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Founders Fallout: Local Bars and Shops React to Lawsuit

Founders Brewing Co. settled a racial discrimination lawsuit with a former employee last week, but not before one Founders manager, named in the lawsuit, claimed in a leaked deposition transcript that they “didn’t really see color.” The Founders’ Director of Diversity and Inclusion then resigned via a harshly worded letter, citing a work environment that had not changed during their tenure. While the lawsuit dates back to 2018, these revelations prompted some area bars, bottle shops, and restaurants to rethink their relationships with Founders. 

Logo of Founders Brewing Co.
Founders Brewing Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is again in the news for questions about their culture.

Local businesses stop selling Founders

We asked retailers and Founders’ distributor what they thought about the allegations of a former employee and the words of the recently resigned director of diversity and inclusion. Admittedly, the comments came before the settlement. We thought we’d share their answers and actions with you. 

Lou’s City Bar in Columbia Heights was perhaps the first in the city to stop carrying Founders products in response to the suit, taking a loss on unsold beer. A bar representative said:

We believe that Founders values do not align with our own. The level of disrespect and their actions towards their employee was not something we wanted to be affiliated with in any way. We decided that it did not matter how much we had left it was the principle of it and as soon as we found out we took our kegs off and removed our founders ordering immediately.

We keep hearing how they will be exonerated which seems like excuses for unprofessional and dehumanizing behavior.

Erika Goedrich, Commander-in-Beer and Craft Beer Cellar owner wrote:

After reading the resignation letter from Founders Brewing Diversity & Inclusion Director Graci Harkema this past weekend, I made the decision that I would not be ordering any more Founders’ products for Craft Beer Cellar DC. I notified both my distributor and brewery reps today. As a small, independently-owned shop, I consider us to be partners to the breweries whose products we sell and recommend.

While there is much about the discrimination lawsuit against Founders that we don’t know, I can’t in good conscious continue to carry and recommend their products until we see positive movement from Founders on addressing the challenges outlined in the lawsuit.

Capital Lounge tweeted, “we are ending our partnership with founders.” Michiganders can find Bells there, but All Day IPA is gone.

And from The Big Hunt, “Due to their troubled history of racist internal activity The Big Hunt will no longer be carrying Founders Brewing products. However, due to our No Wasties policy, we’re having a Founders fire sale! All Day IPA and Solid Gold will be $6 until we’ve kicked the kegs to the curb!”

These statements mean a lot, coming from bars that stocked craft well before the city had its first commercial brewery. 

John Andrade, managing partner of Brookland and Meridian Pints and Smoke and Barrel rolled out his strategy for Founders, noting he would “Quietly deplete your inventory before discussing it with guests. Then stop purchasing it.” 

Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns Churchkey, the Rusticos, and many other beer bars and restaurants in the area, also cut their ties with Founders. Per Molly Hippolitus, Communication Director, “Neighborhood Restaurant Group has cancelled all planned events with the brewery.” NRG will also put any unsold Founders beer to good use, noting that “all proceeds from our remaining Founders [inventory] will go directly to the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.”

Between NRG and the Pints, that’s a lot of purchasing power at better beer bars in the area choosing to spend money elsewhere, though not as much as Total Wine and grocery stores that sell Founders All Day IPA. 

One of the first bottle shops in the area to stop carrying the brewery was Arrowine, whose beer buying is helmed by Nick Anderson. He notes that his last invoice with any Founders on it was on October 4th, 2018, the day the initial story ran in the Detroit Metro Times.

I was pretty quick to make the decision, especially with the story coming on the heels of the whole Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce kerfuffle. The one story rolling into the other (I’d taken the time to read the lawsuit, which gave me a really bad feeling about the culture there) made it an easy call. Still, I reached out to my Founders Sales Rep to ask about what was happening there.

TL;DR for the sake of brevity and keeping private conversations private, they made their case but I didn’t hear anything I found reassuring or encouraging, and we agreed to disagree. Basically, I’m not paid to defend the brewery and there are too many options out there for me to carry anything I have even a moment’s hesitation about.

I’ll say this, though: It was also an easy call for me because at that point, I wasn’t exactly a huge account for Founders. If it were during my first stint, say five or six years ago, I like to think I’d make the same call, but it would definitely have hurt a lot more. I get why some shops/restaurants are hesitant to let them go or be seen as making a judgement. I don’t agree, but I can see it.

I have the privilege of being able to say “Well, I can bring in any number of beers instead of these.” As to why I haven’t bought any since? Well, the story this week is pretty much why. I haven’t seen anything from them as a company that makes me feel like they’re making a good-faith effort to correct what needs correcting. And it’s still not easy: My Founders Rep is/was a friend, one of my favorite people to work with. We still like each other’s posts on social media, but it effectively ended the relationship, because of course it did. I get that. But I’m in a position to buy according to what I want to support, and the end of the day, I’m not supporting that.

Other establishments were unaffected by the Founders news. Pizzeria Paradiso’s Drew McCormick wrote, “we stopped carrying Founders in December of 2017 when we made the decision to carry only Independent Craft Beer as certified by the Brewers Association.”

Hop and Wine, which distributes Founders in the District, did not return our request for comment. 

Per a Brewers Association benchmarking survey, craft beer remains overwhelmingly white, and male, and we suspect this will not be the last time DC Beer covers legal issues relating to diversity and inclusion. We look forward to seeing how area bars, bottle shops, breweries, and distributors respond to future challenges, and we hope that all three tiers of the beer business rise to meet them. 

Michael Stein and Jacob Berg co-wrote this article.

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