Photo courtesy Hayden Hanson

Mass Layoffs at Off the Waffle

Former employees allege Off the Waffle owner laid them off because they supported Black Lives Matter 

Twenty-seven people were laid off or quit working for Eugene locations of the local businesses Off the Waffle and Theseburgers between June 18 and June 26. More than a dozen former and current employees allege that owner Omer Orian laid some of them off because he didn’t like their outspoken support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

They also say that Orian laid off some of the employees because the business is struggling due to the pandemic. 

Many of the former employees, who are mainly women in their teens and 20s, are angry about the layoffs and allege that Orian made sexist and disrespectful comments throughout the process.

In a statement to Eugene Weekly Orian acknowledges making “mistakes” in communication and admits he didn’t do as much as he could have to support the Black Lives matter cause. But he insists he supports the movement and says he’s seeking cultural sensitivity training for himself. 

Seventeen people were laid off during this time. Ten others quit because they were unhappy with Orian’s conduct, former employees say. 

Off the Waffle is a popular local restaurant chain. It was founded in 2009 by Orian and his brother Dave Orian. It had three locations, one in Portland, one in south Eugene and one in downtown Eugene, until the Portland and south Eugene locations closed because of the pandemic. The downtown location also houses Theseburgers, a burger restaurant Orian started in April. Orian also recently started a delivery service for his businesses called Le’bring. 

After police killed George Floyd on May 25, many Off the Waffle employees thought the business would use its platform to support the movement protesting police killings.

“The whole staff really was and is for the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Wyatt Qualiana, an Off the Waffle employee who recently quit. “They’re really socially engaged and civically engaged.” 

When the Black Lives Matter protests started in Eugene, protesters gave the downtown Off the Waffle store employees Black Live Matter signs, asking that they hang them in the window of the shop. 

Former general manager Gracie Umana texted Orian on June 5. She asked if employees could put up the sign. 

“Tell them yes, take the poster and shred it,” Orian replied in a text message that was provided to EW. “I’m doing everything that I can to not feed into what’s going on right now as much as I agree with the sentiment behind it. This is all a massive diversion and we are acting like sheep.” 

Umana told Orian she’d take the sign home because she didn’t want to waste it. 

“I work to keep the business ‘apolitical’ in nature because we have people from all perspectives come in,” Orian says in a statement to EW

Mikaela Zukaitis, who was one of two Black employees at Off the Waffle before she quit, says Orian called her after she reached out to him about the sign. He allowed her to hang the sign after a 40-minute phone call. 

“It was kind of whack that I was forced into having that conversation with him,” Zukaitis says. She says she felt like the call put her on the spot, and that she didn’t like that Orian made her make the decision on putting the sign up. 

“She had approached me about wanting to put a sign up, and I told her to go ahead with it,” Orian says. 

The BLM sign incident sparked a discussion between Orian and employees on the group messaging app Slack.  

Camilla Ferry, who quit June 26, messaged the chat. “I have tried to understand and come to terms with your stance on staying apolitical as a business but I really consider the Black Lives Matter movement as a human rights issue and not something to leverage one way or another for your own personal profit.”

 Orian responded to the concerns of Ferry and other employees with an “All Lives Matter” type rhetoric, saying that the Black Lives Matter movement was causing divisiveness more than unity. Orian is a Jewish man who immigrated from Israel, and says that he has experienced his own share of discrimination against him for his ancestry. 

On June 18 Orian laid off Elisa Paden, who did HR and social media work for him, citing financial struggles for the restaurant. 

Orian says he had hoped he wouldn’t have to cut staff, but that business didn’t spring back the way he hoped it would after the beginning of the pandemic in Oregon. 

According to employees, three drivers hired for Off the Waffle’s new delivery service Le’bring were laid off June 21. 

Orian deleted a Slack channel where he and employees were discussing the Black Lives Matter movement on June 22, former employees say. 

And on June 23, three managers and six other employees were laid off and nine employees quit, the former employees say. Some were told that they were being let go for financial reasons. Others were told not to come to work if they weren’t willing to talk to Orian about the situation in a reasonable way. Some former employees say that they feel that it meant that if they didn’t agree with Orian, they couldn’t come back to work. 

On June 24, a meeting was held among remaining staff to air out issues. Former employee Alexis Oie says that during the meeting, an older woman on staff said that Zukaitis, the one Black woman still on staff, couldn’t think rational and complex thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement because she was too young and her prefrontal cortex was not fully developed. Zukaitis is 18. Oie, and others present at the meeting, say that Orian agreed with the older woman, saying that certain things come with time and age.

The same day, Oie sent Orian a grievance letter, explaining her problems with Orian’s actions. Orian told her the letter hurt him and told her not to come into work.

The next day, Hayden Hanson, another former employee also sent him a grievance letter and was let go immediately after.

On June 26, three more employees quit.

Paden says that throughout this time, Orian didn’t understand the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When the recent protests started, she says Orian wanted her to put up a vague post on social media with themes of unity, without saying outright that Off the Waffle supported Black Lives Matter.

Paden says she told him that an ambiguous post wouldn’t be perceived well. He agreed to not make a post.

Orian then approached Paden some days later, asking her to make a post explicitly saying that Black Lives Matter on their platforms. Paden made the post and published it.

“Now it is our time to use our platform and stand in solidarity with our community, the nation and the world in affirming that Black Lives Matter,” the post read. 

Paden says she thought the company was working to do better when she made the post, but regrets it now, having seen the events that followed.

“I no longer feel that the post reflects the values at Off the Waffle, Theseburgers or Le’Bring,” she says. 

Paden says she hoped publishing the post would give the public a space to ask Off the Waffle questions about what it was actually doing to help Black Lives Matter. 

But when her friends asked questions as comments on the post, the comments were deleted. And the accounts of those who commented were blocked by Off the Waffle. 

“It would seem that if you’re really supportive of the movement, it would be really easy to answer those questions,” Paden says. 

“Words matter. My words have been careless during this important time in our history. I apologize to my employees, my customers and my community for saying things during a time when I should have been listening and not talking,” Orian says in his statement to EW. 

“I thought I made it clear to everyone around me that I am in full support of the Black Lives Matter Movement, but clearly I could have done more. I have made mistakes, and I’m seeking to understand what I can do to make things right with the people that have felt hurt by the things I’ve said. I am actively pursuing cultural competence training for myself. I will extend training to my employees and find tools to better engage in the important work of learning and listening to understand the Black Lives Matter movement.”