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Amelie’s bakery at center of social media storm

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-based Amelie’s French Bakery, long known for its social media savvy, has found itself in the middle of an online brush fire after a former employee made his resignation letter public.

Justin Miller, then-manager of Amelie’s production kitchen, posted his resignation letter Friday on Facebook, citing “reservations about the legality of some of the labor policies.” He alleged that employees are asked to work off the clock and that others don’t get overtime pay when they should. In his posting, he said he has filed a “wage theft complaint” with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Pending wage and hour complaints are not public, according to the Labor Department’s website. Miller declined to comment further Monday.

Amelie’s took to Facebook over the weekend to deny the allegations and defend its practices.

But the wording of the response, posted to the company’s Facebook page, created its own firestorm.

“Because we don’t hire the most conformist people in the world, we probably will have a few that turn out to be problematic to work with,” the company statement said. “We intentionally hire people who are not otherwise employable, and we have promoted many of those people.”

That phrase, “who are not otherwise employable” generated outrage, calls to boycott the bakery, and what Amelie’s managing partner Lynn St. Laurent refers to as a virtual “mob.”

The company then deleted the Facebook post, which generated even more anger. Amelie’s Facebook page – which days earlier was filled with 5-star reviews praising its lattes and pastries – now featured a steady stream of negative comments and 1-star reviews, some from people identifying themselves as former employees. Other comments from regulars and current employees defended the company.

“I felt paralyzed,” St. Laurent said in an interview Monday, claiming that the intent of the message was never to insult employees. “No one at Amelie’s is unemployable.” She said the company hires people with talent, passion and potential.

The company then sent out another message, apologizing, clarifying, and reaffirming company priorities, such as hiring people who don’t have perfect records but who can be strong employees if given a chance. But the damage was done.

It’s an unusual development for a company known for its social media presence since it opened in 2008 on North Davidson Street. The company, which now has about 120 employees and three locations, prides itself on its “authentic” online voice, St. Laurent said.

The company’s main Facebook page has nearly 33,000 “likes” – a following that’s rare for a small business, says social media maven Stephanie Nelson, founder of Charlotte-based SBN Marketing.

No matter the size of the complaint, handling it on public social media pages requires strategy, Nelson said.

For a small complaint – let’s say a customer takes to Facebook to say he got poor service – some businesses will ask for a mailing address and send a gift card, Nelson said. Others will offer to meet with the customer face to face to apologize. Those tactics can defuse a customer’s frustration pretty quickly, Nelson said.

When you’re dealing with bigger complaints, simplicity is critical to the response, Nelson said, as longer replies leave more room for misinterpretation.

In Amelie’s case, Nelson says, a simple response such as , “We’ve seen Mr. Miller’s letter, we’re looking into the allegations, and we’re working to fix whatever problems are going on and we’ll keep you posted,” might have been better received.

Nelson said the controversy shows the “fine line that companies walk when they have these big allegations, in acknowledging it, not airing all the dirty laundry, but trying not to seem like you’re covering something up,” she said.

St. Laurent said she called an employee meeting Sunday night at the production kitchen to respond to the outcry. About 30 to 40 employees came, and it lasted for about three hours, she said.

“Many people work at Amelie’s because they’re very proud of what we do,” St. Laurent said. “And that’s my goal: to make sure they can be proud again.”

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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