“We’re like family” is a threadbare slogan in the service industry, but the idea seemed uniquely woven into the fabric of nationally acclaimed Raleigh, North Carolina, establishments Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana. The familial bond between siblings Vansana Nolintha and Vanvisa Nolintha is at the heart of virtually every telling of their story, which begins with being sent to North Carolina from Laos when they were children. As young adults, they opened their first restaurant, Bida Manda, to celebrate and re-interpret the Laotian cuisine of their youth; named after the Sanskrit for mother and father, it was dedicated to their parents, who sold some of the family’s land to finance it, and whose wedding photo greets diners at the door.
The Nolinthas fostered a culture of openness and emotional connection between staff, many of whom unreservedly describe themselves as a family. Feelings were often shared publicly, and close personal relationships between employees were not only encouraged, but expected. The restaurants were heralded as beacons in the Research Triangle’s dining scene, known for their enlightened values in an industry where discrimination and harassment are the norm. “While most kitchens are chaotic and aggressive, the back-of-the-house spaces at Bida Manda and Bhavana are as comforting as their menus,” Healthyish wrote in 2017.
That energy was perceptible to diners, industry elites, and members of food media alike. Ashley Christensen, the doyenne of Raleigh’s dining scene, was an early and persistent booster, going on to name-check Nolintha in her James Beard acceptance speech last year. In declaring Brewery Bhavana — a motley, ambitious mashup of a brewery, restaurant, florist, and bookstore in one vast, airy space — one of 2017’s best new restaurants, then-Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton wrote, “I started to believe in whatever this thing was. It wasn’t a concept or even a vision, it was simply an eclectic group of family and friends who decided to open a place together, each bringing their passions to the table.”
Vansana — known universally as “Van” — seemed to be the font of this energy. “To meet Van is to feel at once energized by his creativity and at the same time calmed by his presence,” food and drink writer Kenny Gould wrote in a 2019 Forbes interview, while one profile describes him as “the visionary, responsible for the storytelling and the dreaming.” A graduate of the prestigious Caldwell Fellows program at North Carolina State University, Van became one of the darlings of both Raleigh’s restaurant scene and its liberal political and social elite; in recent years, he has hosted political fundraisers and participated in events for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein, Raleigh City Council member Jonathan Melton, and former Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane, among others.
While Bhavana co-founder and head brewer Patrick Woodson concentrated on the brewery’s beer program behind the scenes and Vanvisa maintained a low-key presence working the restaurants’ front doors, Van seemed to be everywhere at once, running food and flitting between tables to greet guests or, later in the evenings, entertaining raucous groups of friends at Bida Manda’s bar. The restaurants were an extension of the home he shared with his sister, and he played the role of the consummate host.
But the outward projection of life at Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana appears to have masked a darker reality: Over the summer, numerous former and current employees alleged that a deeply corrupted culture predicated on radical vulnerability and intimate ties between workers engendered an atmosphere of misbehavior, abuse of power, and inappropriate sexual conduct. Most seriously, numerous people have alleged instances of sexual misconduct by Van Nolintha, longtime beverage director Jordan Hester, and Hester’s brother Casey, a front-of-house manager at Brewery Bhavana.
To date, all of the restaurants’ upper management has resigned or been fired: Shortly after allegations against him surfaced in June, Van announced that he would leave the restaurants and divest his ownership; Jordan Hester was fired and is facing criminal peeping charges unrelated to his conduct at the restaurants; and Casey Hester is no longer with the company. Longtime managers Luisa Jaramillo and Whitney Wilson have “chosen to resign,” according to Vanvisa and Woodson. In mid-September, after continued pressure from employees, Vanvisa and Woodson announced that they, too, would step down from their roles at the restaurants.
As some of these allegations began to be published in local news reports and trade publications, Eater spoke with 16 current and former employees of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, who detailed a range of alleged misconduct, from inappropriate text messages to sexual assault. (While both restaurants closed with the onset of the pandemic and only recently resumed service, for simplicity, Eater is describing anyone who has not resigned or been permanently laid off as a “current” employee.) Eater granted anonymity to a number of these sources because they feared retribution or were concerned about future employment in Raleigh’s tight-knit restaurant industry. Many were clearly distraught at these allegations. “Our family has been ripped to shreds and we don’t know how to salvage it,” one employee said.
