Bon Appetit Scandal: Lessons Learned

Bon Appetit Scandal: Lessons Learned

Written by Arabella Chen and Matthew S. Johnston

Social media is largely unregulated but there are certain unspoken rules among the masses that when tread upon, can generate highly undesirable consequences, especially for businesses. While no two cases are ever the same, the recent upset with a wildly popular YouTube cooking channel illustrates the power of an audience on the brand and future of a business.

This is the scandal of Bon Appetit’s Test Kitchen. To begin, let’s step back to May 2020.

Foodies will recognize Bon Appetit (BA) as a food-focused magazine brand under Conde Nast umbrella. Their crowning glory of BA was their extremely successful YouTube channel with over 6 million subscribers and the ability to reach an average of 1 to 3+ million views per video. The 13 chefs credited as the Test Kitchen were largely responsible for the popularity. Additionally, each of the chefs were also in positions such as associate editor, etc. for the magazine.

The signature Bon Appetit videos were casual, relying heavily on the personality of each chef, the chemistry and friendship they have with each other, handheld filming, and humorous observations made by the video editor. For a good taste of the style, check out the first 20 seconds in this video. Below is a publicity still of the Test Kitchen personalities and support personnel.

There are several mini-series within the channel that are associated with particular chefs. For example, Claire Saffitz (gray streaked hair, peach apron) runs Gourmet Makes where she tries to make gourmet bagel bites, twinkies, etc.

Pictured above: All 13 Test Kitchen chefs (Sohla El-Waylly is fourth from the left, red apron, dark hair), as well as editor in chief, Adam Rapoport (tall guy with gray hair wearing black, middle-ish), and some editors, video planners, etc.

It All Started on Social Media

Fans absolutely adored the camaraderie, the challenges between chefs (who can make the best latte art?), and the innovative and lighthearted way cooking was depicted. Bon Appetit’s Test Kitchen was a smash hit that only got more popular during the COVID-19 quarantine.

On June 8th, however, that fun, inclusive, and welcoming image fell apart. In order to understand the nuances of how and why, a timeline must be established. June 8th was in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Just like we tell our children, if you post it on the Internet it will last forever. Photos surfaced of BA’s editor in chief, Adam Rapoport, and his wife dressed up as Puerto Ricans for Halloween (see photo below). A massive public backlash ensued with several of the Test Kitchen staffers denouncing Rapoport on social media. Rapoport would resign almost immediately, but there was no way to close this particular Pandora’s box.

On June 10, Business Insider published a report based on interviews with 14 current and former staff, detailing the “toxic” workplace where staff of color were treated as inferior.

Chef Sohla El-Waylly wrote a post on Instagram suggesting that Bon Appetit/Conde Nast only paid the white chefs and editors for their video appearances. She wrote that she had been “pushed in front of the video as a display of diversity.” Fans and several Test Kitchen colleagues quickly rallied behind her. Her white colleagues publicly posted that they would no longer appear in any videos until BIPOC colleagues “receive equal pay and are fairly compensated for their appearances.”

A Conde Nast representative told outlets it was “untrue” that BIPOC staff were not being paid and that the company was dedicated to a “diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace”.

However, on the same day, offensive tweets from the vice president at Conde Nast, Matt Duckor, resurfaced. He previously oversaw the video content. The next day, Matt Duckor left Conde Nast.

National Labor Relations Act

So, Conde Nast dropped the ball big time here because the social media eruption revealed an even deeper problem that carried special legal significance. In a rush to contain the disaster on their hands, namely the toxic environment which Rapoport allegedly fostered, Conde Nast ran afoul of the rights of employees under the National Labor Relations Act. Rumors are that the Test Kitchen staffers all had a clause in their contract that prohibited the staffers from discussing their pay and compensation. Well, the NLRA Section 7 says that employees have a right to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment, including pay, or in the case of some of the Test Kitchen staff, the lack of pay. Furthermore, under Title VII law (anti-discrimination), it is nearly impossible for an employer to avoid liability for discriminatory behavior by a manager toward subordinates. By June 10 or 11, Conde Nast was not just in hot water, the water was boiling away.

Bon Appetit issued a public apology, stating “We have appropriated, co-opted, and Columbused them.” BA also declared to do better, to “better acknowledge, honor, and amplify BIPOC voices.”

But El-Waylly’s post was not the end of the story. On June 11th, Christina Chaey, an Asian staffer as part of the Test Kitchen, posted that, like Sohla El-Waylly, she never received a single dollar for any video or any merit-based promotion in her three years with Bon Apetit.

Over the next several days, many of the Test Kitchen personnel spoke up and apologized for not standing up for their BIPOC colleagues.

Conde Nast/BA’s apology was clearly not the end of the story, but BA started making what I would call rookie mistakes. It seems relatively apparent, admittedly in hindsight, that BA failed to address the publicly posted concerns. Rather than publicly announcing talks with the Test Kitchen staff, BA let the personalities control the narrative. When an employer has employees that have a direct connection with fans/customers, it is important to make sure that all employees are compensated fairly, have a discrimination-free and non-hostile workplace, have their concerns realistically addressed, and that everyone has training on how to present the best face for the company. This is not just a public relations imperative; it is a legal obligation. But Conde Nast/BA continued to shoot themselves in the foot.

