July 27, 2020: This story has been updated to include Washtenaw County Health Department reports. Due to the weekend, we were unable to get in touch with health officials for comment.
Ypsilanti’s Sidetrack Bar and Grill have found themselves under fire after Will Brawley, a former bartender and bar manager, took to social media July 22 to allege being “pushed out” from his job with the restaurant after self-quarantining.
The restaurant has reopened after a five day closure due to an employee testing positive for COVID-19 and all of their servers have since tested negative for COVID-19, according to a comment on their Facebook page. (The original post announcing the temporary close has been deleted, but can be seen in our gallery.)
Brawley posted on Facebook that he came in contact with the coworker with COVID-19 symptoms on July 9, when the server came to work because “he did not want to get fired.”
“He was coughing. He was clearing his throat. He was sweating profusely. His voice was gone,” Brawley remembered in his post. “I told him to go home.”
The server told Brawley that he was avoiding his tables and the manager so they would not become aware of his symptoms. When Brawley pulled aside the manager to ask if she was aware, he reported that “[s]he looked at me and rolled her eyes and said ‘I know,’” before walking away.
After close, he kept his mask on, even as “the sick server, as well as every other employee, removed his mask.”
It wasn’t until the following Saturday, July 11, did Brawley learn from a friend that Sidetrack had announced a closing and subsequent three day cleaning after a server tested positive for COVID-19.
“They stated that management was unaware and that the server was unaware, stating he was asymptomatic,” wrote Brawley. “In this post they also stated that they had informed all of their staff and that all staff were to be tested negative before returning to work.”
He didn’t hear from Sidetracks until 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 12, when they reached out through an alleged mass text only to inform staff that the restaurant would be closed until Wednesday, July 15, 2020 - but nothing about testing or the positive server. When he attempted to speak to the manager, “they pushed me onto the co-owner. I told them that I was working with the server and that they were blatantly showing symptoms and that out [of] my own personal safety and the safety of others I would be self quarantining for 14 days,” Brawley said.
After that, he says he’s heard nothing from the owners, just from his former co-workers, who told him that he had been demoted and replaced by a new bartender within the week.
Since he’s taken to Facebook with his experience, Brawley has had his post shared over 5,600 times.
Many community members have taken to the post to share their own stories of Sidetracks, with several customers referencing past food poisonings after eating there, before the coronavirus pandemic. For former servers, they recalled unclean surroundings, including a “mold fridge,” as nicknamed by a few former servers, as well as the basement storage area, seen from a former employee’s video depicting a seemingly unfinished but crowded basement where the stairs leading down were described as “wet, rotten, steep and small” by former servers.
Others recount having to use dirty carafes to serve beverages to customers or risk being reprimanded, with dirty dish tubs being only rinsed out before being used to make big batch recipes in the kitchen. Still others remembered a rampant mouse problem, with one server saying that she had a mouse fall on a customer’s table and a customer recalling the snap of mousetraps all over the restaurant as patrons drank beer. A few former servers also recounted being passed over for shifts instead of outright firing, with more alluding to the management and owners playing favorites with the staff.
Washtenaw Health Department Food and Safety inspections from January 2020 and June 2019 show that several related issues (not having a proper seal for the door to prevent pests from coming in, inadequate lighting in the basement, broken equipment including a glass washer) were observed. Some items are not followed up on during later visits, as they are not priority violations that could result in harm or illness or because they were fixed in the moment. (Other restaurant health inspections can be searched for via this site.)
Still, there were others defending Sidetracks, from former managers, fellow Depot Town business owners, and faithful fans of the restaurant.
Linda French, one of the owners of Sidetracks, responded to this thread multiple times to refute Brawley’s claims. She seemingly used one comment to issue a statement, wherein she asserts that management was unaware until the server called in on July 10, that the staff had been informed as quickly as possible, and that Brawley wasn’t demoted or fired. She also wrote for the community to “[p]ut down the pitchforks down until I get a chance to post the texts and etc. This pandemic is hard on all of us but simply DID NOT happen this way.”
Brawley wrote back to French later, noting that several other bartenders hadn’t been informed by management before seeing the restaurant’s Facebook post to the community about it, as well as that he wasn’t trying to “take down” Sidetrack. However, he wanted to make two things abundantly clear: he had been replaced, and he had never said he had been fired.
Brawley and French did not respond to the Echo’s request for comment.
You can read Brawley’s entire post here, with screenshots of French’s rebuttal and Brawley’s answer in the gallery.
The Facebook thread containing the basement video referenced above, as well as more Sidetrack server experiences, can be found here.