More than 4,300 Chicago bar and restaurant workers (and counting) have signed a petition demanding that the city of Chicago suspend the liquor license from Hubbard Street bar El Hefe until police finish investigating two alleged sexual assaults that made national headlines in late 2019. The petition criticizes the bar’s policy of removing overly intoxicated patrons through a back door, as depicted in a viral video released in November. The petition claims that the policy — along with comments made in a private Facebook page by people who claimed to work for El Hefe — illustrates a “dangerous workplace culture.”
The demand is in reaction to video footage of one of the assaults and two separate lawsuits filed late 2019 by two women who allege that their drinks were drugged at El Hefe and they were then raped; the women accuse El Hefe management of negligence. As stated in the second lawsuit, filed by Elizabeth Capra, El Hefe’s “agents/employees knew or should have known that the assailant posed a risk of danger to the plaintiff, and specifically a danger of sexual assault.” Capra said drugs affected her memory and that she was assaulted after leaving the bar.
The video was released in November by attorneys representing the first woman to sue El Hefe, who has anonymously filed as Jane Doe. The footage, taken from the night of October 18, shows a man wearing red shoes escorting her through the bar’s back door. She’s taken to a part of the alley where the lawsuit states that the man sexually assaulted her while the camera recorded two El Hefe bouncers near the door, about 100 feet from Doe and the man. Doe alleges that she was drugged before exiting the bar.
About a week after Doe filed her lawsuit, her attorneys held a news conference to announce they were filing another lawsuit on the behalf of a second woman. Capra, who lives in Florida and was visiting Chicago, came forward in December with a similar story of being drugged and raped in October 2014.
Police are searching for the man who allegedly assaulted Doe. Two days after attorneys for Doe announced her lawsuit, El Hefe posted a statement on Facebook, writing that it was cooperating with police and that “what we understand this woman has alleged is extremely troubling.” The post also stated that “our security team did not witness an assault in the alley.” Many read that line as an attempt to discredit Doe’s account as a victim. A day after Capra’s news conference, El Hefe was more contrite in a second Facebook post and stated the assaults “are unacceptable in any part of our city.”
According to El Hefe spokesperson Lissa Druss, the bar required all staff to attend a paid workshop that it organized for restaurant and bar workers on Christmas Eve. A former Illinois State Police trooper led the training, which covered — according to a flyer — how to spot “over intoxication, human trafficking, domestic violence, that a person has been given a ‘date rape’ drug, and other behaviors indicative of a person in distress.”
Brian Monico, an attorney for Doe and Capra, called El Hefe’s seminar a publicity stunt. The state already requires restaurant and bar workers to go through alcohol-awareness training as part of the BASSET certification, Briggs said.
Resilience, a not-for-profit organization that provides legal services, trainings, and other support resources for domestic violence victims, held a protest on November 27 outside of El Hefe. Sarah Layden, the group’s director of programs and public policy, questioned whether a state trooper was qualified to lead the seminar, as many trainings focus on what victims can do to avoid being attacked, like keeping a close watch on their drinks. “The victims aren’t the ones choosing to be assaulted,” she said.
The bar’s attorneys drew criticism earlier this month while starting its defense by using a common legal tactic: claiming in court that Jane Doe “was more than 50 percent of the proximate cause of the injury” — in other words, that the assault was mostly her own fault.
The response raised the eyebrows of Brian Monico, one of Doe and Capra’s attorneys. “I don’t know if the right phrase is ‘out of touch,’” he said. “It just seems a little callous and also a little like the slut shaming you would see on various message boards.”
Druss said the bar’s ownership understands how its responses could anger people. But she wants the public to know the “words used in legal defense in no way reflect the hearts” of El Hefe’s workers and management, and reiterated that El Hefe is fully cooperating with police. Supporters of the petition, including its originator, Jesse Briggs, don’t believe that — in fact, Briggs alleged to Eater that the bar’s staff is protecting the man’s identity.
Briggs is a Chicago restaurant industry veteran who works as an operations consultant, opening restaurants including Bulldog Alehouse in South Loop. Briggs is also an admin for the Chicago Service Industry Facebook page, a private group for restaurant and bar workers where many share server memes, vent, and get their industry news. “They’re working hard to cover their asses,” Briggs said to Eater “They’re 100 percent culpable; that is the consensus among our group.”
The group wants the city to temporary suspend the bar’s license. That’s been a tactic aldermen have used to shut bars down, such as Evil Olive in Noble Square. The group said they don’t want completely shut El Hefe down; it could remain open without a liquor license and serve food, they reason.
Briggs was also troubled by a series of statements posted via the private group by people claiming to be El Hefe workers. Statements like “another fake story by the attorney” and “it won’t shut down! Not losing my job over some drunk broads.” El Hefe spokesperson Druss reviewed those posts, and though the posts weren’t made by anonymous accounts, she stated that there’s no concrete proof those posters were actually El Hefe employees. She said El Hefe workers have been subject to online bullying, adding that no one has quit their job over ownership’s response to the lawsuits.
Resilience’s Layden wants to use El Hefe as a wake-up call to the industry, which she said should do more to protect its patrons. She has also been disappointed with the bar’s responses, including the two Facebook posts.
“I know that everything is difficult when you have pending litigation and their attorneys aren’t going to admit any culpability in the matter,” Layden said. “But some level of accountability needs to be taken. Even it it’s ‘we’re taking this very seriously, making sure this never happens again.’”
El Hefe has locations in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona. Attorney Monico said he’s heard complaints from customers at those bars as well. The Chicago location opened in 2013 on Hubbard Street, a notoriously busy strip for bar nightlife. The ownership group, 15 Hubbard LLC, is made up of several investors.
“El Hefe’s ownership is comprised of men and women who are deeply troubled about the missing facts that will aid, help, and lead to an outcome of this very important police investigation,” Druss said.
When pressed about what facts were missing, Druss said the plaintiffs’s attorneys have yet to release the full video. She also took issue with the perception that El Hefe’s staff was somehow protecting the man from the video. “There are egregious things out there about staff, that they drug their patrons all the time, that the bouncers know who the man in the red shoes is,” Druss said.
Doe’s lawyers met on Friday in court, another in what should be a long string of appearances. The city could still take action by shutting the bar down by revoking its liquor license — a process that another Arizona import, Bottled Blonde, has fought for the last five years. City of Chicago officials referred all inquiries to Chicago police. A police spokesperson confirmed the investigation was ongoing, and added that no arrests have been made in their efforts to apprehend the man in the red shoes.