Three former servers who worked at Hamilton’s iconic Black Forest Inn for decades are accusing the restaurant’s new owners of discriminating against them based on their age.
The women, who range in age from 49 to 64, allege in human rights complaints filed last year that their former employer cut their hours at the King St. E. restaurant and replaced them with younger workers.
Their case, which will be heard before the province’s human rights tribunal beginning March 27, puts the spotlight on the beloved half-century-old institution well-known in Hamilton for its hearty German and Austrian fare and beer served by staff wearing traditional outfits.
Brigitte Evans, Anele Murauskas and Ilda Rosser left their jobs in late 2017 — less than a year after longtime family owners Wolfgang and Gabi Schoen sold the half-century-old restaurant.
In their complaints, the Hamilton women say new management slashed their shifts to reduce the business’ operating costs while also hiring “a number of new workers who were clearly much younger” than them.
While their hours dropped, the new staff were being scheduled between 30 and 40 hours a week, the women allege.
The Black Forest Inn denies the allegations.
“We here at the Black Forest Inn have always strived to be inclusive, diverse and welcoming,” said Paul Wells, operating partner at the restaurant. “We don’t discriminate on any basis whatsoever.”
He declined to comment on the specifics of the case as it’s still before the tribunal.
Both Evans, who worked at the restaurant for 36 years, and Murauskas, who was there for more than 19 years, say they were moved from night to day shifts, which typically provides less opportunity for tips.
In the past, senior staff typically worked the evening shifts, Murauskas said in an interview.
The restaurant says it hired new employees but “only on an as-needed basis to maintain a consistent number of staff” and that they worked the majority of day shifts.
“BFI has never made any decision in respect of its employees based on their age,” their response to the human rights complaints reads.
Having worked at the landmark restaurant for nearly two decades, Murauskas, who is 62, said she built up long-standing relationships with a number of regular customers.
“After such a long time we built up such a rapport with the customers that we got to know them by name and generations — we went to funerals,” she said in an interview.
After the sale, customers would come in and ask to sit in her section, only to be told by the new manager that there would be an hour-long wait despite that not being true, she said. He would try to “persuade” the customers to sit in an area serviced by younger staff, she alleged in her complaint.
According to her complaint, he also told her he needed her to work the restaurant’s 50th anniversary so regular customers could “see that she was still there and did not quit.”
Rosser, 49, said she also felt she was not treated equally after the ownership change.
“The only times I would get tables is when there was nowhere else for them to sit,” she said.
At the time of the sale in December 2016, The Spectator and other media reported the restaurant had been sold to Forge & Foster Investment Management.
Joe Accardi, who is with Forge & Foster, said the Black Forest Inn is operated by himself and Wells. Its only relationship to Forge & Foster is that Accardi is a shareholder in both, and the investment management company was involved in the construction of the apartments above the restaurant, he said in an email.
“We promised the previous owners . . . to change as little as possible including the food, chefs, staff, interior, and schnitzel for their legacy and to keep this icon moving onto the next 50 years as the past 50 years,” he said. “It’s become an icon and we’re committed to keeping it that way for Hamiltonians to continue to enjoy the best we can.”
But the restaurant’s responses to the human rights complaints were submitted by an individual with a Forge & Foster email address and the company has posted about the King St. E. location on social media and its website.
In their human rights complaints, the women also allege they did not receive proper training on the new point-of-sale system and were scolded by management for asking other staff for help during their shifts or when they would come in to practise on a day off.
Evans, 64, said the situation left her confidence shattered.
“I had a fear of being a failure,” she said in an interview. “I got to the point where my stomach was aching on the way to work, on the way home — I just couldn’t take it anymore at the end of it all.”
All three women handed in their resignation letters between September and December 2017. They are alleging the changes to their hours and shifts amount to constructive dismissal.
The former servers, who later went on to find new but not “comparable” employment, say the treatment they faced as older women was not fair and they want to get their message out.
“We’re all humans on the inside but look different on the outside,” Murauskas said. “We can all do a good job equally like the others.”