Van, Vanvisa, and Woodson all repeatedly declined to be interviewed. Van also declined to respond to a detailed list of allegations. Vanvisa and Woodson denied knowledge of any of the allegations of misconduct by any member of management or staff prior to their surfacing in public. However, they and Van separately released statements in the weeks after the allegations emerged and, more recently, when Vanvisa and Woodson announced their departure from day-to-day operations.
“As an owner and manager of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, I was not the leader that I intended to be,” Van wrote in June. “To assure change, I will have no role in the companies’ future. I will no longer serve as a managing partner and will divest my ownership in both companies. I am taking a hard look at my actions and commit to learning from my mistakes. I’m truly sorry for the pain I have caused.”
“I know that you have been waiting for me to acknowledge what has surfaced these past few months and I’ve been silent,” he wrote in an email that went out to Bida Manda employees in mid-September. “I have read every single comment, every single article and I’ve heard your voices. It’s haunted me and I deeply apologize from the bottom of my heart to those that have been affected by all of this.”
Announcing their resignation, Vanvisa and Woodson wrote in a statement that went out to employees, “We are sincerely sorry and take full responsibility in acknowledging that our failures in those crucial moments have caused people immense pain. Looking back, we see the missteps that led us to where we are today. Feelings of guilt, sadness, and anguish take over us every day. But we know that these feelings are nothing compared to what some of you are feeling. We know that apologizing will not fix anything. We could have done more. We could have been better. And for that, we are sorry and will forever feel shame.”
At a moment of intense scrutiny for restaurants — as the industry and the media reckon with what has flourished over the last two decades amid the cultural ascendancy of rock-star chefs and must-visit restaurants — the allegations about Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, their management, and their work environments resonate with particular force. Many of the most heralded restaurants in the country are known for their singular, all-encompassing work cultures, and the Nolinthas’ growing empire was supposed to be a shining example of what a restaurant could be: collaborative, diverse, and equitable — an establishment where “we’re a family” wasn’t a hollow aphorism or a cover for labor exploitation. But that ethos, it turns out, was just another form of power.
The reckoning at Bida Manda and Bhavana started like others at a number of restaurants around the country this year: with a callout provoked by management’s public statement of support for Black Lives Matter protests. The response to management was galvanized by the protests themselves, as well as the social and economic fallout of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered virtually the entire hospitality industry, leaving millions of restaurant employees out of work.
On May 31, a now-deleted message was posted to the @bidamanda Instagram account expressing solidarity with the wave of protests that swept the nation in the days and weeks following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. (The account was frequently used by Van as his own; it was transitioned to @vansananolintha before it was deleted sometime this fall. A clean restaurant account is now located at @bidamanda). Three days later, Taylor Quinn, a former Bida Manda employee, replied to that post on her Instagram page, stating that “as individuals, it is our job to hold places of power accountable … Bida Manda is one of those places in Raleigh.”
Quinn’s post went on to share the details of a February 2020 incident in which a Black employee was referred to as a “slave” by a white manager. Quinn remained close with many of her former colleagues, so after hearing about the incident, she corroborated the details with others who were at a staff meeting addressing the incident. She produced a Google Doc titled “Keep Bida Manda accountable.”
In the document, Quinn alleges that it took two weeks and multiple employees urging the restaurant to address the situation, and that its attempt to defuse the situation backfired, with the Black employee walking out of a staff meeting in which the manager attempted to apologize. “The staff, including the wronged employee, was forced to sit there and listen to [the manager] cry before he left the situation and was followed by fellow employees to check on him,” Quinn’s document states. “After the meeting, Van acknowledged the negative behavior but ultimately told his employees to support the perpetrating manager.”
Former employee Sam Walker, in a comment on former employee Sara Dye’s Instagram post and then in a subsequent phone call with Eater, corroborated the general experience of that employee. Hired as a server at Bida Manda at the end of 2012, the same year the restaurant opened, Walker was one of the few servers at the time with prior restaurant experience, and the only Black server on staff. She was let go shortly afterwards, which she alleges was the result of implicit racial bias. “There’s a reason that a manager felt comfortable calling a Black server a slave,” Walker says. “Even if Van did not make that statement himself, he created a culture in his restaurant that allowed someone to feel comfortable saying that.”
On June 6, a response to Quinn’s allegations was posted to Bida Manda’s Instagram page, affirming the details, apologizing, and pledging to do better. It was signed by both Van and Vanvisa. In a since-deleted comment, Dye, who managed Bhavana’s bookstore, asked if the restaurant planned to address instances of alleged sexual assault as well.
A short time later, Dye composed a lengthy statement and posted it to her Instagram account. The post was explosive, detailing not only an incident in which she was allegedly sexually assaulted by an unnamed coworker, but numerous other alleged instances of inappropriate sexual behavior: Dye claims, and Eater was able to corroborate with current and former employees, that she both witnessed and was told about Van pressing his groin against male employees on numerous occasions, as well as coercing employees into sexual relationships. One employee, she states, quit just two weeks into his employment at Brewery Bhavana after allegedly receiving unsolicited photos of a sexual nature from Van via text.
Within hours, numerous other former employees began sharing their own experiences in some of the more than 500 comments that Dye’s post received. What became clear to its employees, in the words of one former staffer, was that “Bida Manda was never a movement. It was and is an employer with influential branding that shields Van from any notion of critique or accountability.”
The word “vulnerable” was repeated by almost every person who spoke with Eater. “In order to be validated as a person there, you needed to be emotionally vulnerable,” said Lisa*, a former employee whose name Eater has changed to protect her identity. The culture at Bida Manda was one of “radical vulnerability,” echoed Tricia Heath, another former employee. Former Brewery Bhavana manager Luisa Jaramillo, who resigned in the aftermath of the allegations, publicly stated in a 2018 podcast that “vulnerability” was one of the traits she looked for when hiring.
While it’s not uncommon for hospitality workers to forge strong ties as a result of the high-stress environment typical of restaurant life, the Nolinthas and their management team pushed a singular interpretation of staff camaraderie. Shift meetings went beyond the usual rundown of the evening’s menu or notes from managers; employees were encouraged to share personal stories and meaningful moments they had experienced with staff or customers, while behavioral issues or employee complaints could be discussed in front of the entire team, rather than handled privately. Emotional intimacy between employees was not only encouraged but expected. “It was very clear that I had to hang out with coworkers,” Heath said. “I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid or believe the hype, but I had to present as though I did.”
Romantic and sexual relationships between coworkers, which are common, though not necessarily endorsed in the restaurant industry, were ostensibly embraced. “I have never worked in an environment that has been so sexualized and has had that sexualization normalized,” Sarah Layden, a current Brewery Bhavana employee, told Eater.
The result of this emotional nakedness was more pernicious than nurturing to a tight-knit staff. Especially in the absence of a formal human resources department, numerous employees allege, it set them up to be manipulated and taken advantage of. “I believe that it was a way to control all of us,” Lisa said.
In fact, it was a common charge within Raleigh restaurant circles that employees of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana belonged to a “cult.” Multiple former employees now also describe their experience with that kind of language, and ascribe to Van the role of figurehead. “We said it ourselves and we were proud of it. We were saying it like it was a good thing,” said Zoe*, a former staff member. “We were rarely apart. There was so much spiritual language on a daily basis. There were rituals.
“Van was this sort of mystical leader whose stories and teachings captured the hearts of anyone who listened,” Zoe continued. “The company was an inseparable family whose values were entirely based on vulnerability and intimacy with one another, facilitated almost exclusively by leadership.”
“I can say that my family was genuinely concerned I may have joined a cult,” Melissa*, another former employee, told Eater. “If you made it into the inner circle, there was a bizarre sense of pride, and with that pride came isolation from my outside life. Looking back, I thought I simply made bad choices to fully throw myself into an organization that took so much from me, but I realize that the energy surrounding that restaurant, the status and power surrounding Van, sucked me in like a vacuum.”
A current employee, Carla*, was more pointed about Van’s role. “Looking back on it now, I felt completely groomed by Van,” she said.
The culmination of Bida Manda’s boundary-pushing culture, according to numerous current and former employees, was its annual retreats. They involved standard team-building exercises, but also practices like religious string-tying ceremonies and blessings by Buddhist monks, along with more psychologically invasive activities: At one retreat, employees were given the name of a fellow staff member and told to observe them closely throughout the weekend. Before heading home, each staffer publicly critiqued the person they had been told to follow, picking apart personality traits they had observed. At another, employees were broken up into smaller groups and told to pick one of the most traumatic experiences they’d had to share with their group. Tears were not uncommon during these exercises. “It’s what you do in a cult situation,” Heath said. “You break people down and then you reprogram them.”
The retreats were shot through with a bacchanalian streak; copious amounts of alcohol were provided to the staff. Former employee Rob Hall was 18 when he began working at Bida Manda as a host in 2016, and although he attended his first few retreats while still underage, he was allowed to drink. “I had to have a conversation promising to be responsible and not post about it,” he said.
Fueled by alcohol and encouraged by management to connect and be open with their fellow staff members, four different former employees told Eater that the retreats often turned sexual. Carla, the current employee, described them as a “fucking shitshow” and “incestuous.” She pointed out that whether they were at the beach or in the North Carolina mountains, the houses Van rented usually had fewer beds than staff attending the retreats, and that staff and management would end up sharing beds with one another.
The company’s boundary-blurring culture intersected with its “work hard, play hard” attitude in day-to-day life too, according to virtually every current and former employee who spoke with Eater, as staffers were strongly encouraged to socialize in boozy post-shift jaunts that began even before they had closed for the night. “‘Just one drink’ was a comical phrase used by all of us to convince members of this ‘family’ to meet up at Fox Liquor [Bar] or Capital Club after closing,” said Brian*, a former staff member. “We rarely had just one drink and usually ended the night dancing at the underground bar, Neptunes.”
Frequently leading these alcohol-soaked staff outings was Van, who urged his employees to drink together and bond. “He would come around with trays of shots for everyone,” Carla said. “We would roll pretty deep into Capital Club and Van would have a $300 tab for staff.”
Virtually every person that Eater spoke with said that they had witnessed some form of inappropriate behavior from Van, and that it occurred most often in the course of these late-night excursions or at staff parties, when his exhortations to employees to drink or engage in sexually charged contact would become insistent. At a party where a large group of staff had gathered after post-shift drinks, for instance, “Van was going around and pairing people up to make out,” Zoe claimed. “It seemed funny at the time. I don’t think he was ever really trying to set people up; he just really wanted people to be intimate with each other.”
Multiple former staffers say that Van initiated unwanted sexual contact with them or their partners at parties like these. Brian alleges that in 2017, at these after-hours get-togethers, “Van would make sexual advances toward me,” he said. “It primarily consisted of kissing and groping.
“I was drunk; I was vulnerable, having just come to terms with my sexuality; and I thought this was okay,” Brian said. “At the time I didn’t have a grasp on personal or professional boundaries. It never dawned on me that this was anything more than the reality of being gay, or ‘That’s Van’ — another phrase shared among fellow staff when we would talk about individual experiences.” (The phrase “That’s Van” came up in conversation with six separate employees, who described talking about Van’s behavior with other staff members or management.)
“I distinctly remember one night at Neptunes with my partner and a close friend,” Brian continued. “Van and a crew of Bida Manda staff were all dancing and innocently having a great time. Then Van started making advances toward my partner, encouraging him to remove his shirt. My partner wasn’t comfortable with this and refused to do so. Van proceeded to pour Tecate on him, hoping that would coax him into being complicit. It was then [that] our close friend intervened and shoved Van out the way, shaming him for not understanding the meaning of ‘no.’ We left Neptunes shortly after.”
Another former employee, whom Eater is calling Dave*, recalled a night out with Van in 2018 that was marked by a similar dynamic. During the course of the evening, Van “tried to force a drink down my throat,” he alleged. “It got to the point where he was pouring a drink onto my sealed lips. But it was the owner of the restaurant I was working at; I didn’t know what to say or what to do.”
On another night, when the restaurants closed early as a result of Hurricane Florence and numerous staffers wound up at the same party, Dave alleges that he saw a visibly intoxicated Van playfully groping another man and became uncomfortable. As he was getting ready to leave, Dave claims, Van approached him from behind and aggressively groped him through his pants. “It took me a while to realize that that was assault,” he said.
Numerous former and current employees said that Van treated Bida Manda as his living room, often showing up late at night with friends, apparently intoxicated. “I would hear from other male servers or employees that he would come in, off the clock, drunk,” Carla said. “They would come in and drink and verbally harass staff.”
