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A State Investigation Found ‘Severe’ Sexual Harassment at Former Minneapolis Restaurant Gandhi Mahal

An investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights explored allegations that were first reported on in 2020 

The exterior of a brick restaurant building with orange awnings, windows, and small tables and chairs out front.
Gandhi Mahal in Minneapolis, before the restaurant burned down in 2020.
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Justine Jones is the editor of Eater Twin Cities.

Former Minneapolis restaurant Gandhi Mahal made national headlines in May of 2020 when owner Ruhel Islam, upon learning that his restaurant was burning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, uttered a moving statement: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.” Long a local hub for community, sustainable food, and progressive politics, Gandhi Mahal became an international symbol of solidarity and justice, a voice affirming the value of human life over property.

But a few months later, a contradictory narrative emerged. Allegations of pervasive sexual harassment at the restaurant surfaced, reported by City Pages. They centered on the allegations of one particular employee, a female manager of Bengali heritage (though other employees also allege they were harassed), referred to with the pseudonym Ava. She had allegedly been harassed at the restaurant by a male manager during the summer of 2018. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights launched an investigation into the allegations, which found probable cause that Ava was subjected to severe, near-daily sexual harassment at the restaurant, retaliated against after she reported it, and eventually forced to resign because no action was taken to address it.

Though the investigation itself concluded in March of 2022, it didn’t surface publicly until this week, when Curry in a Hurry — Islam’s current restaurant — posted a statement from Islam on its social media accounts. The statement appears to have since been deleted from Facebook, but is available on Instagram.

The MDHR’s report on the investigation is redacted, and does not explicitly name the harasser. But it describes the harassment in detail. According to the report, the harasser tracked Ava’s whereabouts within the restaurant, informing her subordinates how much time she’d spent in the restroom. He made frequent comments to Ava about her body and the sexual acts he wanted to do with her, and spoke crudely about her to others, once telling a person (whose name was redacted) he wanted to “share” her with them.

The report also found that the harasser manipulated the restaurant’s security cameras. He positioned a camera in the basement so it aimed at peoples’ buttocks as they bent to retrieve liquor bottles, and positioned another camera at the till so it focused on peoples’ chests, taking photos of the camera monitor when Ava’s chest appeared. When the cameras were moved — at the recommendation of a person the report describes as a “feminist third party,” who had been brought to a staff meeting — he became angry, blocking the area near the till and telling another employee to not allow Ava around the counter. The report noted that he often drank, and described his behavior as “intimidating” and “volatile.”

The harassment happened nearly daily for at least four months, according to the MDHR’s report. Ava made repeated verbal complaints — “sometimes tearfully” — to Gandhi Mahal’s senior leadership. Several other employees also spoke up, according to the report, asking that Ava be protected. “The decision by management and ownership alike was to ignore [Ava’s] complaints,” the report reads. “Respondent [Gandhi Mahal] decided to permit a pervasive sexually hostile environment to continue.” Once, after the harasser became so aggressive that Ava had to be escorted out of the restaurant because she felt physically unsafe, she was told she was “on her own” by another employee.

“Evidence conclusively showed that [redacted] was at all times treated by [redacted] as an untouchable high-ranking executive over whom no one had any supervisory authority,” the report reads.

After reporting the harassment, Ava was eventually told to go “on leave,” though she continued to work from home, according to the report. The MDHR determined that the decision to place her on leave was retaliatory. Furthermore, when Ava contemplated returning to work at the restaurant, she was given no assurance that the harassment would stop, the report notes. The MDHR determined that this — the choice between returning to a workplace where her safety was threatened or quitting — amounted to a forced resignation. Both this “reprisal” and “constructive discharge” are in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, the report notes, as is the sexual harassment itself.

The report also notes that shortly after Ava quit, an email was sent to staff soliciting formal, written sexual harassment complaints, so that a third-party investigator could be hired. “However, no one filed a written complaint because [redacted] would not tell them who would do the investigation and they did not feel protected if they put something in writing about [redacted],” the report reads. Several staff members, frustrated with the lack of action, quit.

Ava declined to comment on the results of the investigation. Islam did not respond to requests for comment. His statement, posted on Instagram, reads “Gandhi Mahal accepts the Department’s findings and recognizes the work that needs to be done to hold ourselves accountable and to be the change we want to see in ourselves and our community. … I apologize that Gandhi Mahal did not live up to its standards and for the significant distress and pain to [Ava] and others. I learned that we must emphasize more effectively training our employees on non-discrimination and anti-harassment practices, ensure we promptly respond to and investigate reports of discrimination and harassment, and prioritize taking appropriate remedial action to protect our employees.”

In a previous statement made to Eater in 2021, Islam denied the allegations, saying he expected the investigation’s results to “fully exonerate us” and that Gandhi Mahal remained committed to justice “in the face of unsubstantiated allegations and distortions that have hurt us deeply.”