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Shame campaign: Could a social media firestorm consume Madison bar Gib's?

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Hannah Egger’s tone was frustrated when she posted a series of email screenshots to Facebook around noon on April 3.

“I wanted to shed light on how Gib’s treats their former employees,” wrote Egger, who worked for the Williamson Street craft cocktail bar for several months in 2017. “WOW. See attached photos and potential employees be aware.”

The screenshots documented a back-and-forth about delivery of a W-2 federal tax form. Gib’s manager Kym Reindl had labeled the W-2 “dumb bitch.pdf,” directed at Egger. Worse, the owner of the business brushed it off.

The internet responded with dizzying speed. Reindl has resigned, and Gib’s and its companion businesses now face a social media crisis the likes of which Madison small businesses rarely see.

A few hours after Egger’s post went live, Gib’s issued an apology (“we will continue to strive to work harder and do better”). Hundreds of angry commenters attacked, calling out corrupt motivations and lack of sincerity. Gib’s took the apology down.

A day after it went up, Egger’s original Facebook post had some 1,500 Facebook shares. Bitchy Waiter, a blog with nearly 700,000 Facebook followers, picked up the post. Hundreds of one-star Facebook reviews brought the formerly well-regarded bar’s rating so low that management decided to hide reviews entirely.

“Time to Yelp-f*** Gib’s,” one commenter posted.

People frustrated on Egger’s behalf soon moved on to owner Gilbert Altschul’s personal Facebook page (“You just ruined your entire career in one email. Oh well. Sucks to be you!”).

They posted on Reindl’s Instagram (“I hope your ass gets fired”) and left reviews on Google (“they have zero professionalism”).

Some posters were local. Some were from out of state. Others were obvious trolls.

“Looks like y’all f***ed up. Lol the internet can kill your business fast,” said one commenter.

“How will this horrible establishment ever continue on?” another wrote. “Screw you guys. You deserve the fail and I can’t wait for you to lose your money!”

Egger has not posted anything since the first post and did not respond to requests for comment. Friends say she intended the post primarily for fellow members of Madison’s service industry and had little idea her remarks would go viral.

Yet they did, and the severity of the repercussions remains to be seen.

“Every human being has a channel now if they have a social media account,” said Laura Gallagher. Her Madison public relations firm, The Creative Company, specializes in “crisis communications” among other things.

“It used to be your local news station or newspaper told you what was newsworthy,” Gallagher said. “Now every individual has their own channel and their own audience and can influence and share.”

Gib’s was wrong, and has admitted as much. Egger was angry. Within hours, both were swept up in a tidal wave of online outrage, fueled in no small part by the service industry and diners’ collective desire to hold restaurants accountable for poor or inappropriate behavior.

“I cannot think of any local social media disaster on this scale ... nothing with the vitriol and reach of the situation with Gib’s,” said Kristie Schilling, executive director of the Monona East Side Business Alliance. “Every business must realize that any email communication can easily be exposed through social media.

“News about employees being treated unfairly seems to spread especially fast.”

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GIBS BAR 14-04172015183054 (copy)

Chef Gilbert Altschul owns Gib's Bar at 1380 Williamson St. 

House on fire

The online response to Gib’s mistake looks at first to be similar to a 2009 Domino’s Pizza video incident, in which a disgusting prank with a pizza by two employees landed them and the company in viral hot water.

Students of social media memes may also remember #bradswife, which created a backlash for Cracker Barrel last year after the company fired a waitress and her husband protested publicly on Facebook.

Yet a closer look at the intensity and direction of these recent posts bears a closer resemblance to Justine Sacco’s story. Sacco was the communications executive who, before a flight to South Africa in 2013, torpedoed her career with a single Tweet. She was among the first to fall to an online “shame campaign,” where collective online fury found a gleeful, savage voice.

Much of the internet ire in this case has been aimed directly at Altschul, a chef and restaurateur who owns Gib’s, Grampa’s Pizzeria and Porter. Altschul has also been making plans to open a public market and a taqueria, called Bandit, on West Washington Avenue.

Altschul recalls having a good relationship with Egger, who he said worked for Gib’s for less than a year. Altschul was frustrated that she hadn’t cleaned up after her last shift — Egger claimed in her original post that a manager told her that was OK.

After she left, Altschul sent her a text about it, which he said she didn’t respond to. He said they did not communicate again.

Reindl said Gib’s sent Egger’s W-2 tax form to the wrong address (she’d moved) on January 24 and the post office returned it. According to her posted emails, Egger requested the form again on March 30.

Reindl mailed it Saturday, March 31, but it did not arrive by Monday. Egger continued to ask for it and finally, Reindl sent a scanned version of the document by email.

It was then Egger noticed the file had been labeled “dumb bitch.pdf.” Appalled, she sent a message to Altschul. He was less than sympathetic.

“You left on shitty terms,” Altschul wrote. “Maybe next time don’t burn bridges and finish your job like a professional.”

After Egger’s post went up, Reindl said she called Egger to apologize directly. Reindl, who was never Egger’s direct supervisor, said the emails didn’t tell the full story but she’d been cautioned by HR consultants not to elaborate further.

“I’ve received so many threats, and I question whether they’re real or not,” Reindl said. “I’ve received death threats, threatening messages. This was unprofessional and I made a huge mistake, but cyberbullying is a real thing.”

The day after the post went up, Altschul expressed surprise and sadness at how aggressive the comments were, how wide-reaching and relentless.

“There are people from other states calling me a terrible person,” he said. “These people don’t know me but they’re so ready to hate me. It hurts. Even if they don’t know me it still f***in’ hurts.

“They don’t know who I am or how I feel about the staff,” Altschul added. “I don’t want (staff) to suffer. ... I apologized to them for my mistake. They don’t deserve to be punished, they’ve been great.”

