A former executive pastry chef claims discrimination over gender, religion and disability festered behind the scenes at a Tampa culinary landmark, and says she’s owed back pay, front pay and other compensation over how it all went down.
Kimberly Yelvington is suing Bern’s Steak House Inc. over what she says was a rotten end to her decades-long career with company, mostly at the hands of president David Laxer, son of the man who founded Bern’s Steak House on South Howard Avenue in 1956.
Yelvington also says she faced retaliation when she complained. She was fired from Bern’s and saw the lease for her cake shop Chocolate Pi canceled, according to court documents, after she raised complaints in a letter to Laxer. Though, as she tells it in court documents, her disagreements with Laxer had started well before she sent it. Chocolate Pi had been located inside the Epicurean Hotel, which is owned by Bern’s, since 2014.
“We, Bern’s Steak House, or its subsidiaries, and David Laxer have no comment at this time,” wrote Bern’s director of public relations Brooke Palmer Kuhl in an email. “It is company policy not to comment on private employee issues and/or pending litigation.” Yelvington did not return calls or email.
In the complaint, Yelvington also says she was hassled over her religion from the time she started with Bern’s, but that it intensified over her final two years there.
She states that David Laxer “ridiculed me with sarcasm for my Christian beliefs, and questioned how I can believe in God,” called, texted and demanded she come to meetings during Sunday services, a time of day when Yelvington says she was not needed for work, and allegedly said, “I cannot believe you go to that church — those people are crazy,” after his wife visited First Baptist Church of Tampa with Yelvington.
In the letter to Laxer dated Aug. 31, 2018, attached as evidence, Yelvington wrote that she never brought up religion at work, and only talked about it when others broached the topic with her. She also complained that former Bern’s chef Jeannie Pierola, who left Bern’s 12 years ago and later started the acclaimed Edison: food+drink lab in Tampa, “frequently made remarks mocking my religious reliefs” and that Laxer did nothing when she complained.
“It’s not true,” said Pierola, who sounded shocked to hear her name was mentioned in the suit, nearly 15 years after they’d last worked together at Bern’s. “And I have no further comment.”
Much of the August letter to Laxer is echoed in a charge of discrimination Yelvington filed in October 2018 with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. In a document also attached as evidence in the lawsuit, the commission said it was unable to conclude Yelvington was the victim of illegal discrimination or retaliation, but that “This does not certify that [Bern’s] is in compliance with the statutes.”
Yelvington, who according to the complaint suffers from bipolar disorder, wrote in the letter to Laxer that “I was hospitalized with a serious medical condition and then required to stay in bed, which caused me to miss several days of work for probably the first time since I began my employment at Bern’s. During this time period you insisted that I be present at the James Beard Sunday Supper event, even though you knew I was hospitalized.”
She wrote that though she explained her need reduce her stress due to the condition, Laxer only ramped it up more, demanding she work harder to regain his confidence, and making threats to fire her saying, “What would you do without me” and, “no one will hire you with your condition.” Yelvington also claims she was forced to reveal personal details about her health that she was not comfortable with.
Yelvington also wrote to Laxer that she “respectfully requested” a salary equal to what men at Bern’s were making who had similar levels of skill, experience and responsibility. Among those she named as being paid more than her were several chefs, the sous chef, the front desk and dining room manager, the director of spirits and “numerous dining room captains, bartenders, servers and sommeliers.”
“As the Executive Pastry Chef,” she wrote, “my position and my responsibilities are the same or greater than these individuals.”
Yelvington said that her salary at the time of the letter was $67,000 and that she worked six days a week and never took vacations. She said the Harry Waugh Dessert Room had grown to approximately $9.3 million in annual dessert sales partly through her efforts since she was hired as “the first pasty chef in Bern’s history” in 1997.
Yelvington noted that “my desserts were selected for the Food Network show Best Thing I Ever Ate, and I have been featured on ABC Action News, The Travel Channel, CNN, and Walt Disney’s Epcot Food & Wine Festival.”
She said she first began working for Bern’s in 1989, and later left for several years to work on Chocolate Pi before returning, but that her total employment with the restaurant added up to 20 years. A message on the website for Chocolate Pi says “we are in the process of relocating.”
Bern’s Steak House is a renowned dining destination known well beyond Tampa for its massive wine collection, aged steaks and unusual décor.