The bartender had been working at Lucille for about two months when he decided it wasn’t a good fit. He loved making cocktails, but the volume at the popular pizzeria and downtown nightspot was intense. It was “crazy busy all the time” with college students, and the hours were punishing.
He gave the company three weeks’ notice and offered to train his replacement. No need, his managers said. Everything seemed fine.
On his last day at work, the bartender got a call on his cell phone from an unknown number. It was the bar’s owner, Patrick Sweeney.
“He was calling me pussy, motherfucker, crazy curse words,” the bartender said. “He told me that he was going to fight me and that he knew how to find me, and that I would never work in this town again.”
The bartender’s heart was racing, and at first he didn’t respond. He was surprised Sweeney even remembered him — they’d met only once, briefly. Sweeney went so far as to contact the bartender’s new employer, telling them not to hire him. (The employer confirmed this.)
“I thought he was going to show up at my house,” the bartender said of Sweeney. “He was letting out a lot of anger.”
The bartender asked not to be named in this story, fearful of reprisals from a man who for a decade has wielded substantial power in Madison’s restaurant industry. Among 14 people who spoke with the Cap Times, this account was one of many that outlined a history of threats, verbal abuse, profanity and name-calling at Sweeney’s downtown restaurants, Merchant and Lucille.
Staff described violent outbursts that sometimes became physical. They recalled tirades in front of diners, threats and unpredictable rage. Sweeney has been open on social media about his struggles with addiction, which sources say amplified the problems. He has repeatedly implied that mental health issues explain his actions.
The Cap Times reached out to Sweeney through his attorney, Chris Van Wagner, for responses to these allegations. Through counsel, he declined to comment.
Sweeney’s destructive history has now cost him the restaurants he led. On April 16, he was arrested on domestic abuse charges that included stalking, disorderly conduct and false imprisonment.
At first, Sweeney, his attorney and his business partners downplayed the arrest as a private matter. Rule No. One Hospitality Group made a vague announcement that Sweeney would be “stepping down” from operations.
Joshua Berkson, Rule No. One’s co-founder, later confirmed that Sweeney “will not be benefiting from this company or any of our companies moving forward.” Berkson said he’s working through legal hurdles and “expediting that as much as possible.”
In the weeks following Sweeney’s arrest, several former staffers wondered why it took something so public for Berkson to address years of problematic behavior.
One former manager who worked for Rule No. One companies for seven years said actions like donating a dollar from each cheese curd order to DAIS (Domestic Abuse Intervention Services) were a “hollow gesture” in light of how long problems with Sweeney persisted.
“Until pressure is put on them to do something, they usually don’t do it.”
Berkson acknowledged past failures in broad terms.
“We lost sight,” Berkson said in a recent video meeting with current Rule No. One management and staff. (He’d invited a reporter to attend.) “We need to reckon with the past. … It is something that I need to be accountable for.”
Sweeney and Berkson co-own Rule No. One Hospitality Group, which includes Merchant, a 10-year-old restaurant and bar at 121 S. Pinckney St., and Lucille, open since 2016 at 101 King St.
Sweeney is also a partner with Matt Stebbins in Brothers Three Bar & Grill, a tavern on Madison’s east side. Sweeney and Stebbins had planned to open a new restaurant in Oregon this summer called Good Co. (“Patrick and I are working with our lawyers to find an amicable separation from our current and future business ventures,” Stebbins said.)
Berkson and Sweeney touted themselves as leaders in the restaurant community, a team that revitalized the First Settlement District — the area just east of the Capitol, between Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and South Blair Street — and prioritized their workers. They publicly supported Black Lives Matter protests and invested in de-escalation training, in which staff learned how to work with protesters and not call the police. In June 2020, they and several other restaurateurs launched a nonprofit called Cook It Forward to address food insecurity.
Inside the restaurants, Sweeney’s volatility, particularly when he’d been drinking, was an open secret. Colleagues and staff said they would “walk around on eggshells” when Sweeney came into the restaurants, afraid that some small thing would trigger his temper. He was known to scream at servers and berate staff in front of diners.
Tom Dufek worked for Merchant, Lucille and Rule No. One from 2012 to 2019. Half of his and the other managers’ jobs, he said, was “trying to insulate the people who work for us from him.”
“We tried to minimize the times we had to say, ‘Patrick shouldn’t have done that,’ and ‘I’m sorry that happened,’” Dufek said. “He said the most terrible things about the people who worked for him. There’s a lot of people that have a lot of scars because of him. He should not be in a position of leadership.”
Based on text messages and emails shared with the Cap Times, Sweeney’s response to internal criticism was to further disparage his employees. “What an idiot,” he responded after a dishwasher wrote to say she felt disrespected, lied to and mistreated. He called a longtime customer “crazy,” belittled staff and called a bartender “a piece of shit.”
“His behavior was the worst-kept secret of the First Settlement District for years,” said Evan Dannells, a chef at Merchant and Lucille from 2015 to 2019. At restaurants and bars downtown, Sweeney and his friends would party hard. Bartenders got to know them.
“Years ago at a place I was working, he was not wanting to pay his tab,” said Jamie McPeters, who tended bar at several Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company locations, Paul’s Club, The Harmony Bar and other spots. “He was being an asshole about it, and he tried to climb over the bar to have words with me about it.
“I told him to pay his tab and get out … none of his friends who were with him stopped me, or disagreed with what I did. He’s a pretty big bully.”
On his own social media accounts, Sweeney paints himself as a victim of lies, posting inspirational memes (“Let them judge you. Let them misunderstand you,” said one. “Their opinions aren’t your problems. Don’t you dare doubt your worth or the beauty of your truth.”)
Nick Nice, a local DJ who has known Sweeney for many years, took strong exception to this frame.
“Patrick is not a victim, he’s an abuser,” said Nice. “He’s blaming his abuse on his addictions, which is wrong on so many levels.”
“He does have this personality that strikes fear into you,” said Andy Haker, owner of Madison’s Bar and Restaurant and a longtime friend of Sweeney’s. “You are afraid to challenge him.”
Haker stood up in Sweeney’s wedding, but distanced himself from his friend about 18 months ago because of what he described as Sweeney’s increasingly “self-righteous and bizarre behavior.”
Both Haker and Nice said they hope Sweeney gets the help he needs. Nice wants Sweeney to apologize to those he hurt. And Nice hasn’t cut ties with the restaurants — after Berkson confirmed Sweeney’s separation from the business, Nice agreed to DJ Lucille’s fifth birthday party.
‘Scared and disturbed’
A pivotal change happened in April, when Sweeney was arrested on domestic abuse charges. A criminal complaint from the Oregon Police Department cited a series of incidents involving Sweeney and his wife, Allysa, with whom he has two small children. They separated in November 2020.
Allysa filed for divorce in March, “to which Patrick responded by causing her a lot of emotional distress,” the complaint said, “harassing and calling her a bunch of names such as slut, whore, and letting her know that she was not worth anything … Patrick convinced her that the divorce would harm his business, and she was afraid of what Patrick would do.”
The complaint described physical confrontations, “anger and rage” from Sweeney. It alleged that he took videos of her when she was out with other people and seemed to know everywhere she went. Sweeney had a security system installed at Allysa’s home, which she hadn’t consented to. Police found a tracking device on Allysa’s car.
Sweeney, the complaint says, threatened to kill himself and stormed out of a therapy session. Later, when officers confronted Sweeney with the sum of his charges — the stalking, the verbal abuse — he responded, “Oh, that’s it? Not bad. Thought it was worse.”
On April 16, Sweeney was released on a $500 signature bond. As news of the arrest went public, his businesses scrambled to do damage control. Merchant, Lucille, Brothers Three and Cook It Forward released coordinated, identical responses on social media with comments blocked. (Several of those posts have since been removed.) Sweeney began to advocate for himself on his own social media accounts.
“I take full responsibility for this and vow to be better,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “I have been very open and public about my struggles with anxiety and addiction. … (News) reports paint a misleading, incomplete picture of what is actually a difficult marital and personal struggle.”
On April 23, Sweeney went further. On another Facebook post, he described reports as containing “misinformation” about “a verbal argument with my wife.”
“There was not, and never has been, any abuse of any kind,” he wrote (the comment was later deleted). “I’m not surprised by disgruntled former employees and their continued woe-is-me sentiments. That’s why they didn’t work out in the first place.”
This touched a nerve with people in the industry who had seen, heard and been the target of Sweeney’s tirades. Many had been hesitant to speak out — mistreatment in the restaurant industry is common, and for all the high-profile stories about problematic chefs and owners, the culture has been slow to change. Service workers don’t want to be seen as troublemakers, or damage their future work prospects.
Matthew “Beaver” Bertram worked at The Majestic on King Street for over a decade and has known Sweeney for years. He was among those who made an early public post on social media, calling Sweeney’s actions “inexcusable.”
Bertram said he wanted Sweeney held accountable, because “if his behavior goes unchecked, he is going to hurt more people.”
“Our business and community leaders should be held to a higher standard,” Bertram said. “Leading by example is especially important when you’re employing a traditionally vulnerable workforce.”
‘Like a cloud hanging over the whole place’
Jack Bish used to tend bar on busy weekends at Merchant, sometimes working 30 hours over three days. One weekend morning, Sweeney came in for brunch.
“I’m hammered busy,” Bish said. “I’m making all the drinks for everyone and serving everyone at the bar. He would come in the back and (mess) with the music or try to make drinks and break things.”
This time was worse.
“He started throwing oranges at me,” Bish said. “Breaking glasses, just throwing full size oranges at me while I was working. I told him to get out of the bar… and I got reprimanded for that.”
One manager who worked for Sweeney and Berkson for seven years said that other managers coached her on how to interact with the owners.
“I was worried after seeing my friends get berated and having blow-up interactions with Patrick specifically and to some extent, Josh,” she said. “I would wake up in a panic every morning — what fresh hell of emails am I going to wake up to?”
“Everybody was afraid that they were going to step on the wrong eggshell,” said Dannells, the former Merchant/ Lucille chef. “You didn’t know what was going to set him off. It wasn’t a guarantee — sometimes he was happy — but it could be the clothes a hostess was wearing. It could be the amount of dressing on your salad. It could be that he didn’t get served fast enough.”
This anger was worse when Sweeney was drinking, former employees said, and occasionally turned physical. Thor Messer, a five-year bartender and manager who left his job as Rule No. One beverage director in 2019, said Sweeney “was always kind of a wild card.”
One night, a bouncer who had only been on the job a short while went to check on the bathroom, to restock toilet paper and make sure it looked OK. This was part of his job, Messer said.
“He skipped the line, as bouncers do,” Messer said. “As he was trying to do that, Patrick grabbed him, said ‘You can’t cut in line,’ and punched him in the face.” (Another bartender working that night corroborated this and Bish’s account of the orange-throwing incident.)
As Rule No. One pursued other ventures the owners were less present in the restaurants, said Dufek, the former manager. Sweeney “felt some guilt about that, because he would make comments like, ‘The first year, I was here every day, and I just couldn't do it anymore,’” Dufek said. “I’ve lived that, I can understand that.”
Sweeney “did not participate in the hiring of staff or managers,” Berkson wrote in an email. “His role had been mostly involved with business development and design-oriented activities. He pursued other business interests as he stepped away from the day-to-day entirely.”
Yet even when Sweeney wasn’t there, his temper felt “like a cloud hanging over the whole place,” Dufek said.
“It’s awful to say, but I have watched (Rule No. One) chew people up and spit them out,” Dannells said. “It took the thing they loved and wanted to do in this world … it became a thing they couldn’t stand to do for one minute more. Why would you let the cycle keep recurring to good people?
“I honestly cannot tell you why I stayed as long as I did,” he added, “other than saying that it was a lack of visible options combined with a very deep-seated need to protect my staff from them.”
One former manager recalled an evening at Lucille when she was working the host stand, managing a two-hour wait.
“I was running up and down stairs, trying to make sure tables were being bussed, getting tables seated,” she said. “Patrick came in and he started walking around and checking things.”
The manager was talking to a diner, putting them on the waitlist, when Sweeney approached her.
“He started screaming at me about empty tables and how we needed to seat them immediately,” the manager said. “He was screaming for two or three minutes in front of this customer. I didn’t say anything … I was like, oh, OK, he’s not looking for a response, he’s trying to get some anger out.”
She stood there, tears in her eyes, and waited for him to finish. Then she went on helping the diner.
In that case, she eventually got an apology from Sweeney. Many said Berkson tried to minimize Sweeney’s presence in the restaurants, particularly at night or when he’d been drinking. Other times, Berkson would shrug off concerns (that’s “Patrick being Patrick,” one employee recalled).
Messer described Berkson as complacent. Some used to warn him the company was “one action away from this being an entire crisis.”
“With some of Patrick’s actions, sometimes he turned a blind eye,” Messer said. “Or he really was oblivious, or he just didn’t think some of the stuff was that bad. Also being bound in a legal partnership, it’s hard. He’s got to do what’s right for his family as well.”
Berkson reiterated that Sweeney had not been involved day-to-day in restaurant operations for some time. Yet Sweeney continued to be the face of the businesses with city administrators and the media.
“The (restaurant) industry is broken,” Berkson said in the recent staff meeting. “It was due to excess, due to doing what we do at the expense of ourselves and others. It was due to leaders who failed to professionalize, failed to humanize. Those leaders, and the excess in the industry, created work environments that were simply unsustainable.”
Berkson didn’t say if he included himself among these leaders. He’s been making statements and writing letters to employees and investors, and said he’d done “everything possible for Patrick.”
“Yeah, he’s the face of the business,” Berkson said. “Patrick’s an artist. He expressed a lot of the pleasures of our business, but also the pain. Enough was enough, though.”
Despite these incidents, working at Merchant and Lucille could be fulfilling, and it paid well. Staff described camaraderie among teams and pride in the work.
One server who worked at Lucille for several years said her managers were “wave breakers” between Sweeney’s anger and staff. During her two years with the company, she had little contact with him.
“I have never loved my managers more than when I worked there, which is unusual in the service industry,” the server said. “I have nothing but respect for Josh (Berkson). He’s a talented man. We all have our flaws, but my interactions with him have always been positive.”
Granted, even managers didn’t get health insurance, a common problem in the restaurant industry and one several staff were asked to solve in recent years (“each time it was too expensive for the business,” one manager said). Berkson said “health care coverage for everyone” is a goal after pandemic restrictions ease.
Pre-COVID, the money was good. At Lucille, bartenders could make $30-$35 an hour, and $10 per hour more during the holidays.
And putting these restaurants on a résumé could lead to bigger things. Merchant built a national reputation as a craft cocktail bar. Bartenders have gone on to work at high-profile establishments in Austin, Atlanta, Detroit and New York City.
“I loved those programs,” said Messer, who now lives in Seattle and works at a tiki bar with his wife, Maddy Van Elzen. Van Elzen was also a longtime manager at Rule No. One; she declined to comment for this story.
“We got paid well to do cool stuff,” Messer said. “Most people would say they were more committed to the team we had and the work we built than the owners.”
It’s common for people who’ve worked in restaurants to take jobs with beer, wine or spirits distributors. Messer considered this, but was uneasy about leaving his job while continuing to live in Madison. Several staffers confirmed that Sweeney and Berkson didn’t like employees taking additional jobs, even if Merchant and Lucille didn’t have full-time hours to offer.
But Sweeney’s response when a bartender left— when he called that person’s new employer to disparage them — felt like a last straw. Messer, Van Elzen and Dufek all left shortly after that happened. (Dufek had been planning his exit for several months, he said.)
Messer’s feelings about the restaurants are complicated now.
“We knew there was a problem but it was just there,” he said. “We look back and feel guilty that we were complacent. But also there was a fear of retaliation.”
Dufek echoed this. He acknowledged that he has a “blunt personality” and could be hard to work with. Managing Merchant and Lucille “caused me to be a different person,” he said.
“I know why we ignored it, to a certain extent,” Dufek said of Sweeney’s actions. “I tried to push back when I could, but I was also employed by him. The power differential is real.”
What accountability looks like
Since Sweeney’s arrest, some colleagues have publicly condemned his actions. Ryan Huber, who co-owns Context Clothing and Settle Down Tavern on King Street, calls Sweeney a “professional acquaintance” and has known him for years. He sent the Cap Times a strongly worded statement.
“We need to hold Sweeney accountable for his abusive behavior, which is not a random or one-time occurrence but has been ongoing and escalating for years,” Huber said. “By not holding him and others like him accountable, we are normalizing, condoning and reinforcing dangerous and harmful behavior.”
Matt Stebbins, a longtime friend and business partner of Sweeney’s, said Sweeney has never had any day-to-day role with staff or customers at Brothers Three Bar & Grill.
“In no way do I tolerate abuse or harassment of any kind in the workplace, or anywhere else for that matter,” Stebbins said. “I never have, nor will I ever, conceal the actions of someone who was acting this way and I would never knowingly expose my staff to such behavior.”
Long before Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 memoir “Kitchen Confidential” revealed to diners the darker side of dining out, restaurants could have a lawless reputation, though it often went unreported. Media have often held up (mostly male) chefs and restaurateurs as charismatic geniuses whose mistreatment of women, staff and colleagues was brushed aside.
The last few years have brought major upheaval to this industry, first from the #MeToo movement, followed by COVID-19 closures and Black Lives Matter protests. Many restaurants are struggling to rehire staff who’ve had time to question what “normal” should really be like.
“Most people are unwilling to point out harassment or bad behavior, and there’s a reason for that,” said one server who worked at Lucille for two years. “People who work in the service industry can tell you they see all the time people who act inappropriately, or who have money and power and can get away with things. The people often most harmed tend to be those most vulnerable.”
Sweeney’s actions tarnished the reputation of First Settlement spots, like “a black eye on the community,” said Bertram, who now works at Dufek’s Young Blood Beer Company on King Street. “Not all bars and restaurants treat their employees that way. We’ve lost a lot of good people that were exposed to that toxic behavior.”
With Sweeney leaving Rule No. One, some want to give Berkson the benefit of the doubt. They believe the culture can change.
“Josh is a smart man,” Messer said. “When he writes something, there’s thought and attention put into it. I want to see things happen, not just damage control and lip service.”
Dufek agreed. “To make sure it doesn’t keep happening, you have to name it,” he said. “You have to say, ‘This is a thing that happened.’ We need to be able to move forward, we can’t just brush it under the rug.”
A new direction
Much of the leadership team at Rule No. One has turned over in recent months. Tara Duffin, now director of general management for the company, said she’s constantly checking in with staff, inviting them to express frustrations and share concerns.
“I want everyone to understand that when they do work in this industry, that they are professional, and they're valued, and that they can have a future and a career,” she said.
“It's a hard industry,” she added. “People need to understand that. It's something to be proud of, and it deserves just as much as respect as any other profession.”
Charly Rowe was hired as the new general manager of Lucille on May 3. Experienced restaurant staff are hard to come by right now, and Rowe said she asked hard questions of Berkson and Duffin during her interview.
“Knowing that (Sweeney) is financially separate was incredibly important to me,” Rowe said. “Given my personal history with owners in this industry locally, there wasn't any way I was going to become involved with a place that continued to quietly feed into” problematic behavior.
Tim Williams started as a prep cook at Lucille in 2016 and is now the director of finance and operations for Rule No. One. He pointed to several positive developments at the company, including 10 weeks of free access to BetterHelp, a professional counseling service, for every employee, and an anonymous hotline where employees can report complaints.
“We wanted full transparency, no bias going in whatsoever,” Williams said. “Without going into detail, there have been a number of incidents that needed immediate and swift action that we willingly took. … We wanted to make a major change.”
These kinds of changes are what many in the industry want to see and sustain — not just in Madison, and not only in restaurants.
“Places where this type of culture has been allowed to live, all of those places are starting to come around,” Dufek said. “We deserve better and can ask for better.
“The fact that we have to ask to be treated like a person is ridiculous,” he said. “So let's change that.”
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