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Local

Boulevard leaders knew of sexual harassment but didn’t stop it. ‘They were all aware’

By the time she called Kansas City police to report sexual assaults, Hannah McEldowney felt she had exhausted her options at Boulevard Brewing Company.

She had already gone to human resources four or five times to complain about a male coworker who showered her with old Boulevard memorabilia, beers and his own T-shirt he asked her to wear to bed.

As he texted her incessantly, McEldowney grew increasingly uncomfortable with the man, a mainstay of the operation since its earliest days. To many of the women at Boulevard, he was widely known for trying to pursue inappropriate relationships with young women.

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Over the course of 2018, she said he sexually assaulted her twice. And she reported him to the company.

“They were all aware of what was going on,” she told The Star in an interview.

McEldowney’s story was one of two last week that rocked Boulevard, the brewery that has grown from startup to Kansas City icon over the last three decades. The two stories unleashed accusations from numerous current and former employees that the brewery was not welcoming to women.

Claims of harassment first surfaced last weekend in a Reddit post authored by one of McEldowney’s former coworkers, who left the brewery 10 months ago.

The fallout was swift. Longtime executive and president Jeff Krum resigned along with two other high-ranking employees. Founder John McDonald on Thursday vowed to fix things as he temporarily took control of the operation. But a statement cosigned by multiple employees Wednesday said the company’s reputation was “severely tarnished.”

A treasured Kansas City institution, Boulevard has demanded a fierce devotion — and sometimes blind loyalty — from the employees who brew, bottle and sell its beer.

Sixteen former and current Boulevard employees interviewed by The Star said an intense and insular culture helped to breed a toxic workplace that is especially unsafe for women — ranging from a “boys’ club” atmosphere to gender discrimination to sexual harassment and assault.

And it was no secret.

Boulevard employees recalled widely-known stories of harassment, particularly from a few high-ranking employees. Even when the women they victimized reported them, they remained in power.

Even McDonald, who came back last week to lead the company in its time of crisis, acknowledged hearing reports in the past but not acting on them.

“Now that I look back, I should have, you know,” McDonald said. “I should have.”

Behavior was well known

The man McEldowney said assaulted her was notorious among the women of Boulevard.

But he was one of the longest-tenured employees. The brewery named a beer for him. And even when he was forced out in spring 2019, Krum invited employees to the Beer Hall to toast him.

McEldowney did not publicly name the man who harassed her. But interviews with other current and former Boulevard employees, a police report and company emails show the man was Harold “Trip” Hogue, who had a history of targeting young women in the workplace.

“This is a pattern with younger women,” said Keke Gibb, who wrote the Reddit post that set off the avalanche of accusations against the company.

Gibb said Hogue had a habit of inviting young women to his home, and he gave gifts and tried to hug or touch others. Firing him, she said, was seemingly never on the table to management.

His behavior was blatant and disturbed male employees of the brewery, too, several told The Star.

Krum last week said Hogue was “terminated” but was permitted to couch his departure as a retirement “in deference to the fact he worked there for 29 years.”

“And this was a judgment call that maybe was wrong,” Krum told staffers in a virtual meeting.

None of that was reflected in his 2019 email to “fellow Boulevardians” announcing a retirement party for Hogue.

He invited the staff to raise a toast to Hogue, who he said was “moving on from Boulevard to a well-deserved retirement.”

By then, McEldowney had already quit.

McEldowney, 27, shared her story with The Kansas City Star last week and on public social media posts.

When McEldowney was hired as a bartender at the new Beer Hall in 2016, the man, whom others identified as Hogue, was friendly. She even viewed him as a mentor.

She now views his actions as classic predatory grooming. But at the time, she was continually assured that the man, portrayed as an eccentric character, was harmless.

“They were like this is just what he does,” she said. “He just gets along better with women.”

Boulevard Brewing Company opened its 20,000-square-foot visitor center and Beer Hall in 2016 at 2534 Madison Ave. Joyce Smith jsmith@kcstar.com

McEldowney went to Chelsea Bosak, the human resources director at the time. But she said the company’s response was limited: he was told to stop communicating with her and to stay away from the Beer Hall where McEldowney worked. Leaders even moved a retirement party for a different employee away from the Beer Hall to avoid the two crossing paths.

But that safeguard wasn’t always honored.

McEldowney wrote to Bosak in December 2018 after seeing him at an employee lunch. The HR leader said she was “sorry that you were uncomfortable,” but said some encounters were inevitable.

“I understand it may be uncomfortable to see him, but seeing as you both work here, that is going to happen from time to time,” the HR director wrote in an email.

This was after McEldowney reported the male employee multiple times.

McEldowney did not want to discuss specifics of two of the man’s most egregious advances, which she reported to the Kansas City Police Department.

She did not press charges, according to a 2018 police report.

One of those complaints involved unwanted physical contact from the man at Boulevard’s Tours & Recreation Center. Another detailed an alleged sexual assault at the man’s Midtown Kansas City home, where he occasionally hosted coworkers for dinner or drinks.

Hogue did not answer requests for comment by The Star about the accusations.

Bosak, the former human resources director, said she did “great things” while she was at Boulevard before she left in December.

“(B)ut, to the women who feel that they were not protected, I am sorry,” Bosak said. “I carry the failure of not being able to influence action when action needed to be taken.”

The original accusation

Current and former Boulevard employees began speaking out online — mostly anonymously on Reddit — after Gibb’s post about being harassed while pregnant went viral.

Gibb, a microbiologist, started at Boulevard in 2018. A woman in a male-dominated line of work, she said she was blunt. But for the most part, she got along with the other employees in production there.

In the fall of 2019, she learned she was pregnant. Only a week later, before she and her husband had even told family members or close friends, one of her coworkers entered the lab and asked if she was pregnant. She said she was taken aback and didn’t reply.

That coworker asked, she said, because he had a medical condition that he had been warned — perhaps inaccurately — might be harmful to pregnant women. Then, her boss called her over and asked the same of her and the other female lab worker.

At first, Gibb said she just stared at him. After asking a couple of times, he got agitated and told her coworker, “the only way you could be pregnant is by your cat.”

“And then he turned back to me and is like, ‘Are you pregnant? This isn’t an issue unless you’re pregnant,’” she said. “And I just, like, literally turned around and walked out. And I tried to go to HR, but I started crying. So I hid in the bathroom and called HR.”

She said she sat her boss down, told him about the pregnancy and he seemed to understand why she was upset. But it began a cycle of reporting bad behavior to HR, followed by passive-aggressive retaliation from her boss. Her relationship with the team soured.

She left for a new job in March.

She said she was honest with those who asked about why she was leaving Boulevard. But she feared retaliation if she spoke up.

“If you ever want to work in the beer industry,” Gibbs said, “you can’t talk about abuses in the beer industry.”

A flight of beers from Boulevard Brewing Company’s is shown in this file photo taken at the Kansas City company’s Beer Hall. David Eulitt tljungblad@kcstar.com

The response

Boulevard president Krum struck a defiant tone on a virtual meeting with staff.

Coming off a weekend during which the company came under the glare of social media allegations of unchecked harassment, Krum told employees on Monday “my gut response to this is, frankly, is anger.”

“So fundamentally it’s, I guess, a mark of the times we live in that people can say virtually anything and that the person or the business about whom they say it is deemed to be guilty until proven innocent,” Krum said, according to a recording of the conversation that was obtained by The Star. “And of course it’s very difficult to prove your innocence.”

Krum was clear, however.

“I will tell you though that as a company, as an organization, I can say with certainty that we have nothing to be ashamed of,” Krum said.

That view was reflected in a statement that Boulevard released to the public on Monday, prior to the internal staff meeting. The statement said Boulevard “independently and impartially” examined the original allegation by Gibb and concluded that no harassment or discrimination had occurred.

“We are not perfect, but we have not, and we will not, tolerate harassment, mistreatment, or prejudice in any form,” the statement said.

The statement was widely panned on social media for being tone deaf, defensive and downplaying the nature of the charge made against Boulevard.

It also played poorly among some staff.

In the recorded employee meeting, Natalie Gershon, the now former vice president of marketing, defended the message the statement carried, saying it was “truthful, honest and action-oriented.”

“It isn’t corporate PR bullshit,” Gershon said. “But there’s no version of a statement that someone is going to assume isn’t, truthfully.”

Two days later she announced she was leaving the company, however, and in a statement on Facebook she said, “The words of the company were not my words” while adding she was “kept in the dark” and offered truths from a “seemingly endless bucket of lies.”

Gershon again distanced herself from the company’s initial response but defended her previous support of it in two emails to The Star on Friday. She said at the time, she believed the statement was “truthful, honest and action-oriented,” but she also explained her tone on the recorded call by saying she was “emotional, exhausted and still at odds with the words that were chosen.”

She said she didn’t immediately resign her post because she thought she could work through the issue and that it would be noticed if Boulevard’s only woman in executive leadership resigned. Over the course of the day Monday, she said she learned more about the allegations and dozens of employees worked on a better response.

“Those who truly know me, who were working closely with me to try to do the right thing, know I had only the best intentions in mind,” Gershon said.

Krum told The Star on Friday that Gershon was accomplished and he was saddened to learn she was “pushed out,” adding that she had nothing to do with human resources issues “but was deemed too abrasive and demanding.”

On the recorded call, one employee spoke up and said they had already heard from a retailer that planned to pull Boulevard products from their shelves. Another said that the timing of the company’s recent decision to post a job opening for a human resources director looked “fishy.”

Even so, Krum stuck by the company and its response.

“I struggle with the feeling that the sky is falling and it certainly can feel that way, but we need to remember that haters are gonna hate,” Krum said as he wrapped up the staff call. “And we have done nothing to be ashamed of and we have a strong reputation that was well-earned over a long time and we’ll get through this together.”

The sentiment didn’t last.

By Tuesday, as public pressure mounted against Boulevard, it reversed course and issued a second statement that apologized, acknowledging that it had heard of additional accounts that “have shaken us to our core” and pledged to hire a third-party human resources firm to investigate harassment in the company.

The statement said it parted ways with an executive — unnamed in the statement but confirmed to be chief financial officer Matthew Szymanski — and would take a renewed look at human resources policies and procedures. Szymanski has not responded to a request for comment.

“It has become undeniably clear that harassment did in fact occur, clear that we have issues — serious issues that we have failed to address,” the statement said.

Krum said it became apparent he did not have a full picture of all the events.

“I sincerely hope the independent investigation of this matter will reveal the whole truth,” he said.

Even with Boulevard taking a conciliatory public stance, Krum would not make it through the end of the week.

On Wednesday afternoon, shortly after 3 p.m., he sent an email to staff informing them that after more than 25 years with Boulevard — more than four as its top executive — he was resigning.

In a statement to The Star on Friday, Krum said he was “intensely focused” in his pursuit of success in a competitive business and could be demanding. But he said he attempted to maintain a collegial atmosphere and treat people with kindness and respect.

“The fact that some feel otherwise is a deep personal disappointment,” Krum said, “and a clear failure of leadership.”

McDonald said in an email to The Star that Krum had a “fairly direct approach” to leadership, was not always diplomatic and could be “tough to work for.” He added that many people at Boulevard liked Krum, and that Krum loved the company.

“He has done a lot of good for a lot of people,” McDonald wrote. “But he made some mistakes. That is clear.”

Krum left a company in turmoil. The brewery’s Beer Hall closed two days last week as staff weathered the crisis. Boulevard planned to brew a beer in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, but executives haven’t decided whether they will still do so. Collaborations with other breweries are on hold.

Bobby Dykstra, vice president of sales, wouldn’t say whether retailers and distributors had canceled contracts.

In the wake of Krum’s departure, McDonald said Boulevard’s first statement — casting doubt on the veracity of Gibb’s claims while also saying the company had more work to do — was no longer the brewery’s position.

“Oh no. I mean, we have serious work to do here,” McDonald said on Thursday. “We have many failures.”

Krum told The Star that it’s a different world than the one he knew for most of his life.

“The rules have changed. There is now just one side to every story. Those who resist or who do not conform are scorned, and personally destroyed for good measure,” Krum said. “For a variety of reasons, it was time for me to go.”

Jeff Krum, president of Boulevard Brewing Company, resigned Jan. 27, 2021 as claims of sexual harassment at the brewery became public. Boulevard Brewing

‘A toxic environment’

After graduate school, Hannah Ballard considered herself lucky to land a job at Boulevard in 2016.

“It was the dream place to work,” she said.

Employees were drawn by the brand’s reputation in Kansas City. And they were proud to work at one of the largest craft breweries in the country.

Ballard felt that way at first. But not for long.

“From day one, there was definitely what I’ve come now to think of as — and this is a harsh word — but kind of a cult-like vibe,” she said. “It was different than every other place I’ve ever worked. And I was wrapped up in thinking that was a positive thing.”

She gave tours of the factory and said she endured harassment from customers. The brewery was supposed to foster a fun, casual environment. And management valued the customer experience — and dollar — above all else, she said.

“Your job was to take it,” said Ballard, 32, who now works at a New Mexico nonprofit.

She said leaders frequently described the workforce as a family. She found it endearing at the time.

“But I think that is kind of a tactical move,” she said, “because when someone’s family, you keep secrets.”

Jessi Levine was warned before she accepted a job as a brand manager at the brewery: Boulevard was a toxic environment for creative workers like herself.

She took the job anyway.

But fear ruled the place.

She was fired in May; she said it came without warning. Levine said she was told she wasn’t passionate enough about the brand.

After leaving, she heard from someone interested in applying at Boulevard. She offered a similar warning to the one she received.

“If I were you I would run in another direction,” Levine said she replied. “I was very clear and I don’t believe I’ve ever said that about any company I’ve worked for. And I’ve worked in a lot of places.”

She went on: “Doesn’t value your ideas, your time, who you are as a person, your need for a work-life balance and your need to be heard as a human being.”

Obvious failures

Like many startups, HR wasn’t a top priority in Boulevard’s earliest days.