On June 25, BA suspended Matt Hunziker, the extremely popular editor of the Test Kitchen videos. No official reason was released by BA, but Hunziker had posted a tweet on June 12th that said:

“Why would we hire someone who’s not racist when we could simply [checks industry handbook] uhh hire a racist and provide them with anti-racism training…”

His colleagues told Business Insider they believed he was suspended for being critical of Bon Appetit.

Legal interjection: In legal parlance, this looks like retaliation. Just as discrimination is a violation of Title VII, an employer who retaliates against an employee for reporting discrimination or participating in an investigation is in as much (if not more) trouble than the actual discrimination. So, while Hunziker’s tweet may not have been fully covered by Title VII’s anti-retaliation standard, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck—it is probably a duck. Hunziker’s colleagues are probably right, BA likely retaliated against Hunziker for supporting his colleagues. Even if not specifically covered by Title VII, Hunziker’s tweet falls under the protection of the National Labor Relations Act Section 7. Silencing Hunziker was a bad move and may still cost Conde Nast.

Back to Our Story.

On July 2nd, current and former employees revealed that BA used an algorithm to evaluate video pitches against past data. The result was that black celebrities like Lizzo were not brought in for video appearances. It also meant that Test Kitchen chefs of color were sidelined in favor of white chefs, who were given paying, lucrative assignments.

Legal Interjection: “Sniff, sniff, sniff…..” smell that? Yeah, that is what we in the legal field would call potential discrimination and worthy of a deep investigation. Not calling black celebrities is not the legal issue (but certainly not a good public image), not giving staffers of color paying opportunities in favor of white chefs is the issue.

The tumult peaked on August 6th when three members of the Test Kitchen, all of color, announced they were leaving after the renegotiated contracts offered by BA given still had them being paid significantly less than their white colleagues. One of them actually received a pay cut!

Legal Interjection: (KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK) that should be the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission knocking on Conde Nast’s door. The fact that this has not happened yet is surprising, but hey it is 2020 so……

Lessons Not Yet Learned

While we don’t know all the fact of the renegotiated contracts, it looks as though Conde Nast is not learning their lessons about dealing with staff of color. Depending on the facts and circumstances of offers, the public assessment might be one of discrimination.

August to October saw four white colleagues leave the Test Kitchen in support of the three and another staff of color announce her refusal to appear in any more videos.  Bon Appetit announced eight new chefs joining the publication, many of them in positions like executive editor and editor in chief and nearly all are of color.

The video hiatus ended on October 13th, with three new chefs in top positions explaining why they joined. The video garnered tens of thousands of dislikes and a couple thousand likes, a complete inverse of usual video trends.

New video views are nowhere close to the numbers before, now averaging in the hundred thousands instead of millions. Evidently fans are rallying by the chefs who left and have found new ventures since.

New Video Views:

Old Video Views:

The massive dislike from fans:

So Let’s Draw Some Lessons

The breakdown played out over the course of approximately five months and the social media storm rages the entire time. While BA’s legal problems are probably far from over, it is the social media storm all businesses dread and BA is now experiencing that has been their undoing.

Firstly, is that their entire brand rested on the personalities of the thirteen chefs, each beloved by fans. Chefs like Claire Saffitz and Brad Leone (watch the first 25 seconds for them) were insanely popular and recognizable instantly. The cast was diverse, prominently featuring chefs of different racial backgrounds and sexual orientations/genders. The failure of BA at the start was not the make-up of the Test Kitchen, but a failure to understand that the staff has a personal following that could be leveraged when the toxic nature of the workplace became known. BA could not sweep the matter under the rug.

Had the allegations of a hostile workplace not surfaced following almost immediately by allegations of pay differentials, BA might have been able to address the matter by terminating Rapoport and then discussing the matter publicly with the remaining personalities, both in private and in videos. But here is the fundamental failure:

It appears that BA’s basic employment practices were not fundamentally sound. So between the allegations of a toxic environment and unequal pay practices for the video production, it is important to separate a couple of pay issues here. As reported, many of the Test Kitchen staffers had different positions within the print side of Bon Appetit. Of course, different positions are going to be paid differently. However, if the staffers were doing essentially the same work on the Test Kitchen videos, they should have all been paid a similar amount (probably on a per video basis) or none of them should have been paid and the videos classified as an “other duty as assigned” part of their jobs.

In one way, BA may initially have been a victim of the societal concerns about racial inequality that were already on the forefront of minds because of BLM. Rapoport’s photos from his past struck a nerve at a time when sensitivities were high. That Rapoport was the editor-in-chief and apparently at least tolerated if not fostered a hostile workplace to staffers of color, the Business Insider report ensured that the scandal would be public and ugly.

Bon Appetit apologized, but it looked and to some felt like a non-apology apology. But their first Instagram apology might have done the trick even with the Business Insider interview and backlash. But BA’s suspension of Hunziker which was perceived as an attack on an ally and then the failed salary negotiations made the problem even worse. Staffers of color then leveraged their personal popularity and media following and posted that they were still being underpaid despite negotiating and trying to reach a middle point. Fans adored chefs, like Sohla and Priya, and hearing that the chefs of color were still being underpaid for doing similar work as their white counterparts was completely unacceptable (made worse by the racial tensions already present). Especially when they found new gigs on other cooking channels that paid them appropriately and broadcasted that.

Bon Appetit tried to mitigate damage. They sent representatives to all the news outlets reporting on the issue. But that public relations effort was a dismal failure.

Businesses rely on the personalities of their employees. Brands like BA and Conde Nast rely on social media personalities for marketing, in this case, the chefs. The Test Kitchen worked because the personalities of the chefs as individuals were appealing and drew fans in. Fans often trust these influencers wholeheartedly. The audience “knows” Sohla and have watched countless hours of her skills and personality. So nameless representatives speaking on behalf of the business denying accusations do nothing against the chef speaking out personally from their platforms and from personal experience. The denial sounds cold, clinical, and capitalistic. BA failed to take into account that with personal social media platforms, the members were able to tell their own narratives, which were more powerful and compelling than that issued by the brand. Businesses need to learn and understand that if they unleash their employees as brand ambassadors, those brand ambassadors, when authentic and when engaging, will develop a following that supersedes the business itself.

If a business fails to treat all staff the same and those staffers have a personal following, the business needs to understand that fairness and equality are not just legal obligations, but a public relations need.

By now, BA had lost ten out of the thirteen Test Kitchen members. That meant lost camaraderie (which was part of appeal of the channel), the end of a popular series, and each new video only served as a reminder of what happened because the staffers that left were conspicuously absent.

BA hired new chefs, mostly staffers of color. They replaced Rapoport and Duckor with women and staffers of color. The brand became even more diverse, surely that was correct?

Wrong. Fans slammed BA for their decisions.

Fans didn’t want new chefs. Comments are filled with people saying the original cast was already diverse, they just wanted equal pay and opportunities for all of them. Bon Appetit exacerbated their initial blunder by never addressing the pay inequity. This is the fundamental legal and public relations issue. The legal issues may not be resolved, but the pay inequality is the legal issue that may end up costing BA and Conde Nast dearly.

Their attempt to fix the issue through a more diverse staff of chefs failed to understand the true issue. The issue was not diversity, the issue was equality. The effort feels forced and awkward and ingenuine. It comes off as “I have black friends so I can’t possibly be racist.” A cringey “Look! Black chefs!” But fans just miss the old team and a look at the new numbers will show that the videos featuring old chefs have higher views (see Brad and Andy, second row in first photo with 842k views and Chris with 700k plus versus the 300k average from the videos with new chefs).

That being said, it is not the new chefs themselves that are the problem. Fans are completely okay with them. The problem is BA higher ups and the giant cover up they have tried to do by never issuing a sincere apology followed by results. They have only created a huge, awkward, elephant in the room.

BA is struggling against a fanbase that is disappointed and turned against them. This is evident in the way anything and everything is being picked at and compared to the old Test Kitchen. Before, BA could do no wrong in the eyes of their fans. Now, BA can do no right, despite trying to retain the core elements of their videos. Bon Appetit may be able to recover in the long run. But the brand of the original Test Kitchen, the alchemy of success that no one could put their finger on, the shininess of it all, is gone for good. Not because of some outside competitor, but because of one blunder after another made by the company itself on social media.

From a legal standpoint, BA has a host of problems:

  • There are apparent allegations of discrimination under Rapoport’s leadership. Because of Rapoport’s position, BA will not be able to effectively avoid liability. While BA might be able to settle claims of discrimination with specific staffers, the damage to the employment reputation has been damaged.
  • The pay inequities are going to haunt BA for a long time to come. In many situations, while an employee and employer can come to a settlement, some wage payment claims cannot be waived by the parties. BA could face claims from state agencies ranging from failure to pay for work, failure to pay minimum wage (depending on how long a staffer had to work to make a video), and other claims. BA could also be facing pay discrimination claims that could possibly be settled, but on at an expense.
  • Finally, when it comes to social media and employment policies, BA needs to spend a good long time examining their practices. Many of their policies appear to be non-existent or unenforced, both of which are horrible.

The overall lesson for businesses of all sizes from this saga are these: Make doubly sure that your employment practices are fundamentally sound. Make sure you are paying people the same for the same work, even if it involves paying additional money for important work. Businesses should spend lots of time working with their management and leaders to ensure that the workplace atmosphere is not festering and toxic.

The business fundamentals undid BA, not Rapoport’s Halloween photos.

About the Author

Arabella Chen graduated from Frederick High School where she spent four years on the Mock Trial team (with Matt Johnston as the attorney coach), sparking her interest in law. She is currently a junior studying biology at Duke University. However, given online school and no labs this semester, she decided to transfer her research skills and is now exploring the intersection and application of social media and the law. When not combing through journals or writing, Arabella can be found cooking (pesto pasta, anyone?) and riding horses around Frederick.