.”
The Daily spoke to another Sava’s employee working at the restaurant at the time that the investigation into Parow’s claim concluded. This employee asked to be referred to only by their first name, Sam, citing fears of professional retribution.
Sam claimed company-wide staff meetings were held to discuss the findings of the investigation into Parow’s allegations, but employees had a difficult time asking questions because management dominated the conversation.
Sam said they believed these meetings were organized to scare employees from speaking publicly about the allegations.
“I genuinely believe they did that, purposefully, so that they could hear less voices, get less feedback and create this culture of silence,” Sam said.
In text messages between Parow and Farah shortly after Parow’s Facebook post, Farah threatened Parow with a lawsuit. Parow provided copies of these text messages to The Daily.
“This is a gross misrepresentation of what occurred and if I have to defend myself I will have to have my legal team hit you with a slander lawsuit tomorrow morning,” Farah wrote.
Parow said she felt betrayed by SavCo management. She had once thought highly enough of Farah to get a tattoo of the Albanian word “besa” — referring to the Albanian code of honor — after it featured prominently in a TEDx Talk Farah gave in March 2018.
“I was in awe of (Farah),” Parow said. “I looked up to her … I was proud to work for her — a powerful woman-owned business. I was really about that.”
Parow took down her Facebook post. Farah never sued.
The Daily spoke with three other former Sava’s employees. Two of the employees requested anonymity, citing fears of professional retribution. In this article, one will be referred to as Anne and the other as Jane.
Jane alleged that male workers repeatedly harassed her with sexual innuendos and sexist verbal statements. In one instance, she recalled a male worker allegedly asking her for details about her romantic relationship.
Jane also alleged that male workers repeatedly touched her, often inappropriately, while walking past her in the kitchen. She said this occurred so often she became desensitized to it.
“It was every single day,” Jane said. “You would just kind of let it happen after a while because it’s just — they’re not going to stop.”
Anne alleged that when Esquivel began touching her inappropriately another male employee mimicked him.
“(A male employee) saw what Gustavo was doing to me and started imitating his actions,” Anne said. “Like grabbing my butt and like getting really close to me.”
She alleged that this continued throughout her time in the restaurant’s kitchen.
“The groping would happen a lot,” Anne said. “The trying to go down my pants happened a few times.”
Anne spoke of an incident in which a male employee — the same employee who Parow alleges cornered her in the Dungeon with Esquivel — and Esquivel allegedly followed her into a storage area and propositioned her for sex, asking if she would have a “threesome” with them.
“I said, ‘I won’t even have sex with one of you. What makes you think I’m going to have a threesome?’” Anne said. “It was just that they all had this mindset that that’s just what I do.”
Jane also spoke of an incident in which Esquivel allegedly kissed an employee in view of one of the restaurant’s security cameras. It is unclear whether this incident was recorded or if a recording still exists.
When Anne later brought forward an allegation of misconduct, she, like Castro-Santos, thought Esquivel’s status affected the company’s response.
“They went into saying how great Gustavo is for this company and they just wouldn’t stop talking about it,” Anne said.
The implication, she thought, was that if she didn’t withdraw her complaint, “they’ll be losing their most prized chef.”
Mimi Verdiyan, another former Sava’s employee, wrote of her skepticism regarding the investigation process.
“I never witnessed any sexual misconduct myself,” Verdiyan wrote in a message to The Daily. “The way (other allegations were) handled was messed up.”
Verdiyan described the process by which information about allegations was disseminated to employees. She said she heard other employees discuss these investigations.
“The people who went through the ‘investigation process’ did mention that it wasn’t really an investigation and more a strategy to dissolve the issue itself,” Verdiyan wrote. “Just weird insidious ways to keep everyone from asking too many questions.”
Verdiyan said she experienced something similar when she made a complaint about racial discrimination.
“They had similar strategies when (a) situation with racial discrimination at the host stand was starting to surface,” Verdiyan wrote. “Which again is what I was closer to.”
Dan Rodaire, a former employee of Aventura alleged he witnessed repeated harassment against other employees. It was Parow’s post that led Rodaire to come forward with his own allegations. He shared his experiences in a Facebook post responding to Parow’s post.
“Dear Ghia, I’ve never met you but I am absolutely sure that everything you’re saying is true because I had an extremely similar experience working at Sava’s sister restaurant, Aventura,” Rodaire wrote. “I was fired in direct response to a meeting with management in which I had reported continual sexual harassment from a prominent kitchen employee towards almost, if not all, of the women who worked as server assistants, among others.”
In an interview with The Daily, Rodaire said that he made several reports to management about this harassment. In his Facebook post, he alleged that upper management was aware of it.
“As someone who spent a lot of time in the manager’s office fighting for what I believed in — I knew for a fact that all of upper management was aware of these problems,” Rodaire wrote.
Rodaire also spoke of the disparity between the front of house and back of house cultures at Aventura.
“There are two totally different worlds at Aventura,” Rodaire said in an interview with The Daily. “There’s the front of house and then the back of house. The front of house is mainly University of Michigan students, and I’d say that ethical standards for the most part were upheld in front of the guests. The upstairs world was mainly regulated, but the downstairs world was not.”
Many former employees said they believe SavCo Hospitality will not change its responses to allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct until it begins to affect the company’s bottom line.
“They can’t possibly publicly believe (Parow) or acknowledge the truth of her story in any way because they would lose money,” Sam said. “They work in the interest of creating a profit and if their profit is going to be harmed by allegations of sexual assault then they would do anything that they can to tamp those down.”
Rodaire noted SavCo Hospitality’s emphasis on their public image.
“If they were to fire (an employee) for sexual harassment, the story would become about them,” Rodaire said. “It would put their name in the press, and that’s what they don’t want.”
Castro-Santos said she refuses to support restaurants owned by SavCo Hospitality after her experience working for them.
“I have very strong feelings about not giving them my money,” Castro-Santos said. “I think that we individually have a responsibility to ourselves and other people to not endorse a company that doesn’t need our money and doesn’t help its employees — doesn’t care about its employees.”