A former server at World of Beer in West Hartford, who presented a bottle of Yellow Belly beer covered in a white hood to two patrons in July 2020, has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit.
By Ted Glanzer
The former World of Beer server who was fired over the summer after presenting a beer with a KKK-like hood covering to two patrons, one of whom was Black, is filing a lawsuit against the Blue Back Square bar and restaurant.
In a one-count, seven-page complaint that was filed in Superior Court in Hartford on Dec. 1, Nathan Thaller claims his employment with World of Beer was terminated after he raised concerns with WoB’s assistant manager about offering the beer – particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that was roiling the country at the time – and, that the restaurant’s staff should be educated or trained about the beer to provide proper context to patrons should the beer continued to be stocked.
The lawsuit says Thaller spoke out “as a citizen on a matter of public concern” by questioning the restaurant carrying the beer and that World of Beer violated a Connecticut law that protects employees’ free speech rights under the constitution.
The lawsuit seeks, among other things, unspecified damages including backpay or reinstatement, punitive damages and attorneys fees.
World of Beer rewards program
Thaller couldn’t have known that he would draw international attention to World of Beer in West Hartford, or that he would subsequently be fired, when he pulled the beer from a cooler in mid-July.
The complaint says at that time the Black Lives Matter movement was at the forefront of the nation’s conscience after the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
The killing, according to the complaint, “resulted in a national dialogue concerning … the historic oppression of African-American males and the role of police departments nationwide in such oppression, as well the use of excessive force generally by police officers, and the proper role of police in society.”
Against that backdrop, on July 12 (the lawsuit alleges July 17, but Thaller’s attorney Michael Reilly said that is likely a mistake), two patrons, one Black and one white, went to World of Beer for dinner and, as members of the restaurant’s rewards program that awards points to participants who try new beers, asked to see a bottle of Yellow Belly beer, which they had not sampled before.
Yellow Belly is brewed in Sweden by Omnipollo, which was founded by Black man named Henok Fentie.
The beer bottle is covered in a white wrap with two black dots for eyes, a design that resembles the white hood of the infamous hate group the Ku Klux Klan. The idea for the beer, according to Fentie, who said in a statement he was the target of racism when he was a child, was to equate racists with cowards by calling them yellow bellies. (The brewer, according to reports, ceased making the beer in 2018 after a trademark dispute over Yellow Belly.)
The bottle, the complaint says, also has a label that states, “One of the most cowardly deeds is to act anonymously, hiding behind a group. A signifying trait of institutionalized racism. This beer is brewed to celebrate all things new, open minded and progressive. … Taste, enjoy, and don’t be prejudiced.”
The two patrons, after viewing the $40 beer, declined it, according to the complaint. The two subsequently ate their meal and left the establishment.
At no time, the complaint says, did either of the two patrons have any questions or comments about the beer, its appearance or otherwise, other than its price.
The Black patron’s wife subsequently wrote a post on Facebook about her husband’s experience at World of Beer, criticizing Thaller for serving her husband the beer and World of Beer for even offering it.
“This KKK bottle was brought over without warning about its appearance,” the wife wrote on Facebook. “Later that night, I spoke to Jordan, one of the managers, about how insensitive, disgraceful, and horrifying it is to serve a Klansman bottle of beer regardless of the intended message. While he listened politely, there was no grasp of the magnitude of this tone deaf decision nor an apology. I gave him my husband’s name and number and stated we expected to hear from them. We have not heard a word from World of Beer. I am beyond disappointed and disgusted with the company.”
That Facebook post, which garnered more than 300 comments, was picked up by the media and the incident drew the attention of local, national, and international media, the lawsuit says.
Thaller, for his part, went to management on July 13 and said World of Beer should either cease carrying Yellow Belly or at least provide training to the entire staff to provide proper context for patrons who order it, the complaint says.
Thaller added this was particularly important considering the BLM movement that had gained momentum throughout the country.
“My client went to management when it became an issue and told them you didn’t educate me or any of us about this beer other than carrying it,” Thaller’s attorney, Michael Reilly, said in an interview. “He said, ‘If we’re going to bring this beer out to a table and it’s going to cause issues like this, there should be learning and education around it so we’re not presenting it out of context so people won’t take offense to a seemingly racist issue.’”
Fentie, of Omnipollo, posted a statement about the beer on Instagram on July 15. That post, which can be seen in the screenshots below, received 8,851 likes to date, and generated 361 comments.
About a week later, on July 24, Thaller was called into a meeting with his general manager, Matt Souza, who asked Thaller if he’d “heard what was going on in the news,” the complaint says.
After Thaller said he had, Souza terminated Thaller’s employment, the complaint says.
Reilly said Thaller’s termination violated Connecticut law.
“In Connecticut, [there is a statute] that protects employees who engage in free speech issues,” Reilly said. “You can put political sign out on your on lawn, speak at board of education meeting, take whatever position you want on an issue provided that doesn’t materially affect your job. … We’ve alleged his speech falls within parameters of protection and like that.”
The lawsuit alleges that Thaller spoke out as a citizen on a matter of public concern when he questioned management about carrying Yellow Belly during the BLM movement “without educating its staff or patrons about the beer’s anti-racist message.”
World of Beer, which announced on July 13 it would cease carrying Yellow Belly, did not respond to a request for comment.
Reilly said he wasn’t sure if Thaller is back to work. Thaller’s LinkedIn profile still lists him as an employee of World of Beer, as well as a manager of a liquor store.
What’s not mentioned in the lawsuit is World of Beer announced on July 13, a day after the incident, that it would no longer carry Yellow Belly beer.
Reilly said that was immaterial, as Thaller’s speech – the concerns he brought to management – was still protected under the law.
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