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Former Staffers Accuse Owner Of Cafe Stella In Silver Lake Of Sexual Harassment

(Illustration by Chava Sanchez)

For two decades, Cafe Stella, located in the heart of Silver Lake, has been a go-to spot for locals. With its dimly lit bar and indoor-outdoor patio, the French bistro was a harbinger of the neighborhood's gentrification when it opened in 1998. But according to a half dozen former Cafe Stella employees, the esteemed restaurant has a problem: founder and owner Gareth Kantner.

Six of Kantner's former employees say their old boss sexually harassed them and other workers at Cafe Stella.

Through his attorney, Kantner has vigorously denied the accusations.

"He would come up from behind, often, and put his hands around my waist and pull me in and put his face up into my neck, pull my hair aside," said a former waitress. "He'd [be] holding me as if he was my boyfriend, caressing my body."

Another former waitress described Kantner's behavior toward her and others as "wildly sexually inappropriate."

A former waiter told KPCC/LAist that Kantner once grabbed him by the crotch.

In a successful claim for California unemployment benefits after quitting the restaurant, one former waitress is quoted as saying she "endured constant sexual behavior" by Kantner.

Some of the accusations against Kantner, 52, date back a decade or more.

Most of the former employees who spoke with KPCC/LAist said they were motivated by the #MeToo movement to share what they experienced or witnessed.

Some had shared accusations on social media before coming to KPCC/LAist with stories about their experiences with Kantner.

Four of the accusers allowed KPCC/LAist to use their names; two agreed to share their stories on the condition they remain unnamed.

Three of the accusers allege Kantner harassed them repeatedly.

Most of the accusers said they also witnessed Kantner frequently press himself against other female servers, envelop them in long hugs and touch them inappropriately. They said he often made crude, sexually explicit remarks and talked about sexual acts he wanted to perform with customers and employees.

In an email, Kantner's attorney called the allegations "false and defamatory" and warned that reporting on them will subject KPCC/LAist "to significant liability for defamation."

With its late nights, heavy drinking and hot tempers, the restaurant industry has had its share of #MeToo scandals, several of which have involved prominent chefs and restaurateurs: John Besh in New Orleans, Ken Friedman and Johnny Iuzzini in New York, and, most famously, Mario Batali, who was accused by four women of inappropriate touching.

Kantner, the son of Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner, isn't just a restaurateur. The land Cafe Stella sits on — the Sunset Junction shopping complex, with its famous arrow sign — belongs to an LLC that's registered to Kantner and his wife, Christine. That makes Kantner the landlord for Intelligentsia Coffee and leather goods store Dean. Kantner also owns Dinette, a Sunset Blvd. takeaway counter in Echo Park he's expanding into a restaurant, market and cafe.

Former Cafe Stella waitress Hanne Steen at her home in Glendale. (Susanica Tam for LAist)

HANNE STEEN: ONE OF KANTNER'S "FAVORITES"

Hanne Steen liked almost everything about Cafe Stella when the aspiring actress started working there in April 2011. The atmosphere, the patrons, the money. The only problem, she said, was Kantner.

"Pretty much from the beginning, there was touching," she said.

Steen said that in addition to unsolicited hugs from behind, Kantner would occasionally take things further.

"Sometimes he would pull my hair really roughly, like the way that someone would pull someone's hair when they were having sex," she said, "and he would kiss my neck. He would breathe into my neck [and]... whisper things into my neck."

Steen alleges that she endured numerous such incidents during the more than three years she worked at Cafe Stella. She said she kept working there because she needed the money and she felt connected to her co-workers.

Steen said she talked to her mother about Kantner's behavior at the time, and provided KPCC/LAist with an email in which her mother offered support.

In a phone call, Steen's mother, Kathy Shapiro, told KPCC/LAist that her email was a response to a series of conversations in which Steen described "lewd behavior, touching, cornering," adding that her daughter "felt very harassed and very much like her job was at stake."