An invitation to the restaurant after hours was a prelude to an inappropriate encounter, alleges former staffer Brandon Edwards. He said that as a 21-year-old employee, a simple flirtation with Van turned into suggestive texting, which escalated into an enticement to come to the restaurant. Instead, Edwards alleges, he was led to Van’s apartment, just steps away from the restaurant, where the two shared a kiss before Van pulled Edwards’s hand onto his groin. Edwards acknowledged being intoxicated at the time, but said, “I was 21, he was almost 30. He was my boss. It’s his responsibility to make sure things weren’t inappropriate.”
Ultimately, employees said, Van was an annihilator of personal and professional boundaries who operated under the guise of pursuing a more enlightened work culture. “Van was my boss and he made me feel as if my boundaries didn’t matter,” Brian said.
Van seems to have been aware of those boundaries, even as he chose not to pay attention to them. In a strikingly prescient 2014 Facebook exchange between Van and two Bida Manda employees, during which he suggested, among other things, a threesome between himself, an employee, and her boyfriend — and at one point changes the title of the group chat to “#hornyboss” — he noted, “If you guys were ever to hate me, my public life and career is gone! Haha crazy.”
While numerous former employees say that Van embodied Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana’s libidinous, norm-shattering culture, even more serious allegations have been leveled against another member of the restaurants’ leadership: beverage director Jordan Hester. Multiple current and former Bida Manda employees have alleged misconduct by Hester, including sexual assault and groping.
Additionally, multiple women allege that there was a lack of proper human-resource channels to address their complaints, and that they felt ignored or even abandoned by management. Former manager Luisa Jaramillo declined to answer specific questions, while neither Van nor former manager Whitney Wilson responded to multiple requests for comment. Vanvisa and Woodson told Eater in a statement that they only became aware of the allegations against Hester when the accusations were posted to social media in June.
In addition to Bida Manda staffers, multiple other women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct by Hester. Madison Roberts, a former girlfriend, alleged that Hester filmed her and at least two other women without consent during sex. Roberts, along with the other women, organized a social media campaign to draw attention to Hester’s alleged crimes, eventually filing a report with the Raleigh Police Department. In July, Hester turned himself in after a warrant was issued for his arrest; on November 20, he pleaded guilty to four felony peeping charges.
Hester did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Hester, a longtime figure in the Raleigh restaurant and bartending scene, was hired as a bar manager when Bida Manda opened, and went on to direct the beverage program at Brewery Bhavana when it opened five years later. An early employee and a core member of management, he assisted in planning the company retreats, helped implement the company culture envisioned by the Nolinthas, and was known to be Van’s close confidant.
The nature of Bida Manda’s culture meant that members of senior management, such as Van and Hester, were often seen in a reverential light, and Hester apparently used his power to full effect. Multiple former and current employees stressed to Eater that Hester’s control behind the bar was absolute, especially at Bida Manda. He hired inexperienced, younger women whom he could dominate to work alongside him. “Jordan told me I was the first guy he ever hired behind the bar,” said John*, a current employee. “He told me that guys were not willing to take direction, but that girls were.”
Hester also made comments that left other employees feeling uncomfortable, angry, or ashamed. “He spoke within earshot numerous times sexualizing me to other staff members and management — commenting on my appearance, my movements, and my attire,” Tricia Heath said. “He boasted to me innumerable times [about] his past conquests with other employees, his subordinates.” In the end, Heath said, “I left because of Jordan Hester.”
In December 2014, Hester began a relationship with Zoe, who had begun working at Bida Manda in an entry-level position earlier that year. “From the very beginning, the dynamics of our ‘relationship’ were entirely based on his dominance over me,” she said. “Even at work, he found pleasure in controlling me, like pushing me when no one was looking or spilling water down my back. I was already so transformed by the vulnerable and intimate mentality of the restaurant [that] his control and dominance kind of felt like the next step in my ‘journey’ to self discovery and healing. Or at least that’s the way Jordan pitched it.”
Zoe believes she was targeted by Hester because of her vulnerability; she said that she was struggling with substance abuse and mental illness at the time. The details of the relationship, which have been previously published in local news accounts, were disturbing enough that Heath confronted Hester upon learning of them. “I told him to his face I didn’t believe she could consent in her state,” she said. “He continued to relate explicit details about that sexual relationship after I made clear I objected to its existence and objected to having to endure hearing about it. To this day, I can’t think of that ‘relationship’ without crying.”
