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Founders to re-open Detroit tap room in early 2020, donate profits to charity

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Founders Brewing will re-open its Detroit tap room early next year and donate the location’s profits to local charities through 2022, in an effort to move past a disastrous episode for the Grand Rapids-based brewer.

That disaster started last month, with leaked details from an African-American Founders employee’s racial discrimination lawsuit. That employee, Tracy Evans, claimed Founders has a “racist internal corporate culture,” and that he was fired after making complaints to managers.

Founders became an object of widespread scorn in large part because of excerpts from a deposition,in which Founders’ Detroit general manager Dominic Ryan appears to do some elaborate semantic maneuvering in order to avoid acknowledging that Evans is, indeed, Black.

That sparked social media outrage, boycotts, canceled events, and some vendors pulling Founders’ products from shelves and taps. And it led the company to shut down its Detroit location late last month. Founders settled Evans’ lawsuit last week.

Co-founder Mike Stevens says despite the lawsuit debacle, Founders takes diversity and inclusion seriously. He says it’s one of only a handful of brewers nationwide with a department dedicated to it.

“Was it all it could be? Probably not. Can it be more? It will be. And that’s our goal, and that’s our plan,” said Stevens, speaking in Detroit on Thursday.

Founders’ diversity and inclusion director, Graci Harkema, resigned in October.Harkema says her input was disregarded as Founders initially tried to work through the fallout over Evans’ lawsuit.

On Thursday, Founders announced it’s bringing in former Detroit State Sen. Buzz Thomas as its interim director of diversity, equity and inclusion. Thomas and his consulting group will help the company revamp its policies and connect with community partners to guide its philanthropic giving.

“I like them. I like their values,” Thomas said of Founders. “And I believe that they’re sincere in wanting to make a difference here in Detroit.”

Founders co-founder Steve Engbers acknowledged the company has made mistakes.

“We didn’t do a great job of connecting with the community down here,” said Engbers. “I think our intentions were right, that we wanted to be part of the Detroit community, and we wanted to be part of the rebirth and regrowth of Detroit, and I think we didn’t do a great job.”

Founders is looking for a new general manager for its Detroit tap room, Stevens said, saying Ryan had been dismissed from that post but remains with the company. Another employee who was accused of using a racial slur is also still with the company, but has undergone training. All Detroit Founders employees will be paid while the tap room remains closed.

Founders, Michigan’s largest brewery, has expanded considerably since it was founded in 1997 in Grand Rapids. Its Detroit tap room opened in 2017 in the city’s Midtown area. Spain’s largest brewer, Mahou San Miguel, is set to acquire a 90% stake in the company at the start of next year.

Stevens says he anticipates the Detroit location could generate around $2 million in profits over the next three years, and pledges that all of it will be passed onto Detroit charities and community organizations.

“Is it costly? That’s not the point here,” Stevens said. “The point is really trying to connect in an honest way with the community, and listening to the community, and being a part of it in a real way.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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