The hospitality brand’s founder is sticking around, but management has vowed to make change after ex-employees criticized the company over discriminatory practices
Nearly 20 years after founding the Drake Hotel, Jeff Stober is retiring as CEO.
The announcement comes amid a firestorm of charges levied by current and former employees and patrons about a culture of racism that permeates top-down throughout the company.
Stober wrote in a letter to Drake staff and obtained by NOW this week that “It is exactly the right time to promote the next generation of leaders at the Drake to move us forward with conviction and compassion.”
Stober has named Scott Hart, Ana Yuristy and Andy Sennin as the new executive team – a group that was already in place – and given them full autonomy to run Drake Hotel Properties, the company that includes the Drake Hotel. But Stober will remain with the company and its board of directors while overseeing a new addition to its flagship Queen West hotel.
According to Hart, the new chief operating officer, Stober’s retirement “has been in the works for some time” and that the plan was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it follows a tumultuous month for the hotel, restaurant, music, art and retail chain during which it has been criticized on social media as being a breeding ground for anti-Black racism and discrimination.
An empty gesture?
Last month, the Drake Hotel joined brands and accounts across Instagram on #BlackoutTuesday and posted a black square in support of the protests across the continent.
The post, which didn’t contain a caption or any hashtags, quickly filled with hundreds of comments from former employees describing dozens of incidents of racism and discriminatory practices involving BIPOC employees. Among them: tokenizing Black artists, suppressing concerts and events with Black audiences, holding back Black employees from management positions and allowing a culture of racist microagressions to proliferate across wings of the company.
Two days later, the Drake posted an apology on Instagram. “Clearly, as an organization we have failed some and we are deeply sorry,” the unsigned statement says.
The post outlines various initiatives the chain is taking, including creating an external board of advisors from the Black community, creating an internal diversity committee, initiating an internal audit of the organization and making sure Black people are represented in new hires. They also pledge to diversify cultural programming at the chain, and say they’ve made donations to Black Lives Matter, NIA Centre for the Arts, Black Legal Action Centre and Black Artists’ Network In Dialogue (BAND). (The amount was unspecified but in an email to NOW, the Drake confirms the donation was for $10,000, split between the four organizations.)
Comments quickly filled that post, too, with person after person calling the statement an empty gesture. Instead, they outlined, true accountability would require specific employment numbers, hiring benchmarks, staffing changes or direct communication from company leadership, especially Stober, who was absent from all of the messaging.
Over the past month, the conversation around the Drake has continued to swirl with repercussions still revealing themselves.
On June 11, the Polaris Music Prize, which has a long-standing relationship with the Drake Hotel – it’s where they host jury deliberations, events and gala after-parties – announced they will not be renewing their partnership.
“The stories of racist and discriminatory practices, specifically anti-Black racist behaviours are deeply troubling and do not align with the values that the Polaris Music Prize aims to uphold,” the Polaris Prize said in a statement. “Our hope is that the Drake is listening, so they can take the steps needed to make structural, concrete and sustained changes within their establishment(s).”
Since the two Instagram posts went up, NOW has spoken to many current and former employees about their experiences at the Drake, what kind of change they hope to see, and why they’re demanding accountability that lasts long beyond Blackout Tuesday.
A hotbed for culture?
Throughout the years, the Drake has positioned itself as not just a hotel but a “hotbed for culture” and “cultural community centre.” Art and music are a major part of the brand, and it’s hard to find creative people in the city who haven’t worked with the Drake in one capacity or another.
But despite its claims to reflect and represent the diversity of identities that exist in Toronto, many BIPOC people who’ve worked at the Drake say art from racialized people is often tokenized and not properly promoted.
Vidal Wu worked in marketing at the Drake in 2018 before being shifted into a programming role after a few months. One of his tasks, he says, was finding Black artists to work with. He wasn’t given a payment budget, however, and instead had to offer Drake gift cards (which the company calls “Red Cards”) as compensation.
He says the practice made him uncomfortable as a Black creative himself. “It’s a shitty position to be put in,” he says. “The only impression they’d have of me is the shitty guy who didn’t pay them.”
In the comments of the initial Instagram post, former music booker Iain MacNeil wrote that “The amount of times I was met with challenges on Black-focused programming during my years working for the Drake can’t even be put into words.” A handful of employees remember hearing specific instructions not to book too many events that were “too urban.” Others said they heard security openly say they thought rap music would bring in the “wrong crowd.”
Wu says events from organizations like Toronto Caribbean Carnival and Manifesto were often suppressed or refused. He calls it a “passive, institutional racism” that’s at odds with their public-facing image as a grassroots arts incubator aligned with the Queen West scene.
Christine Vu, who worked in marketing at the Drake until 2018, says there was a culture of “informal anti-Black policies.” For instance, she says she was often instructed not to post about events that would draw a Black crowd on social media or put up photos on Instagram “so they wouldn’t attract more Black people.”
Yvette Angela was the volunteer coordinator at Manifesto in 2018. While hip-hop-focused parties usually happen in the Drake’s Underground basement music venue, the youth-driven arts organization was throwing a party upstairs in the main lounge for its festival that year and the crowd was majority Black.
“The event was cut short without any notice,” she tells NOW. “It was well before the end time that was advertised, and the party was at its peak. It seemed as though the main security guard thought it was time to end the party although there was no trouble or rowdiness.”
Angela has worked and patrolled the door a number of times throughout the years, and she’s also gone to parties there. “I’ve seen much more strict/rude crowd control there over certain audiences than others,” she says. “I’ve witnessed the difference.”
Multiple former employees remember security guards holding Black patrons in line at the Drake while they let other patrons in, or turning Black people away at the door because they said they were at capacity and then letting in white people minutes later.
“There are absolutely no [such] mandated Drake policies, and there never have been,” says a spokesperson from the Drake. “However, it is clear to us now that there may have been incidents of unconscious bias historically. We are committed to improving as part of our diversity and sensitivity training.”
Many former and current employees as well as patrons have noticed a much greater diversity of programming at the Drake since the appointment of Chris Wilson in the newly created position head of music and culture last summer. He’s responsible for bringing in residencies like the global African DJ parties Kuruza and Hot Coco, Blank Canvas’s spoken-word night Dead Poets, residencies from artists like k-os and the 99s and many well-received one-off events.
The Drake credits Wilson for the diversification of their recent programming and says they intend to extend the reach of their “curatorial collaborations” to bring new voices to the table. They say they want to amplify diverse artists on their Instagram pages and in social media campaigns that focus on Drake artists, “frequently including up-and-coming Black artists.”
“We feel an immense responsibility here and are continuing to explore how we can be doing even more to use our platforms, particularly the Drake Underground, in a time where music venues are closing all around the city, to further amplify Black and diverse voices,” the Drake writes to NOW.
Wilson sees responsibility in his role at the Drake.
“The places I’ve chosen to take up space [in my career] are places I was initially denied and turned away from,” Wilson writes in a statement to NOW. “I’ve had many situations as a DJ where my Black friends couldn’t get into the club or where I was told not to play certain music because it was ‘too urban’ or ‘Sorry, we can’t host your event here because we don’t want that type of crowd in our space.’
“These types of stories have been experienced by all Black creatives across the city of Toronto – because we’ve all been there. For this very reason, I have committed myself to ensuring that Black creatives take up spaces previously denied to them and providing opportunities in which they are able express themselves freely and grow their craft, all while earning a profit. Not an easy feat in an industry and world centred around whiteness.”
Wilson says the problems at the Drake are bigger than the Drake: that the Toronto arts scene in general is predominantly controlled by white people.
“Without Black voices [in the Toronto arts scene], the programming is from the point of view of a white person who is depicting what they believe to be Black culture,” he says. “We need Black voices in these positions to showcase their point of view – the beauty of Black culture – so that we can be looked at as human.
“I truly hope that other institutions including the Drake give up their privilege by hiring more Black people in positions of programming and management and open up their spaces for more Black creatives.”
How diverse is the Drake?
“We believe in the culture we’ve built,” the Drake wrote in an Instagram comment on their initial black square post.
But when it comes to its head office and its workforce, “culture” means something different to people who’ve worked there than the image they put out.
The head office was not very diverse, agrees everyone interviewed for this piece. One former programmer said at the time they were there, the team of 15 they worked in had only one person of colour.
“There was a very strong culture of not seeing, a wilful ignorance at the expense of minorities,” says a former head office worker for the Drake General Store. “Many POC who work in the company have openly shared hesitation regarding even trying to move up in the company because the head office atmosphere is so clearly a space for one type of person who looks and acts a particular way.”
“During my time there, I witnessed many conscious gatekeeping attempts from the upper level staff when it came to hiring and promotions,” they continue. “Many times I would be suggesting a POC candidate for hire only to be met with the same ‘I don’t think they would be a good fit, culturally’ from HR or the directors.”
There was also a pattern of laying off Black employees abruptly and unceremoniously, former employees say. Some were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements on their way out.
Tyrel Olton was a fan of the Drake and was excited to work there when he started in 2018. He had been a waiter and bartender at other restaurants and applied to be a server, but was instead offered a support staff role. They told him he’d start there and then could eventually move up, but he found himself repeatedly passed over for the role. Looking around at the restaurant he worked in and at an adjacent Drake property, he noticed a pattern.
“All the servers and bartenders were white and all the support roles were filled primarily with people of colour.”
After two vacant jobs were filled by external candidates, he finally decided to leave. “Nothing was ever spelled out, but when you’re a Black person you get an inkling about the systems that prevent you from moving up or getting to another step,” he says, noting he’s still a fan of the Drake and its programming. “I’m sure the same things happen for women. You start to see the glass ceiling: this is it, this is all I’m going to get.”
From their last annual employee survey, the Drake says they’ve “identified the need to create a formal development program for support staff, to provide accelerated training to promote greater internal movement and promotions.” The program was planned to be developed and implemented by spring, they say, but COVID-19 has put it on pause.
The Drake behind the lens
Black employees and other people of colour working throughout the Drake organization are often asked to model for Drake photo shoots. According to employees, it’s often a clear ratio of Black people, people of colour and women asked to be in the photos. But these opportunities are rarely paid.
“Appearing in photo shoots is voluntary,” says the Drake spokesperson. “We make a conscious effort to showcase diversity in our marketing photography and social media channels, so we have historically approached staff from all backgrounds to ask if they are interested in participating. Some shoots have been paid, some were volunteer, some were paid in the form of gift cards. This approach will be updated accordingly.”
The photos presented a different view of the brand than many who’ve worked there have experienced.
“A lot of people look at the Drake and think it looks pretty diverse but that is not an accurate measure of diversity,” says Vu. “How long have those diverse faces been there, and how long will they be able to stay working under the Drake’s conditions and the environment they create and dictate? Of the diverse staff that they do have, why is a high percentage of those roles relegated to bussers or dishwashers? If they have Black cooks, how come we’ve never seen a Black chef de cuisine, considering how many restaurants they have? How come we rarely, if ever, see even a Black sous chef?”
The Drake declined to give specific employment numbers but says they’re working on improving diversity.
“Our head office is made up of many different ethnicities, sexual orientations and educational backgrounds,” says the spokesperson, declining to give any specific employment numbers. “We pride ourselves on being an equal opportunity employer, however, we want to do more.”
The company is currently under a hiring freeze due to the pandemic, but say they “see fairness and transparency in recruiting, advancement and development being key to our journey to embed a more inclusive culture within the workplace.”
Beyond the black box
The Drake has positioned itself as a leader of arts and culture in the city ever since Stober bought the hotel in the mid-2000s. It led the gentrification of Queen West and later expanded into a monolith, with restaurants and properties stretching throughout Toronto and elsewhere in the province. It’s a major player in art, music and hospitality and doesn’t shy away from defining itself as synonymous with them.
In certain ways, it stands in for similar cultures at other restaurants and music/art venues in the city. Many of the things the Drake is accused of are issues BIPOC people have dealt with in hospitality, at restaurants and throughout industries.
One current server says he’s faced a litany of racist microagressions since working at the Drake, but that those are something that every Black person unfortunately has to live with in hospitality and restaurants. He says he’s used to hearing from fellow servers and even managers that they don’t want to have to serve Black people in their sections – that Black people don’t tip or that the audiences who attend events like Kuruza are “obnoxious.” He says he often hears “blatantly racist and misogynistic” talk coming out of the mouths of high-spending regulars, too, but that the managers rarely stick up for the employees over the customers.
Olton says the same, recalling a time a customer tried to get his attention by pointing at him and saying “Hey, Black guy over there.’ “I immediately felt uncomfortable,” he says. “Why is this guy addressing me by the colour of my skin?” He told the manager, he says, but they didn’t do anything, while he had to “just keep working with a smile on my face” even though it made him uncomfortable.
Olton has worked at six different restaurants in Toronto where he was often the only Black person or one of a few, and he says he’s experienced similar racism at all of them, as have his friends in the industry.
“Big picture, it’s not easy to speak up for yourself in a situation like that,” he says. “You’re likely to either be ignored or be fired, so you have to either stick with what you have and persevere through it or be jobless until you find another job – where it’s likely to happen again. You learn to live with it, but that doesn’t mean it should be happening. You don’t want to be considered an outcast or be treated like one – especially at work. You don’t want to go to work and have to deal with racism.”
“Microagressions” is a word that came up often in interviews for this story, with many talking about pervasive coded language used to refer to Black people – words like “urban” and “ghetto.” Multiple employees say that also represents a pervasive institutional culture of racism that’s endemic across the whole company. And some say the tone is set from the top, by Stober.
Before his retirement this week, some interviewed for this story said Stober owes a public apology. Others said he should step down.
In a statement to NOW before his retirement announcement, Stober said he’s “deeply sorry to have let people down,” that he “won’t be delivering excuses” and takes responsibility “for not creating the protocols to effect change sooner” and “any unconscious biases that affected decision making.”
“It is now necessary to do a lot of catch-up because we didn’t make changes early enough,” he continued. “I own it on behalf of my company and vow to do way better moving forward.”
In his letter to employees this week, Stober says “fresh ideas and approaches are required for our brand to continue on with the innovative hospitality offerings that we have become globally known for.”
But questions remain about whether Stober’s retirement will actually represent change.
When the Drake was initially reached for this piece, they pledged to “integrate more inclusion into our recruiting, advancement and development processes moving forward” with a new diversity consultant to hold them accountable. But instead of injecting diversity at an executive level, this shakeup gives more power to the people who already had it – all three of whom are white.
Stober’s retirement came during a hiring freeze, so further hires could still be made down the line. There could be more changes to come. People will be watching carefully to see what the organization does next.
The recent controversy isn’t the first time the Drake has been called out by patrons and employees. Allegations started to come out during the #MeToo movement, and a specific incident between two patrons and security in 2017 led to the Drake holding training sessions with managers and putting new sexual violence and harassment prevention protocols in place.
People I’ve spoken to hope that this conversation around anti-Blackness lasts longer than that one did, for it not to just be a response to a trending topic. They are looking for the organization to make significant structural changes to how it hires employees and treats them at work, and that the company back stated commitments to diversity with hard numbers and transparency. They want Black patrons to feel welcome there and for their culture and not to be tokenized.
Ultimately, most agree that the Drake is a major cultural institution in Toronto and that it has the potential to be a real platform for Black and diverse voices. What they want is accountability, and for that accountability to exist outside the black box.
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