Panera Franchisee Served With Second Racial Bias Suit

Jan 13, 2012 1:15pm

A former employee at a Pittsburgh-area Panera Bread restaurant filed the second racial discrimination suit against a franchisee in three months, claiming he and other African-American workers were systematically  kept away from the front of the store.

Guy Vines, 21, filed a suit on Wednesday in a federal court in Pittsburgh. An employee at a Panera Bread in Mount Lebanon, Pa., operated by Covelli Enterprises, he alleges the franchisee had a racially discriminatory policy that prevented African-American employees from promotions and working on cash registers with customers.

Covelli Enterprises, based in Warren, Ohio, operates Panera Bread and O’Charley’s restaurants in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio.

Vines, who worked at that Panera location from 2009 to 2011, said in the suit he was “repeatedly” consigned to work in the rear of the store when the owner, Sam Covelli, was present or when a manager believed Covelli would be on site that day. According to Vines, the company preferred to preclude “fat, black and ugly” people from its workforce and “kept employees it so designated away from customer contact.”

Vines’ attorney, Samuel Cordes, is seeking class action certification against Covelli Enterprises.

A spokesman for Covelli Enterprises said the company denies the allegations of discriminatory practices.

A statement from the company said Vines was not discharged as he had stated and he “made no complaint to the company regarding the allegations of his complaint during his almost two years of employment.”

Allen Ryan, Covelli’s director of corporate affairs said Vines’ suit is “riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations of the actions that led to Mr. Vine’s walking off the job.”

“The fact is that Mr. Vines walked off his shift in the wake of being disciplined for repeatedly violating the company’s dress code policy and other company policies related to health and safety standards,” Ryan said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Panera Bread, based in St. Louis,  said the company is taking this matter “very seriously.”

“We hold all of our franchisees – as well as ourselves – to high standards,” Linn Parish, vice president of public relations, said in a statement. “Panera is an equal opportunity employer and has zero tolerance for discrimination. The franchisee named in the suit, Covelli Enterprises, has assured Panera that the lawsuit claims are untrue and that their company allows no room for discrimination. We remain engaged in this matter.”

Cordes represents the first former employee who filed a suit against Covelli Enterprises.  In November, Scott Donatelli, who worked in the same location from 2007 to 2011 as an assistant and general manager, filed a suit against Covelli Enterprises for allegedly being fired after complaining about racial discrimination in the workplace.

Donatelli said in the suit his district manager reprimanded him on several occasions for allowing Vines to work at the cash register.

In the filing, Donatelli said the district manager said on one occasion, “Don’t fight me on this, you won’t win, the bottom line, it’s what Sam wants and what our customers want,” according to the suit. “They would rather see pretty young girls.”

The franchisee filed a response to the lawsuit on Jan. 6, denying the allegations and saying Donatelli was reprimanded for “his poor management skills including failing to enforce the appearance and dress code policies, “allowing associates to perform tasks in which they were not certified or qualified to perform and/or permitting Café conditions to fall below acceptable standards.”

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