The accused sexual harasser’s Wine Country restaurant may serve alcohol. But he can’t drink there

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Despite opposition, a Wine Country restaurateur accused of sexual harassment will be able to open a new restaurant in Sevastopol, provided he never drinks alcohol there.

Sevastopol’s planning commission on Tuesday approved a liquor license for Piala, a Georgian restaurant and wine bar at 7233 Healdsburg Ave. by Lowell Sheldon. Eleven former employees who had worked with Sheldon between 2015 and 2021 accused him of sexual harassment or creating a toxic work environment in a Chronicle investigation last year. His plan to open Piala with two partners, including Jeff Berlin, who previously ran A Côté d’Oakland, shook the Sebastopol community. Victims said Sheldon’s presence at Piala could be a safety concern, while supporters pushed back against “blacklisting” him over the allegations.

If Sheldon is drinking at the restaurant or breaking any of the other conditions — which Berlin is responsible for overseeing — Piala’s liquor license could be revoked.

The terms state that Sheldon cannot be involved, directly or indirectly, in the operations or supervision of employees. The owners have also agreed to engage an external human resources company to handle complaints.

restaurant project since sexual harassment allegations surfaced last year.”/>

Restaurateur Lowell Sheldon has faced challenges with his first restaurant project since sexual harassment allegations surfaced last year.

Mason Trinca / Special for The Chronicle 2017

The commission approved the permit 3-1, with Commissioner Deborah Burnes casting the only “no” vote and Evert Fernandez absent. At their last meeting in June, the commissioners proposed that Sheldon could never set foot inside Piala, a condition that Sheldon was unwilling to accept. Since then, the owners have instead suggested that he never drink or serve alcohol in the restaurant. Many of the misconduct allegations occurred after hours at his restaurants and involved alcohol. To approve the liquor license, the commission is required by city code to find that the proposed use will not “adversely affect the health, safety or welfare » employees and customers.

The city’s liquor license will be transferred to Berlin’s name and reviewed by the city planning commission one year after Piala opens, in which case Sheldon could apply to drink alcohol there again. They plan to open Piala in August.

The commissioners – who were placed in the unusual and even, they say, “embarrassing” position of debating restorative justice and sexual violence in the context of municipal bureaucracy – granted the permit despite some reservations.

“I am very uncomfortable approving this liquor license,” Commissioner Linda Kelley said. “I hope we can believe Mr. Sheldon in terms of changing his mind and understand his role in these complaints as well. It’s not just people who come after you. Women don’t have been believed and still are not believed, including in this whole hearing.

Burnes said his concerns weren’t just about Sheldon’s drinking, but also about the power he wields as the owner of the business. His attorney objected, and planning director Kari Svanstrom told Burnes that denying a liquor license based on his “position of power” was “a bit tenuous.”

They acknowledged the city’s failure to regularly monitor the conditions and said community members would help enforce them. Svanstrom suggested that if diners saw Sheldon drinking at Piala, they could take pictures and send them to the planning department.

“There are a lot of eyes on this project,” said commissioner Paul Fritz. “I think the community is watching this.”

Chair Kathy Oetinger acknowledged the community’s concerns and her own, but said she felt comfortable with the final terms.

“I feel comfortable putting the risk in their hands, knowing they have the ability to make it or blow it,” she said of Sheldon and his business partners. “I feel like they deserve an opportunity to try and we’ve done what we think we can legally do to protect customers.”

The commissioners had voted at their last meeting not to continue with public comments on Tuesday. In an email sent ahead of the meeting, local business owner Caitlin Palmer said that even the earlier, more restrictive proposal to bar her completely from entering Piala “will not provide a guarantee that members of the community are asking”.

Sheldon told the commission that he and Berlin “have every intention of ensuring that we meet each of the conditions as set out. We understand the risk to our livelihoods if we fail to meet any of these conditions.” . »

In addition to Piala, Sheldon is also trying to redevelop the historic Freestone Hotel into a wine-focused inn and restaurant, though the Sonoma County Permit Department recently asked that he withdraw his application after determining that it was incompatible with the general plan of the county.

Elena Kadvany (her) is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]

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