Steen also provided KPCC/LAist with several journal entries dated from her time at Cafe Stella, in which she wrote contemporaneously about Kantner's alleged ongoing harassment and the toll it was taking on her.

Hanne Steen's journal entry from March 28, 2012. (Courtesy of Hanne Steen)

In one entry, dated March 28, 2012, Steen wrote that Kantner came up from behind her, pulled her ponytail to the side and kissed her neck with "a sexual lingering kiss w/ a little groan of pleasure."

When she responded "maybe a touch too coldly for his liking," Kantner looked at her "almost angrily" and asked, "'What's up with you?'" Steen wrote, noting that his reaction made her fear for her job.

"I feel so vulnerable! So powerless!" she wrote.

In her journal, Steen also recalled Kantner exclaiming, within earshot of several employees, "Look at that bitch over there. I don't usually go in for blondes but I'd sure as hell f—k that."

In an email to KPCC/LAist, Kantner's attorney, Andrew Brettler, called the anecdote a "self-serving alleged entry in Ms. Steen's diary."

A former Cafe Stella waitress who worked with Steen and also accused Kantner of harassment told KPCC/LAist that Kantner targeted Steen frequently because she was one of his "favorites."

The woman, who asked that she not be identified, said she observed Kantner making sexual comments to Steen and giving her long hugs that this former employee felt were inappropriate.

Steen said that at the time, she also told the restaurant's then-general manager about Kantner's behavior; the former general manager did not respond to repeated requests from KPCC/LAist for comment.

In an interview with KPCC/LAist, a friend of Steen's, who asked not to be named, confirmed that Steen spoke with her at the time about Kantner's behavior.

A man Steen dated for part of the time she worked at Cafe Stella, who also asked KPCC/LAist not to use his name, confirmed that she had told him about Kantner's behavior while she was working there. He remembered Steen saying she was "pretty disturbed by... the aggressiveness of the physical contact."

Echoing what she'd written in her journal, Steen told KPCC/LAist that Kantner's frequent touching and lewd comments took their toll.

"I was having anxiety, like real anxiety, going to work," she said. "I was having nightmares. I wasn't sleeping."

Steen is among the many restaurant workers nationwide who say they have put up with harassment and sexually inappropriate behavior because if they don't, they worry they'll be assigned worse shifts or lose their jobs.

The picturesque Cafe Stella, photographed on Mar 23, 2018, is a popular place with both locals and tourists for dinner and drinks. (Susanica Tam for LAist)

A CONFRONTATION AND AN APOLOGY

Steen said she considered taking some kind of legal action and spoke to a lawyer in April 2012. She decided not to follow through, in part because the lawyer, whose name she can't remember, told her the odds of success were low. Instead, she decided to confront Kantner a few weeks later.

"Something came over me, some kind of calm, and I just looked at him in the face, and I said, 'The way that you treat me makes me so uncomfortable,'" she said in an interview. "And I watched him turn into a little boy in front of me. His whole demeanor changed, and he was like, 'What do you mean?'"

Steen said Kantner apologized profusely for making her feel uncomfortable and promised to change his behavior.

"For a few weeks, it seemed like it was better for everybody," she said. "And then, it just changed, and it went back to being what it was, except for me. There was this, like, 'Oh, can't touch Hanne. Can't get too close to Hanne. Super-sensitive Hanne.'"

Steen, whose journal entries dated from her time at Cafe Stella are consistent with what she told KPCC/LAist, said Kantner stopped touching her but continued to make demeaning comments.

The Sunset Junction complex in Silver Lake. (Susanica Tam for LAist)

KANTNER'S LAWYER: "NONE OF THE ALLEGATIONS...HAVE ANY MERIT"

KPCC/LAist was not granted an interview with Kantner, and subsequently submitted a total of more than two dozen questions to his representatives. In response to the initial batch, Kantner attorney Brettler wrote, "None of the allegations against Mr. Kantner have any merit and are contradicted by the accounts of numerous employees."