Reindl said the Gib’s crew is small and tight-knit, and by midweek the morale was fairly high. At Grampa’s the atmosphere has been a bit darker.

On the night of Tuesday, April 3, neither Altschul or Reindl went in to work, and the pizzeria received a half dozen angry calls. Reindl said she has been responding to “genuine” emails and calls and is willing to “explain it from my perspective.”

“I’ve worked all around town at so many establishments,” she said. “Working for Gil has been the most positive environment I’ve had. I’ve worked hard to create that for my employees during my tenure there.

“I did something wrong,” Reindl added. “Naming that file was inappropriate. I accept responsibility for it. I made a mistake and apologized for it ... Her request was valid and should have been handled in a professional manner. I want to take full responsibility.”

 

This experience reminded Altschul of another incident just after Grampa’s opened. His then-fiancee and business partner, Marissa Johnson, asked a mother nursing her infant if she’d like to move to a more private space.

The resulting backlash was intense and angry, mitigated only slightly by a free night of pizza for breastfeeding moms. The passage of time helped the incident fade.

This time, Altschul admits, “I f***d up, but I don’t feel like the punishment fits the crime.”

“I deal with shit like this every day and usually I’m able to take a deep breath and handle it appropriately,” he said. “But I just reacted. I re-read the email I sent to her ... that’s what people are so mad at me about? I thought it was worse.”

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Interior on second floor at Gib's Bar located at 1380 Williamson St. in Madison.

The fallout

Is it possible, in the age of clout-for-clicks and black market social media, for the combination of local outrage, out-of-state sympathizers and obvious trolls to kill a small business? Maybe. But maybe not.

As of Thursday, pages for Grampa’s Pizzeria, Porter and Gib’s Bar were all being monitored by Yelp’s support team. In situations like this (the frequency of which Yelp would not share), Yelp wants to ensure that reviews reflect personal experiences as much as possible.

“People are going to be leaving reviews probably for the next couple of days, so instead of picking out each individual review they’ll go in and do a clean sweep,” said Jordan Bantista, a senior PR specialist at Yelp. “We want to make sure the business pages are a reflection of people’s firsthand experiences.”

Gib’s won’t be able to remove its Yelp page, Bantista said, and businesses can’t delete negative reviews.

Yelp may receive “hundreds and even thousands” of photos and reviews in response to media attention, so Yelp applies this policy across the board, “regardless of the business and regardless of the topic at issue in order to avoid injecting our own varied viewpoints into the debate,” Bantista said.

Many commenters encouraged Egger to pursue legal action. But Egger no longer works at Gib’s, and anti-discrimination laws are intended to protect employees (or people with an employment relationship with a business, like contractors) from discriminatory action.

As for Altschul, Gallagher at The Creative Company said she’d encourage a client to address a problem like this head on, and quickly. "Do a video and own it," she said.

“We would advise them to be transparent and forthcoming and honest. What people want to know is that you understand that you blew it, you screwed up," she said. “Be prepared for all the things that are going to come at you. You can’t stop it. You have to be present in a crisis.”

Gallagher advised turning the topic of conversation toward “something positive, something honest.”

In cases like this, a video may be more effective than a written apology, to make it personal and connect “why people love these businesses in the first place, and what made Gib’s a popular place to go and be.”

“If they own it, say they’re sorry ... it’s pretty obvious how they can improve,” she said. “They should be able to move forward.”

“We live in an age of outrage,” added Betsy Ezell, a senior account executive with The Creative Company. “What people are willing to say publicly, the profanity and insults, the threshold for that has changed.”

Those who have supported and collaborated with Altschul are waiting to see what will happen, nervous to pull negative attention toward themselves. On social media, posts appear and then disappear, as people take a stance or try to distance themselves and their businesses.

Some who were initially incensed have paused to reconsider. After linking to Egger’s original post on its Facebook page, Bitchy Waiter decided to hide it, expressing concern for current employees.

“I took it down because I began to think about the other servers who were still working at the bar,” the site’s manager explained. “The post was quickly going viral and it seemed that it would affect people who did not deserve it.”

“This is real unfortunate that Gil and his staff didn’t understand what the endgame of all this was going to be,” said Paul Short, who runs Madison College’s culinary arts program. Last week, Altschul gave a talk about his businesses at the college’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

“First and foremost we look at impact on students,” Short said. “I don’t see us reaching out to Gil for anything ’til all of this is resolved and he takes care of what he has to do.

“Social media is like a wildfire,” Short added. “A little wind and all of a sudden you’ve got a major forest fire.”

Five days after the post first went viral, Altschul released another written apology.

“It is my intention to grow and learn from this experience and move forward,” he wrote. “We are in the process of implementing a team wide training to recommit to our goals of providing the community with an excellent product in an environment where everyone feels respected and valued.”

That what Alejandra Perez, a former coworker and roommate of Egger’s, wants to see. From the start she challenged Altschul and Gib’s to do better, expressing dismay at how fast the anger and personal attacks grew.

“It’s really gotten out of control,” Perez said. “There’s a lot of outside people peering in and leaving unwarranted opinions, harassing and calling the business when employees who are not involved are working.”

Perez was upset by her friend’s treatment. She wants to see Altschul and his team move forward in deliberate, concrete ways. No one, she said, should have to feel the way her friend did.

“There are plenty of measurable ways to provide growth and change inside an establishment that has suffered this sort of social burn on the stake,” Perez said. “I would love to see if he puts forth efforts to have his staff take leadership and management courses.

“Bring in an HR representative. Show us how he can change and learn from his actions and be an active (and) positive contributor to our community.”

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Since 2008, food editor Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, sparkling wine and good stories. She lives in Madison with two cats and too many cookbooks.