But Boulevard is no longer a startup: parent company Duvel Moortgat USA is the nation’s fifth-largest craft brewer, producing more beer than well-known brands like Abita, Deschutes and SweetWater.

And in retrospect, Boulevard’s founder seemed baffled that the company never built out a “modern” human resources department with safeguards and reporting systems for employees.

Bosak said she was Boulevard’s first dedicated HR person when the company hired her six years ago and tried to support employees while also protecting the interests of the business.

“Regardless of my efforts, in some pockets of the business, there was an unwillingness to correct poor management behaviors and grow,” she said in a statement.

McDonald said in an email that with respect to HR, “There were obvious failures.”

The wider beer business is notoriously male-dominated.

Amber Ayres, Boulevard’s director of tours and recreation, said in an interview that the company has worked to increase the number of female employees across the organization since she arrived nine years ago.

The company employs 209 people, including 75 women.

Up until last week, Ayres said she was proud of the gains women had made inside the company. But she said her thinking has evolved.

“That still wasn’t enough, like there’s still work to do, there’s still more to be done, and that’s OK,” she said.

Boulevard Brewing Company. Chris Ochsner cochsner@kcstar.com

When Elizabeth Belden transitioned to a full-time position there in 2006, the staff was one-third the size it is now. Often, the company was described as a “family,” which now Belden regards as a “red flag for exploitation.”

“But at the time it really did feel like everyone knew each other,” she said.

She said the culture changed over her 10 years, and that “family” label started to feel grating.

“It’s like, OK, this is lip service,” Belden said. “You’re saying we’re a family so people on the outside think this, but this is not how we’re being treated.”

Belden, now a brewer at Kansas City Bier Company, is on good terms with her old Boulevard colleagues, which is virtually a requirement in craft brewing. Even for employees who have left the company for other breweries, Boulevard looms large.

There’s camaraderie between brewers from different labels. Larger operations might lend their equipment or advice. Belden said Bier Co. needed help testing the alcohol content of a brew recently.

Belden struggled with whether she’d recommend a job at Boulevard if another woman asked her.

“My experience was that it was kind of hard to fit in because there were so few — like, I was the only woman in production for years,” she said. “And I didn’t really feel like I fit in with, like, the office ladies because ... we were in such completely different worlds.”

Though she said she didn’t experience or directly witness anything she would characterize as sexual harassment, she said Boulevard has a culture of paying little attention when employees raise concerns. At times, it felt like leaders in the company weren’t equipped for their jobs.

“It could be very toxic,” said Ashley Cox, who worked in Boulevard’s marketing department for nearly two years.

After leaving in 2019, she said she learned that a man who previously occupied her position earned $20,000 more than her.

While she was at Boulevard, Cox enjoyed most of her coworkers. But when her team tried to communicate concerns to the human resources director, they got little action.

“Her solution was to have a beer with them, sit down with a person who was disrespecting you, figure it out yourself,” Cox said. “HR was not there for me. They were there for the leadership team — to filter gossip back to them.”

At times, Cox said she and other employees considered contacting Boulevard’s parent company, Belgium-based Duvel Moortgat NV. But it was clear that Krum ruled the day-to-day operations.

“It’s Jeff’s show,” she said. “I never got the impression that Belgium was super aware of what was going on. We always made the joke that we were their cute American side project.”

Founder returns

John McDonald didn’t imagine he would go back to running day-to-day operations of the brewery he founded in a warehouse in 1989.

“Whatever it takes to get us back on track,” he said.

McDonald said Boulevard’s European parent company had played a role in responding to events of the last week. And Michel Moortgat, CEO of Duvel Moortgat NV, plans to come to Kansas City as soon as possible, he said.

No one has shaped Boulevard as much as McDonald. His story is celebrated at the beginning of each plant tour. And employees still talk of better days when he was at the helm.

Asked whether he was the right person to turn things around, McDonald didn’t hesitate.

“I’m as upset as everyone else,” he said. “I mean this kills me.”

John McDonald, founder of Boulevard Brewing Company, in a 2009 file photo.

The founder, now 67, acknowledged serious failings. But he didn’t want to believe his brewery had a systemic cultural problem. And he views the accusations against Boulevard employees as “isolated issues.”

“That, I hope, is what it is,” McDonald said. “But, you know, until we do the HR discovery work, we don’t know the extent of it.”

Abby Zender, a beverage scientist in Boulevard’s lab, said she was encouraged by last week’s leadership changes. She said she previously experienced sexual harassment at Boulevard.

Going forward, she said the company needs to commit to a lasting change to ensure employees feel safe and heard at work.

“I think it’s important that people know we’re still working on this,” said Zender, 29. “I don’t think any Boulevardians think that just because those three people are gone, that we’re done working to improve.

“We have to set an example.”

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