In the middle of "Black History Month" this year, The Daily Wire reported an incident out of NYU where two employees overseeing campus culinary services were fired over a racially insensitive "Soul Food Menu" that outraged several students.
On February 20, 2018, NYU sophomore Nia Harris and several other African-American students took offense when they entered the "Weinstein Dining Hall" to see that the dishes being served in honor of "Black History Month" were items such as barbeque ribs, cornbread, collard greens, mac & cheese, as well as Kool-aid and watermelon fruit punch. In a Facebook post, Nia Harris alleged that when she brought her complaints to the staff, they said that black employees were the ones who planned the menu. The excuse did not wash with the students and they took their complaints to social media and the incident made national headlines.
Due to the scant number of facts initially reported by several news outlets, it appeared at first that the two employees fired for the incident were cooks of African-American origin since they were the ones who allegedly prepared the meal. However, according to on-campus publication NYU Local, the two employees fired (Head Chef and General Manager) were indeed Caucasian. None of the students who initially complained called for their firing.
The incident became such a politically heated topic that NYU President Andrew Hamilton was forced to issue a public apology while simultaneously distancing the university from the company that distributed the menu in concert with its staff — Aramark Corporation. "We were shocked to learn of the drink and food choices that our food service provider -- Aramark -- offered at the Weinstein dining hall as part of Black History Month," read Hamilton's statement. "It was inexcusably insensitive. That error was compounded by the insensitivity of the replies made to a student who asked Aramark staff on site how the choices were made."
Aramark Corporation also issued its own public apology condemning the "insensitive and offensive actions" of the two employees who planned the menu while asserting that the two employees "acted independently" and did not follow the "approved plan for the celebration of Black History Month." Their full statement:
We have zero tolerance for any employee who does not adhere to our values or contradicts our longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. Employees at NYU who acted independently and did not follow our approved plan for the celebration of Black History Month have been terminated and are no longer with the company. We are extremely disappointed by this regrettable situation and apologize to the entire NYU community and communities everywhere for their insensitive and offensive actions. We are re-training all our NYU campus employees to ensure an incident like this is not repeated.
It should be noted here that a similar incident occurred just weeks prior at the University of Loyola in Chicago, where Aramark Corp. also oversees culinary services. There, the "soul food menu" that outraged several African-American students consisted of fried chicken and Kool-aid. As a result, Aramark Corp. issued a similar apology, only this one placed the blame at the feet of their internal "operations," not two employees who acted independently of the corporation's directives. Behold:
At least one of the employees fired over the NYU incident, Tim Hoben, the former General Manager of Operations for Aramark-NYU, has filed a defamation suit against Aramark Corporation and New York University, alleging that his superiors were the ones who planned and executed the "Black History Month Promotion" and then used him as a scapegoat to avoid endangering their multi-million dollar contract with NYU. Aramark has faced multiple scandals in recent years over the alleged unethical treatment of employees.
In the official complaint, Tim Hoben, in concert with his attorney Daniel Szalkiewicz, provides a detailed account of how the racially-insensitive menu came to pass. Contrary to Aramark's statement, Mr. Hoben allegedly did not act "independently" and was instead operating under top-down directives.
On February 14, 2018, Mr. Hoben, along with several other members of the Aramark-NYU dining leadership, received an email from Aramark's Senior District Marketing Manager, Vincent Gentile, stating that Aramark Senior Management, in tandem with NYU administrators, organized a "Black History Month Promotion" to be held the following week. The full text of Mr. Gentile's email is below:
As some of you heard at our meeting yesterday, we are adding a more comprehensive Black History Month event to the calendar. It will be three days, lunch and dinner, with one meal at each of your locations. The calendar is attached. The idea is to have some of your employees suggest menu items (not recipes- we need to stick to Prima recipes), and we will highlight these items with signage at the stations. This is designed to be an employee driven event. Please send me a menu, and information about the employee(s) who suggested these items, by COB on Friday. My apologies for the quick turnaround, but I just got approval from the client to run this event as is.
Mr. Gentile also included an attachment from Aramark with more detailed direction:
Managers and Chefs for each [dining location] will ask team members to provide a recipe (or two) for the meal. We will highlight the team member in an sign at the station, with some background on why the recipe is important to them.
The emails from Mr. Gentile have been submitted as evidence. On February 16, Mr. Gentile sent a follow-up email reminding the NYU-Aramark leadership to submit their "Black History Month" menus, on which several Aramark higher-ups were copied. Shortly thereafter, Chef Paz submitted the proposed menu: barbeque ribs, mac & cheese, cornbread, etc. Per Mr. Gentile's directive, the items were selected by three (presumably black) Aramark employees who stated the food had sentimental value to their identity.
"Explaining why the employees had selected the recipes, Chef Paz wrote that it was food their grandparents had passed down to them; he further shared that staff had decided to entitle the menu 'FOOD FOR YOUR SOUL'" reads the complaint.
Mr. Gentile apparently responded to the menu "enthusiastically." Chef Paz then ordered the required ingredients for the menu while the NYU-Aramark marketing staff proceeded to design menus that would fit in the spirit of the day, which also included profiles of the employees who planned it.
On February 20, 2018, Mr. Hoben maintains, he did as he was directed by his superiors and nothing more. When students brought their complaints to him, Mr. Hoben immediately had the fruit-flavored water and fruit punch removed in hopes that it would avoid offending more students. Associates working with Mr. Hoben that day also allege he took the correct course of action and that he acted respectfully toward the students.
Even though Mr. Hoben allegedly had no hand in planning or executing the menu, his employment was allegedly terminated without a fair hearing or further investigation. NYU's Chief Diversity Officer also allegedly contributed to the slander against Mr. Hoben by publicly saying he alone "made a decision to frame [the] soul food menu[.]"
"Rather than accepting blame for its own offensive program, Aramark served Mr. Hoben's termination to the public and the press," reads the complaint. "In doing this, Aramark attempted to mitigate their P.R. nightmare by assailing the character of an individual who played no role in the planning or execution of the menu and who had merely effectuated a promotion sent to him by Aramark."
Upon his firing from a position that garnered him a handsome salary of $103,000 annually, Mr. Hoben alleges that Aramark treated him disrespectfully when they packed several of his personal items from his office and haphazardly shipped them to his home. Items valuable to Mr. Hoben were damaged in the process. His once-affordable life insurance has also been canceled and cannot be replicated due to his health conditions.
Prior to this incident, Mr. Hoben, a father, held employment with Aramark for eight years and developed a solid reputation as General Manager of Operations for Aramark-NYU. "Under Mr. Hoben's direction, a program was established that designs special menus for students with specific dietary needs. In 2017, Mr. Hoben was honored by NYU and Aramark for saving a choking student's life," the complaint asserts.
At the time of this publication, Aramark Corporation did not respond to Daily Wire's request for comment.
UPDATE: Following the publication of this article, a spokesperson for Aramark issued the following statement to Daily Wire: "We strongly reject this baseless claim and will vigorously defend ourselves. We have zero tolerance for any employee who does not adhere to our values or contradicts our longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion."