Advertisement
  1. Tampa

Pastry chef suing Tampa's Bern's Steak House over alleged discrimination

Former xecutive pastry chef Kim Yelvington, left, and David Laxer show off some of the sweet treats at Bern's WineFest grand tasting on April 19, 2015 at Haven. [AMY SCHERZER | Times]
Published Apr. 19

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.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com or follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. In this file photo, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is announcing arrests in a sting operation that targeted unlicensed contractors. [Times (2018)]
    Monday morning, Sheriff Chad Chronister will announce the results.
  2. Buccaneers fan Heather Chase, of Tampa, is surrounded by Saints fans during the first quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The Bucs saw a larger crowd Sunday for their 34-17 loss to New Orleans Saints, but largely because of Saints fans.
  3. Sally Carlson of Seminole talks to her newly adopted 5-year-old miniature poodle held by Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center volunteer Mary Claire Streator. Potential owners browsed some of the 300 puppies that were put up for adoption Sunday in the gymnasium at All People's Life Center in Tampa. The designer-breed dogs had been rescued from Trish's All Breeds Pet Grooming in Tampa, where they were found sick and malnourished. Prospective owners were chosen out of thousands who applied during a lottery-type system and were able pick out a dog. LUIS SANTANA   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The animals were found in deplorable conditions at a grooming business in September. Their new owners had 15 minutes to make a selection.
  4. For the latest news and information, go to tampabay.com. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies are investigating. No arrests have been made.
  5. The scene of the car crash off of north I-275 on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019 that killed Cliff J. Pierre Jacques. [Florida Highway Patrol] FHP
    The crash was alcohol related, troopers say.
  6. Lykes Gaslight Square Park in downtown Tampa, where a proposal to open a cafe has sparked debate on the role of parks in the city. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Two recent proposals to use public space downtown for private eateries have started a debate about the purpose of parks
  7. The $3 billion Water Street project is slated to be complete by 2026 or 2027. How affordable will it be? SHADD, DIRK  |  Tampa Bay Times
    A project executive ticked off many ways the $3 billion project will alter Tampa, but a Cafe con Tampa audience wanted details on what it will cost to live there
  8. WeWork is opening Tampa offices at 501 E Kennedy Blvd. despite company struggles, including $1.25 billion in losses over 2019. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    WeWork has 200 planned coworking space openings as leadership tries to manage $1.25 billion in losses.
  9. Titan Goodson points to visitors in the courtroom during his unsuccessful motion to dismiss the manslaughter charge against him Thursday. SCOTT KEELER  |  Scott Keeler
    Titan Goodson’s lawyer argued there was no proof he supplied the heroin that killed Katie Golden, 17. Trial is set for December.
  10. Steven Currall prepares to deliver an address during his investiture as the University of South Florida's seventh president Thursday at the Yuengling Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    Though he started the job in July, Steve Currall is officially installed as president on his 137th day in office.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement