By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The address is 1500 W. Taylor Street. Amid the bustling corridor of charming, high-end restaurants and shops in Little Italy sits the iconic Rosebud restaurant. In 2011, during the thick of summer, area residents and business owners gathered at the corner of Taylor and Laflin to dedicate an honorary street sign for the man who built a flourishing empire with little resources.
He is Alex Dana, a colorful and passionate businessman known for his deep convictions to detail, professionalism and cleanliness in his eateries. They are qualities that have made Rosebud what it is today: a household name among A-list celebrities and prominent politicians, including Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Illinois gubernatorial candidate Christopher Kennedy.
A showman who craves the spotlight, Dana is a celebrity in Chicago, and the honorary street sign helped cement Dana’s social status among Chicago’s movers and shakers.
However, right around the time of the street naming, the Chicago district of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was investigating allegations of Rosebud discriminating against hundreds of Black applicants at the peak of the Great Recession where unemployment numbers were at staggering levels among minorities.
Despite the EEOC violations and mistreatment of Blacks, Dana remains a happy millionaire many times over who has escaped another discrimination lawsuit with the stroke of a pen and flip of his checkbook. It’s another drop in the bucket for Dana, who, under a consent decree with the EEOC, paid $1.9 million to settle the EEOC lawsuit without admitting guilt.
On top of this, the Black community gets no apology, and Dana keeps his name on a street sign in a predominantly Black ward while Chicago’s Black aldermen and City Hall remain silent.
Two weeks ago, the front-page story in the Crusader stated the unemployment rate among Blacks in Chicago was the highest in America. While chronic unemployment is a constant problem within the Black community, other affluent communities are humming with economic growth and unemployment among Blacks is at a staggering 50 percent.
Rosebud is one of several high-powered, busy restaurants in Chicago frequented by big spenders and high-profile celebrities. Waiters take home fat paychecks after reaping big tips during busy shifts. These opportunities have been out of reach for many Blacks seeking a job at Rosebud.
But the honorary sign remains at 1500 W. Taylor where Dana founded the original Rosebud and built his empire in 1975. On June 8, 2011 the city voted 48-0 to establish an ordinance for Dana’s honorary sign—the same day they approved a total of eight honorary street signs for prominent and influential citizens, including blues legend Buddy Guy.
Dana’s street sign was first proposed on May 4, 2011 by former 2nd Ward Ald. Bob Fioretti. All of the city’s Black aldermen voted for the honorary sign except former 7th Ward Ald. Sandi Jackson and Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th), both of whom were absent.
In fairness, Dana was not in hot water with the EEOC when the city approved his honorary sign. But questions remain why City Hall failed to remove the honor once the lawsuit and Dana’s past history became public.
For responses, the Crusader emailed all 50 aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. A phone message and two separate emails were sent to Ald. Jason Earvin (28th). An email was also sent to Fioretti, who’s now a practicing attorney. Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said he has placed a request to have the sign removed, but the rest of the individuals did not respond to the Crusader by press time.
Last December, the city removed the honorary sign on Wacker Drive for President Donald Trump who made disparaging remarks about minorities and the city of Chicago during his campaign for the White House. It can happen to Dana, but so far, nothing has been done.
As far as Rosebud, Dana doesn’t want to talk. The Crusader requested to speak with him, but instead spokesperson Katherine Young, emailed the Crusader with this statement:
“We have not, do not and will not tolerate discrimination of any type toward employees or applicants. We are committed to operating with integrity and conduct business in an ethical and legal manner, and we consider it our mission to treat our employees as family – with honesty and respect. We understand that we all can do more to demonstrate our commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.”
When asked if Dana was a racist, Young emailed back saying, “Absolutely not. Alex Dana denies that he made any such statements, and the Consent Decree specifically makes it clear that the resolution with the EEOC does not mean that there has been any finding of wrongdoing by the company or Mr. Dana. The Rosebud team is always seeking qualified applicants and is committed to providing employees with the best working environment to ensure patrons enjoy the dining experience.”
Since there is no admission of wrongdoing in the settlement, the likelihood of Rosebud removing Dana’s honorary sign is an unlikely possibility.
Word about Rosebud’s discriminatory practices spread like a brush fire on the Crusader website where the June 10 edition about Rosebud’s $1.9 million settlement generated an unprecedented number of hits.
As of June 14, the original story announcing the $1.9 million lawsuit settlement generated over 370,000 hits—a 750 percent increase for a major story. At one point, within an hour, a record 126 new users signed up on the Crusader website and 29 people were viewing the story at the same time.
Many readers voiced their anger on the Crusader’s comment board.
“Good to know which restaurants I won’t go to!” said Alexa M.
“I wouldn’t eat at any of these restaurants if they pay me. I have to believe if there’s a God, these hateful, despicable people will all land in the appropriate place,” said Sherry Smith.
In 2013, expectations were high when the EEOC slapped Rosebud with a blistering lawsuit, alleging the company repeatedly discriminated against Black applicants. Along with the fresh Chicken Vesuvio and golden brown calamari, it was hoped that justice would also be served to a popular restaurant chain where EEOC officials said Dana and Rosebud managers made racial slurs (the lawsuit did not specify the offensive words) against Blacks and refused to hire them when they applied at 17 locations in Chicago and the suburbs. Nine of those restaurants are now closed.
While the EEOC said 320 Blacks were discriminated against, the agency believes the number to be much higher after sending 20,000 to 30,000 letters to Rosebud job applicants.
When the EEOC completed its investigation, they discovered that less than one percent of Rosebud’s 800-900 employee workforce was Black. That’s about eight or nine Black people.
According to the EEOC, Rosebud’s Human Resource director is Black, a behind-the-scenes position at a company whose reportedly image-obsessed owner said in a Chicago Reader article that “this is a perception business.”
One of the EEOC’s attorneys who handled the case, Ann Henry, told the Crusader that as part of the consent decree, Rosebud must report to the EEOC every six months for the next four years. The company must keep employment files that document the race of applicants. Rosebud also must raise the number of its Black employees from one percent to 11 percent to comply with EEOC standards. It is unclear how long Rosebud has to achieve this goal.
As it turns out, Dana has been sued many times; several cases involved discrimination.
In 2015, 71-year-old Daniel Miller, a manager at Rosebud Restaurants, sued the company after Dana allegedly fired him after 25 years of service. The suit alleged that Dana replaced the longtime manager with a 25-year-old employee.
In 2006 and 2010, two separate wrongful termination lawsuits were filed against Rosebud. Both plaintiffs alleged they were victims of pregnancy discrimination and were represented by leading Chicago law firm, Eugene K. Hollander. According to the firm, one case involved a $380,000 settlement from Rosebud; the settlement amount from the other case was not listed.
The $1.9 million racial discrimination lawsuit that Dana recently settled was perhaps the biggest complaint of them all.
In 2014, Joseph Taylor, a former CEO of Rosebud Restaurant, filed a lawsuit after the company fired him for saying the EEOC lawsuit had merit, according to a story in Crain’s Chicago Business.
Taylor said in October 2013, he sent a letter to Dana saying, “There is an extreme hostile, harassing and even discriminatory work environment at some of the locations.”
According to the story, the lawsuit said when Dana didn’t respond, Taylor followed up with another letter expressing his concerns and suggested improvements in hiring. One month after his initial complaint, Taylor was fired from Rosebud. He filed a lawsuit seeking $187,500 in lost wages, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.