In one letter Brettler wrote: "In 20 years of operations, Cafe Stella has employed more than 500 individuals and never received a single complaint accusing Mr. Kantner, or anyone else at the company, of sexual harassment or similar misconduct."

He warned that if KPCC/LAist broadcast or published this story "containing these false and defamatory claims about Mr. Kantner, it will be acting at its own peril."

Brettler works at the law firm Lavely & Singer. One of its founding partners, Marty Singer, is well-known in Hollywood for his bare-knuckled defenses of A-list celebrities. Singer's clients have included Bill Cosby, Tony Robbins, director Brett Ratner and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brettler represented filmmaker Bryan Singer and singer-songwriter Ryan Adams when they were accused of sexual misconduct.

Brettler did respond to some of the questions KPCC/LAist submitted. He called Steen's account "highly suspect," asserting she tried to get rehired at the restaurant "on three separate occasions" after she stopped working there.

Steen said that before she took a two-month trip to visit family in Italy in the summer of 2012, she was told she had to either find someone to fill all of her shifts or resign. She quit but was rehired when she returned.

Two years later, in August 2014, she was planning another trip to Italy and faced the same dilemma: find fill-ins or quit. Steen said she chose the latter. She told KPCC/LAist that when she asked whether she would get her job back upon her return, she was told no.

Later that year, Steen said, she inquired about picking up a few shifts at Cafe Stella and was told by a staffer that Kantner didn't want her to come back.

Brettler also questioned Steen's credibility because, he wrote, she "spent significant time at Cafe Stella" after she stopped working there. When she went to the restaurant and its wine bar, he wrote, "At no time did Ms. Steen indicate that Mr. Kantner ever acted inappropriately towards her, nor would her desire to spend so much time at the restaurant indicate that Mr. Kantner ever mistreated her, or that she felt uncomfortable or unsafe in that environment."

Steen told KPCC/LAist she went to Stella "about six times in three years" because it was "a block from where I used to live and my friends still worked there." She added that before going, she "would always text somebody that I knew and I would say, 'Is Gareth there?'... I would only ever go if I knew he wasn't there."

Steen said she'd also been in the restaurant to record a few interviews for a video project she was working on with a current employee. She ran into Kantner "once or twice," she said, and he did not act inappropriately toward her.

Claire Cochran, a labor lawyer who specializes in women's rights and employment claims, said Steen's actions were not uncommon.

"Unless the action that occurred is incredibly egregious such that you would be perhaps scared for your life, there are not a lot of women who are going to just quit their jobs, walk away and never interact with somebody again because they were making sexual overtures towards them," Cochran said.

"It doesn't invalidate the fact that that person sexually harassed them," she said. "It means that person is able to ignore it to a certain extent, but it still affects them mentally and emotionally."

JULIE GRIMM ESPINOZA: "CONSTANT SEXUAL BEHAVIOR"

Five years before Steen started working for Kantner, another server made accusations about inappropriate behavior by Kantner in a claim for unemployment benefits. Julie Grimm Espinoza left her job as a server and bartender at Cafe Stella in 2006, after almost two years working there.

Records from the California Employment Development Department show Grimm Espinoza claimed she had "endured constant sexual behavior, innuendo, erratic rages and been denied compensation of my overtime hours by Mr. Kantner."

EDD records show that the state approved Grimm Espinoza's request for unemployment benefits.

Part of the California Employment Development Department document summarizing Julie Grimm Espinoza's 2006 claim for unemployment benefits after leaving Cafe Stella.

Grimm Espinoza declined to be interviewed for this story but said via email that the statement in her EDD filing "is an abbreviated summary of a certified letter sent to Cafe Stella which detailed the ways I felt mistreated by Gareth Kantner. Due to litigious climates, I have no comment. I will let this document speak for itself. I stand 100% behind it today as I did the day I filed it."

Former Cafe Stella waiter Jake Demaray, who overlapped with Grimm Espinoza for part of the time he worked at the restaurant, told KPCC/LAist that he observed Kantner harassing her on numerous occasions.

"He would grab her butt, or he would run his finger on her neck, or he would sniff her neck," Demaray said, adding that he advised Grimm Espinoza when she was writing her resignation letter.

"At the end of the letter, she said, 'I'm leaving, and I'm going to file unemployment, and if you fight that, then I'm going to file a lawsuit against you," Demaray recalled. He also told KPCC/LAist that Kantner spoke openly, in his office above the restaurant, about his issues with Grimm Espinoza, referring to the situation as the "Julie problem."


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In an email to KPCC/LAist, Brettler said Grimm Espinoza "never accused Mr. Kantner, or anyone else at Cafe Stella, of misconduct, sexual harassment, or other inappropriate behavior."

He went on: "Ms. Grimm Espinoza never threatened verbally or in writing to sue Mr. Kantner if he contested her claim for unemployment benefits." He said absent "egregious misconduct by the terminated employee, Mr. Kantner typically does not challenge claims for unemployment benefits."

Almost everyone interviewed for this story described Kantner as mercurial. They said he could be expansive and generous with people he cared about, but at the same time, "You never knew if you were going to get a man who was going to verbally abuse you or say something wildly sexually inappropriate," said the former waitress who recalled Steen as being one of Kantner's "favorites."

JAKE DEMARAY: "THE SAME PREDATORY BEHAVIOR"

Demaray was a waiter at Cafe Stella for five years, from late 2005 to early 2011. Besides what he told KPCC/LAist about Kantner's treatment of Grimm Espinoza, Demaray said that on numerous occasions during that period he saw Kantner embrace other female staffers and heard him make demeaning, sexual comments to them.

He added that Kantner would also harass female customers, and that some staff members referred to him as "Creepy Uncle Gary."

Before speaking with KPCC/LAist, Demaray had posted on social media that he personally witnessed Kantner's "inappropriate behavior" toward female employees.

Demaray said on social media that he also experienced sexual harassment by Kantner. He told KPCC/LAist that Kantner sexually harassed him once.

"One night, he was wasted, and he grabbed my dick by the computer," Demaray said. "It was kind of the same predatory behavior. But I was adamant. I was like, 'Don't ever do that again.'"

The former Cafe Stella waitress who said Hanne Steen was one of Kantner's "favorites" said Demaray told her at the time about the alleged incident.

Demaray told KPCC/LAist he would sometimes confront Kantner about his behavior, and Kantner would say "that he had insurance for that, and I was like, 'Gareth, that's not how insurance works.'" The two would get into "shouting matches" over the issue, Demaray said.

"Mr. Kantner never discussed his insurance policies with Mr. Demaray, nor would there have been an occasion or reason to have such a discussion with any of his staff members," Brettler wrote to KPCC/LAist. He called Demaray's claim of shouting matches "false."

Former Cafe Stella waitress Eve Sturges at her home in Los Angeles. (Susanica Tam for LAist)

EVE STURGES: "IT WAS SO INCREDIBLY UNCOMFORTABLE"

Eve Sturges, a former server who worked at Cafe Stella for about a year starting in 2006, wrote broadly about Kantner's behavior on social media before talking to KPCC/LAist.

In an interview, she said she was warned about Kantner on her first shift, and she has never forgotten it. She told KPCC/LAist that she remembers being advised, "This is where we put the napkins. You're going to change the salt and peppers on Saturday. He will try to have sex with you and you need to have a game plan for when he does."

Sturges said she often saw Kantner caress and embrace other female employees, and that it happened to her too, but only once.

According to Sturges, she was typing an order into a computer on the patio, in full view of a restaurant filled with customers. (In 2012, the restaurant renovated and expanded, adding Bar Stella, so the layout is different now.) Sturges said that as Kantner moved past her, he pressed himself against her from behind.

"It was like his whole body was around me, his hands were on my hips," Sturges said, "and his lips and whiskers are, like, literally on my ear and saying, 'You're making so much f—ng money.'"

Sturges's husband, Kalen Egan, told KPCC/LAist he remembers Sturges telling him details of both incidents shortly after they began dating in 2010.

Sturges said she observed Kantner harassing the hostess who worked at Cafe Stella in 2007 "at least once a week."

The former hostess, who talked to KPCC/LAist but did not want her name used in this story, said she recalls Kantner "pressing his body into mine... that sort of breathing down the neck thing... like whispering something in my ear from behind me, like [a] provocative comment."

"I WAS AFRAID. THIS WAS MY LIVELIHOOD"

The former waitress who said Steen was one of Kantner's "favorites" told KPCC/LAist that during her three years at Cafe Stella, she witnessed many of the same behaviors. She said she was once Kantner's target.

The former waitress said one day, when she was in the nearly empty dining room preparing for Cafe Stella to open, Kantner came up behind her, grabbed her hair "and said that I look so f—-ing hot today."

She added, "I remember just kind of freezing and not really knowing what to do. I was afraid. This was my livelihood." She recalled "pulling away and trying to just, like, get away and laugh it off because I'm like, 'Oh, that's just Gareth.' But I remember on the inside, really wanting to grab a knife and like, fend him off."

Around the time the alleged incident occurred, the former waitress said she told her boyfriend, who is now her husband, about it. Her husband, who asked not to be identified, told KPCC/LAist he remembers his wife telling him about the incident back then. He also recalled her discussing Kantner's penchant for grabbing female employees and making sexually inappropriate remarks.

Sturges, Steen and Demaray said Kantner didn't try to hide his behavior. If anything, they said, he flaunted it.

"He was predatory and proud of it," Demaray wrote in an email to KPCC/LAist, adding that the "loud and boisterous" Kantner projected "the feeling of this is my castle and I can do anything I want... it was an exerting of his power and he got off on it."

Sturges said she witnessed Kantner pull female employees into close and long embraces while telling them that everything they had was thanks to him.

Most of the ex-employees KPCC/LAist spoke with said Kantner frequently did this in front of other staff but he also did it when other people weren't around.

"It was scarier, obviously, when we were alone," Steen said. "When there would be more than one of us, there was always this kind of unspoken thing that the other person wouldn't leave because, you know, it was so incredibly uncomfortable."

KANTNER'S DEFENDERS: "FALSE ACCUSATIONS"

Hiltzik Strategies, a "strategic communications and consulting" firm that was representing Kantner, provided KPCC/LAist with statements defending Kantner that it said were from six current and former Cafe Stella employees. (Company founder Matthew Hiltzik was the corporate communications chief at Miramax and a spokesman for Harvey Weinstein.) The firm declined to provide contact information for Kantner's defenders, so KPCC/LAist independently attempted to contact all of them, including those who were not identified by name.

Jose Diaz, described as a former Cafe Stella general manager, said in his written statement provided by Hiltzik that during his nearly four years at the restaurant, no one complained to him about Kantner's behavior. He did not respond to KPCC/LAist's requests for an interview.

In his written statement, James Seitz, described as a "former chef" at Cafe Stella, said no one ever suggested to him that Kantner had behaved inappropriately. Seitz still works for Kantner as the chef at Dinette; he did not respond to requests for an interview.

One person Hiltzik referred to as only a "current female employee" called the charges "false accusations" in her statement. KPCC/LAist determined the person's identity but she declined to be interviewed.

Another person, described by Hiltzik as a "current male employee," also questioned Steen's veracity because, he said, Steen had gone to the restaurant after leaving and had sought to get her old job back. KPCC/LAist determined the man's identity, but he did not respond to requests for an interview.

Another statement provided by Hiltzik was attributed to an Ashley Smith, described as a former employee who worked at Cafe Stella from 2012 to 2014. Her statement did not address the harassment allegations, but it said Kantner "provided a fun and safe work environment for me, and encouraged camaraderie amongst the staff." KPCC/LAist was unable to locate Smith.

A former waitress who worked at the restaurant for seven years said in her statement that she "never directly saw any sexual advances made towards employees" and never saw "any groping, inappropriate touching (e.g. hair pulling), or lewd conduct."

In a subsequent interview with KPCC/LAist, the woman — who asked not to be identified — said Kantner would at times get angry, and "he could be abrasive and sometimes he can be vulgar." But she said she never saw Kantner behaving in a way she considered sexually inappropriate.

The former waitress said Kantner expressed "surprise and consternation" upon learning that some former employees were accusing him of harassment, adding, he was "very distraught and distressed about the whole thing."

The indoor-outdoor patio of Cafe Stella in Silver Lake. (Susanica Tam for LAist)

THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY'S OPEN SECRET

Harassment is par for the course in many restaurants. Most restaurant owners, chefs and kitchen staff are men, according to the 2018 "Women in the labor force" report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Alcohol is plentiful. Bullying is common. That climate often extends to the front-of-house, where most servers are women. The combination can be toxic.

Chef Mary Sue Milliken, the co-owner of Socalo and the Border Grill chain of restaurants and food trucks, has been working in the industry since the late 1970s and has endured her share of harassment.

"It is pretty much endemic," Milliken told KPCC/LAist. "It's in all restaurants, all kinds of food service, because of the intensity of the job. There's a lot of pressure, but then as a way to kind of cope with all that, there's a lot of joking and teasing and it often goes too far. I think sexual harassment has just always been part of that job."

The restaurant business has the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the United States, according to The Glass Floor, a 2014 report publish by Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national organization that advocates for restaurant workers.

The group's co-founder, Saru Jayaraman, said restaurant workers account for nearly 40% of all complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

She believes the true toll is much higher.

"The reason why I think that is a tremendous undercount is that we hear complaints from workers about sexual harassment pretty universally," Jayaraman said. "It's rare for [workers]... especially women, not to have experienced some form of harassment working in restaurants."

The 2014 Restaurant Opportunities Center report found that nearly two-thirds of female restaurant workers and nearly half of male staffers reported that sexual harassment was an "uncomfortable aspect of work life." It also sets the tone for future jobs, said Jayaraman.

"When a young woman is told, 'Dress more sexy, show more cleavage, wear tighter clothing, this is how you get ahead,'" she said, "then she thinks that's acceptable, tolerable, legal, that's what you do, that's your job.'"

Jayaraman added, "Later in life, when she experiences something similar but maybe not as extreme, she thinks, 'Well, this is bad but it's not as bad as it was when I was working in restaurants.'"

In most small establishments, employees have no recourse, especially if the harassers own or run the restaurant. Even in large chains with HR departments and official anti-harassment policies, problems persist.

For example, in recent years Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, Yard House and a half dozen other well-known chains, settled a federal sexual harassment lawsuit filed on behalf of Red Lobster employees in Maryland and a federal age discrimination suit filed on behalf of potential employees of Seasons 52.

EMBOLDENED BY #METOO

Sturges, who referenced her experiences on social media as the #MeToo movement first unfolded, cited the public's increased willingness to hear — and believe — women's stories as one of her motivations for speaking up. After reading the stories about Harvey Weinstein's behavior, Sturges said she related "on such a visceral level [to] the experience of everybody knowing something is very, very wrong and nobody doing anything.

More than five years after she left Cafe Stella, Steen said it's still hard for her to speak about her time there, in part because she knows people who work at the restaurant.

"I think that's part of the difficulty of people speaking out in these contexts, because we were a family," she said. "I have people that I love who work there. And I know that there are going to be potential casualties to speaking out about this."

Like many of the people who spoke to KPCC/LAist for this story, Steen, who also shared her experiences on social media, said she was emboldened to speak out by the #MeToo movement and the public dialogue it has sparked around sexual harassment.

Steen said she's talking about it now because she doesn't want other women to go through what she experienced.

"I was raised in a feminist family with a strong sense of self," she said. "If it was that hard and that scary for me to say something [about Kantner], what must it be like for these 20-year-old girls who come in and work for him or other people?"