Zoe alleges that a member of management was made aware of the nature of their relationship, and other employees corroborated this. She said after their first encounter, Hester, afraid of the consequences, confessed what he had done to another manager. The manager in question did not reply to multiple requests for an interview. Vanvisa and Woodson, as part of their written answers to questions sent by Eater, denied ever being informed of the details of the relationship.
Like Van, much of Hester’s alleged misconduct occurred outside of the physical confines of the restaurants, during his participation in staff gatherings. In April 2017, to celebrate the opening of Brewery Bhavana, Van hosted the combined staff of the brewery and Bida Manda at his house for a potluck. Julie*, a former Bida Manda employee, said that she had a bit too much to drink and decided to sleep it off in her car when Hester knocked on her window and invited her to stay at his apartment instead. She was friends with him, and had stayed over at this apartment for tea and conversation many times before without incident. “I don’t remember getting back to [his] apartment. I don’t remember drinking tea,” she said. “The next thing I remember is waking up to him having sex with me.
“For a long time I thought of him as a friend and as a mentor,” Julie said. “I respected him and I trusted him.” As a result, she said, it took more than a year for her to realize the severity of what Hester had done to her, and she never reported it to police or the restaurant’s management. She left her position at Brewery Bhavana in the summer of 2018 and moved out of state.
Also in 2017, during a staff trip to the bartending industry event Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, former Bida Manda employee Nicole Bivins alleges that Hester “demanded I show him my breasts.” In the Instagram post publicizing her allegation, Bivins went on to allege that his behavior escalated, and in a separate incident, after a party at his apartment, he crawled into bed with her and began “grinding and grabbing my breasts” without her consent. “Like an animal of prey I froze,” she wrote, “stunned and helpless.” Bivins wrote that she did not report Hester because she felt guilted into silence, after which, as a result of his position in management, she was slowly “edged out of the restaurant entirely.”
“I never bothered to [report it] because I knew it was a waste of time,” Bivins told Eater. She then recounted how at one point she had a meeting with Whitney Wilson, who was managing Bida Manda at the time, and Van and Vanvisa to talk about what she characterized as Hester’s “behavior problems.” While the three allegedly acknowledged that her concerns were real, Bivins said Van told her, “He’s not going anywhere.”
Over the last two years, Hester had largely pulled back from day-to-day work at the restaurants, but his influence and his role in the company’s culture went beyond his own behavior. Shortly after the opening of Bida Manda, in 2012, Hester hired his brother Casey, who also worked his way up the company ranks, eventually becoming a front-of-house manager at Brewery Bhavana. Four women, all current or former employees, allege that Casey initiated violent sexual contact with them. Casey declined to respond to requests for an interview.
Jenna Calderone, a former Bida Manda employee, told Eater of an incident during a night out at a bar with Bida Manda staffers in early 2017, shortly after she turned 22. She alleges that after stepping away from the group with Casey, what started out as consensual kissing quickly turned violent. “At one point he pinned me up against the wall by my throat and ripped my shirt open,” she said. “I remember feeling physically sick the next day.”
Julie, the former employee who alleges that she was sexually assaulted by Jordan, also alleges that, a year earlier, what began as a consensual encounter after going home with his brother turned violent. “We were making out and then he pushed my head down towards his penis. He aggressively started choking me on his dick until I gagged and puked all over him.
“I didn’t realize how fucked up it was at that time that I actually apologized to him,” Julie said.
Carla, a current employee, alleges that Casey tried to force unwanted sexual contact during one of the company retreats in 2014. “I had chosen to share sleeping space in the dining room with my friend,” she said. “I was trying to fall asleep and laying to my side facing the right when I … realized that Casey was trying to lay next to me, to my left. Without saying a word, he immediately tried to grab my arm to force it on his crotch, and I resisted and clenched my fist and tried to move it away and did this back-and-forth for what felt like a minute.”
Melissa*, a former employee, alleges that she had a similar experience, in which Casey pushed himself on her and groped her “to the point where I had to shove him off of me with all of my might after he ignored the repetitive ‘No’s that I gave him.”
None of the women attempted to inform management of the allegations against Casey, because, as Carla put it, “I felt embarrassed about it and I [felt] like it was almost a normal environment for stuff like that to happen, therefore it wasn’t worth reporting or nothing would get done about it.”
“I have never told anyone this because I genuinely thought this was the name of the game,” Melissa said. “If you were going to work at Bida, you should expect someone to come on to you at some point.”
Vanvisa and Woodson did not respond to questions about whether they were aware of allegations against Casey Hester. When asked in July about his status with the company, a spokesperson from the restaurant’s crisis communications firm initially stated, “While nobody is technically employed at this time, during the furlough, we do not know if he will return to the management team.” By mid-August, he had resigned.
Jordan Hester was fired shortly after the allegations of sexual assault surfaced publicly. Following his arrest, he was indicted on the charges of illegally installing surveillance equipment. On November 20, he was sentenced to 60 months of probation and four nonconsecutive weekends of jail time, and was required to register as a sexual offender for 30 years.
At the sentencing hearing, which only pertained to Hester’s violation of the state’s Peeping Tom laws, both the judge and the district attorney made references to the numerous allegations stemming from his conduct while at Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana. Hester begged the court for lenience, specifically in regards to having to register as a sex offender. “I ask the court to please consider the impact on my son and planned future children if I am forced to register as a sex offender,” Hester said in the videotaped proceedings.
The judge, in denying Hester’s request, quoted the psychologist Hester’s own defense attorneys had hired. “When his own expert tells me that she would not want to be supervised by him,” Wake County Superior Court Judge A. Graham Shirley countered, “that he should not supervise women, I’m being told that he should not supervise 51.9 percent of the workforce in this state.”
In early June, as the allegations against Van and the Hester brothers spilled out into the open, employees were shocked and unsettled. For days, they received no communication from Van, Vanvisa, or Woodson, even as new allegations continued to appear on Instagram and Reddit. “My whole community, we are feeling the exact same things,” Sarah Layden, a current Bhavana employee, said at the time. “We are embarrassed. We are exposed. We have no answers other than what the public has.
“I feel so used. I feel so taken advantage of,” she continued, before breaking down and crying over the phone.
A week after the allegations surfaced, Van announced that he was leaving the restaurants, while Vanvisa and Woodson made a brief apology in which they stated they had no prior knowledge of any of the allegations made against either Van or Jordan Hester. They reiterated that denial to Eater over the summer, stating that they were never made aware of any alleged impropriety between management and staff, or among staff members. “No staff member ever came to me with concerns of this kind,” Vanvisa said.
But many people interviewed for this story expressed doubt that Vanvisa and Woodson were completely oblivious to what was allegedly happening. An unknown number of employees, including sources for this story, have retained an attorney. “The management team absolutely knew inappropriate things were happening, they were participating in inappropriate things, and they allowed each other to get away with it,” claimed former Bida Manda employee Nicole Bivins.
“I’ve expressed concerns to Patrick about management style and Van’s behavior,” Carla said. “I’ve also had personal talks with Patrick where he expressed concerns about Van.”
It does appear that Woodson, at least, was aware of Van’s behavior in some capacity by last fall. In a text message seen by Eater, Woodson responded to general concerns from an employee about Van’s behavior in part by replying, “I appreciate that. I have all the lawyers in place for the inevitable HR lawsuit against him.” (Woodson would not comment on the contents of the text message.)
Tricia Heath recalled that she and other employees expressed frustrations regarding Jordan Hester’s behavior and management style to Woodson around three years ago. “Right after all of the individual talks with Patrick about Jordan’s behavior,” she said, “a bar staff meeting was held and we were told that the only people we could discuss this with is the bar manager,” or Van if absolutely necessary. The bar manager, she said, was Hester.
On June 12, Vanvisa and Woodson sent an email to staff members announcing four measures that they would undertake before reopening. In addition to Van’s removal from the company, they planned to conduct a search for a new CEO, implement a “professional Human Resources function” and make “diversity / anti-harassment / implicit bias training for staff and managers a permanent and required part of our ongoing education.”
Employees expressed skepticism about the plan and the messaging around it. “It didn’t address the anger and disappointment staff had expressed in their emails to them pleading for answers and transparency,” Carla said. “We do not trust the third-party investigator, and it just feels like they didn’t address all of the sexual and racial misconduct seriously.”
A little over a month later, an email was sent to current staff noting that both restaurants were planning to open soon for curbside service, and that returning staff would need to be trained in new compliance and operations policies, including harassment and anti-bias training. The email also detailed plans to hire a new chief operating officer to oversee finance, human resources, and operations and to hire a new director of brewery operations.
