Former kitchen worker at Poole’s Diner alleges sexual assault at the restaurant in 2017

A former kitchen employee at award-winning chef Ashley Christensen’s Poole’s Diner alleges she was sexually assaulted three times in seven months while working at the restaurant.

Kaylin Fulp, who granted The News & Observer permission to publish her name, started working at Poole’s Diner in 2017 when she was 19 years old. She spoke Sunday at a meeting held by the Raleigh chapter of the North Carolina Safety Alliance, a group that shares stories from victims of sexual assault and harassment.

“I was sexually assaulted three times within my seven months of employment at Poole’s Diner,” Fulp said at Sunday’s meeting, according to videos of the meeting live-streamed on the group’s Instagram page.

Fulp attended a year of culinary school, but dropped out due to finances, she said during Sunday’s meeting. In Poole’s she hoped the acclaimed kitchen would be a replacement for a classical training.

At that time, Christensen had won the James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2014. More recently, she won the 2019 James Beard for Outstanding Chef in the country. In 2017, she was also Eater’s Chef of the Year and the News & Observer’s co-Tar Heel of the Year, shared with chef Vivian Howard.

While sharing her story Sunday, Fulp said she had been proud to be hired at Poole’s, calling it Raleigh’s pedestal, and said that it felt great to be picked from among other applicants at the James Beard-winning restaurant. She said that she worked hard to prove herself in the kitchen.

Sexual assault, bullying allegations

In that kitchen, she alleges she experienced three instances of sexual assault by two different employees, as well as bullying and verbal abuse. She said that she took the allegations to the restaurant’s human resources department.

“I tried to do the right thing, I tried to go through HR,” Fulp said Sunday. “When they found out I told on their buddy, (other kitchen employees) bullied me out of my job.”

Fulp referred to the kitchen as a “boys club” and said she left the job despite not wanting to.

On Tuesday, Christensen and Kait Goalen, her wife and AC Restaurants executive director, posted an open letter on the company’s website responding to the allegations. That letter acknowledges complaints in 2017, but said that details shared by Fulp on Sunday were new information to them.

“We respect and appreciate Kaylin so much for what she did when she came forward, and how she helped us and our company grow to be better,” Christensen and Goalen said in the letter. “We are devastated that it came at such great personal cost to her — it shouldn’t have had to. The trauma she experienced while working at Poole’s is not her fault. We are deeply regretful that we failed Kaylin during her employment with our company. We are so sorry.”

Christensen and Goalen declined an interview request, but did submit an additional emailed statement. In that statement, Christensen said Poole’s was unaware of a sexual assault complaint.

“We were horrified to learn of the traumatic experience that was shared this past weekend by a former Poole’s employee,” Christensen said. “No one at Poole’s was ever informed of any instance of sexual assault — if we had been, our actions would have been even more aggressive. We have never and will never tolerate inappropriate or abusive behavior. Over the years that we have been in business, we have implemented numerous processes and safeguards to promote an inclusive, supportive and safe work environment for all our employees. That is why we were devastated to learn that someone felt unsafe or violated and we are sorry if we fell short.”

In the letter, Christensen and Goalen say that “we didn’t know” is not an excuse and that their apology is too late. They said that they believe Fulp’s allegations and that hearing them reveals failings in the company’s policies.

“The weight of disclosure for survivors is heavy enough, and we understand now that we put too much burden on Kaylin to point out what we should’ve known and acted on with more specific force,” Christensen and Goalen said in the statement.

Changes since 2017

Christensen and Goalen said they reached out to Fulp through a mutual friend to apologize.

The letter outlines policy changes the company has made since 2017 to address issues of sexual harassment and workplace safety, including reporting procedures and training changes. In the letter, Christensen and Goalen said that Fulp’s revelations Sunday led the company to consider contracting an outside group to handle sexual harassment or assault complaints.

“To bolster our existing reporting protocols, we have been talking with a local sexual trauma resource organization and intend to train our teams that they can reach out to this organization as an additional path for disclosing a workplace incident of harassment or assault, if for any reason an employee doesn’t feel comfortable doing so through our internal issue resolution procedure,” Christensen and Goalen said in their letter.

Fulp said on Sunday that she was led to speak at the meeting after hearing stories from others who experienced sexual assault and harassment. She mentioned allegations in June detailing sexual assault and harassment within Raleigh restaurants Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana.

In October of 2017, in response to a report in the Times-Picayune of sexual assault allegations within the restaurant group of New Orleans chef John Besh, Christensen made a statement calling on the industry to take a stronger stance against harassment, including hiring HR deparments.

In that statement, Christsensen referenced an incident within her group that led her to believe written policies aren’t enough. It’s unclear whether the reference was to Fulp’s allegations.

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