Between the ongoing pandemic and the fallout from the allegations, Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana remained officially shuttered. But, like many restaurants, the company qualified for Paycheck Protection Program loans, and so in August, both establishments quietly reopened to meet the deadline for the program’s loan forgiveness. Five staffers were rehired to run the takeout program, including Rob Hall, who had been a server at Brewery Bhavana.
According to Hall, between the end of August and the first two weeks of September, the restaurants offered delivery service to select high-profile customers and friends of the Nolinthas, including Dr. Janice Odom (director of the Caldwell Fellows Program at North Carolina State University, from which Van graduated and recruited employees for the restaurants) and John Cooper, an influential Raleigh developer and close friend of Van’s; Cooper made public statements on Instagram and Facebook in support of the restaurants and referred to the allegations of abusive behavior and subsequent controversies as “unfair cancel culture.” (Neither Odom nor Cooper responded to requests for comment.)
Hall claims that during the few weeks he was back at work, neither Vanvisa nor Woodson directly addressed the allegations with employees. “I went ahead and went back in good faith. If I thought the company was 100 percent evil, I never would have gone back,” Hall said in a recent interview. “On the very first day, when we had a staff meeting I was hoping for at least one word addressing it. It was completely ignored.”
On September 8, in a since-deleted post, Brewery Bhavana announced on Instagram that it was planning to reopen and, while not directly addressing any of the of allegations leveled against Van or the Hester brothers, the post, signed by Vanvisa and Woodson, stated that “it has been a challenging few months” and “there is still a lot of work to be done, and as we begin, we recommit ourselves to operating a brewery and restaurant that supports our entire community.”
Three days later, the restaurants began offering to-go food to the wider public through Brewery Bhavana. A group of former employees and their supporters went to protest; they were met by a contingent of officers from the Raleigh Police Department, who stood in front of the restaurant. The protesters returned the following day, but the restaurant appeared to be closed.
“It killed something inside of me,” Hall said of going back to work and experiencing the lack of response from the restaurant’s upper management. “As soon as I finished the first shift of having to be there in the restaurant, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it anymore.” The day after the official reopening, he emailed his resignation and made a statement supporting the protests on his Instagram stories. “At this stage I personally want them to close,” Hall said. “There was a way back three months ago, and that was acknowledging what was happening publicly.”
A few days later, on September 17, Vanvisa and Woodson sent an email to staff members announcing their resignation and the appointment of a new CEO, Frederique Leonard, formerly the director of operations at the locally renowned Giorgios Restaurant Group. It read, in part, “Looking back, we see the missteps that led us to where we are today. Feelings of guilt, sadness, and anguish take over us every day. But we know that these feelings are nothing compared to what some of you are feeling. We know that apologizing will not fix anything. We could have done more. We could have been better. And for that, we are sorry and will forever feel shame.”
(In response to a list of questions from Eater, including whether Vanvisa and Woodson planned to divest themselves of their financial interest in the restaurants, a spokesperson sent this statement: “Right now our focus is on ensuring that we are effectively communicating internally with our staff and are answering any questions they may have in regards to the new changes.”)
Minutes later, staff received another email, this one from Van himself. “I know that nothing I say will make up for the pain that you feel,” he wrote. “While I know that it won’t change anything or take away any of the pain, it’s my humble hope that it will provide some clarity and offer my deepest apology to those that have been wronged and have felt hurt.
“I was scared to say the wrong thing,” he continued. “I was fearful that my words could be perceived as a performance or something that I just ‘had to do.’ I felt paralyzed and it kept me from apologizing and kept me from defending myself against the things that I did not do.”
Nicole Bivins, one of the first employees to go public, and who accused Jordan Hester of assaulting her, was not on the original email list for either of the notes; Van sent a copy of his note to her personally. In June, she had told Eater that the restaurant group “would have to completely clear house of their management team for me to want them to remain open.” In the wake of the departure of the entire founding management team, however, she says it’s still not enough. “Every person that left the restaurant, with the exception of Jordan, left of their own volition,” she said. “After three months of pressure, news coverage, pleading from survivors and the general public for them [to] simply take accountability … the fact that even up until [now] they really haven’t done that gives me zero hope.”
“We did everything that they taught us,” Sarah Layden, who still works at Brewery Bhavana, said. “Our hospitality was infectious. We supported one another. It’s such a shame that because of Van’s actions, and the power that he has and the entitlement he showed, that he has dragged us down with him.”