GLOUCESTER — It’s been more than three weeks since allegations emerged about the toxic workplace culture within chef Barbara Lynch’s restaurants. But there’s been little word from Lynch. The few statements she’s offered staff and investors have left them uncertain about her willingness to forge a path forward. Now, after opening her newest restaurant, The Rudder, in Gloucester late last month, many who have invested in Lynch’s success are wondering whether the famed chef’s future is adrift.
Lynch has continued to deny the allegations that she abused alcohol and mistreated her employees, some of whom shared stories of Lynch’s verbal abuse, inappropriate touching, and sexual harassment with both The Boston Globe and The New York Times. She issued a statement to WBUR saying that the articles were the result of a “coordinated attack by a group of individuals targeting Barbara and the brand she has built over decades.”
But what’s in store for that brand is unclear.
According to interviews in recent weeks with staff, investors, and others close to Lynch — many of whom declined to go on record — the chef has been largely absent from her Boston restaurants since the allegations surfaced. Lynch instead has been in Gloucester, where, after a protracted delay, she opened her first new restaurant in a decade.
Lynch declined to speak with the Globe for this story but offered a statement in response to questions. “I have defied the odds over 25 years as a woman chef opening eight award-winning restaurants,” she said. “I am now hands-on in the all consuming effort of creating an outstanding new restaurant in Gloucester. I built each of the Boston restaurants with my passion, vision and experience to run at a high level. I will not let these recent attacks by my detractors destroy what I’ve built. I love what I do and I’m determined to move forward and grow, mentoring more chefs to greatness.”
Meanwhile, the Boston restaurants, already struggling amid a tight labor market, are attempting to navigate the rough waters. Several team members from No. 9 Park have departed over the last two months. The kitchen team at Menton is still looking to rebuild. And more former employees have posted on social media about their troubling experiences working under Lynch, beseeching her to take accountability for her actions.
“It’s time to stop denying the root of your problem,” William Moriarty, a former wine director with the restaurant group, wrote on Instagram. “You need help. Please see this not as an attempt to ‘take you down’ but rather as an opportunity to get yourself well.”
In an interview, Moriarty said Lynch blocked him on the social media platform after he put up his post. He said it’s disappointing to not see her take responsibility for her actions, but also not surprising. As a majority owner of the Barbara Lynch Collective, which in the past had been valued at over $20 million, Lynch has long operated the restaurants basically on her own. But she has done so while also harboring fears that her staff would try to wrest her empire from her grasp, detailing those concerns in her 2017 book, “Out of Line.”
“We were all hoping that maybe this was the opportunity for her to make a change, and she hasn’t. I don’t know if it’s going to happen at this point,” he said. “The thing about Barbara, which I’ll never fully understand, is that she has this magnetism that has let her get away with things for so many years. And she’s learned she can get away with things and she doesn’t feel the need to change.”
Indeed, Lynch has been unapologetic.
In a letter sent to employees the day the articles were published, she did not directly acknowledge the allegations: “We appreciate that it is not easy to read these press reports and we hope we can come together and support each other,” it read. “We want to assure you that Barbara and our company are equally and fully committed to each of you — to your well-being, to your mental health, and to your career development and success. You remain our top priority.”
In a separate letter sent to her investors, which was shared with the Globe, Lynch denied the allegations made by former employees, calling them “false and hyperbolic.”
“It is clear that the former employees who went to the newspapers were intent on drawing negative attention,” the investor letter said. “Additionally, it is not lost on the public, based on comments on news sites and social media, that there is an understanding that the food and restaurant industry is one in which substance abuse is common and tensions run high.”
The investor letter signed off with a note signaling that Lynch and the company “remain committed to our collective successes. As always, thank you for your continued support.”
But when that e-mail landed in one investor’s inbox, it was the final straw. The investor, who asked not to be named because of ongoing ties to the restaurant industry, had a simple and immediate response: “No you don’t have my continued support.”
The investor said that putting money into Lynch’s Congress Street restaurants has not resulted in the hoped-for returns — investors reportedly put up between $100,000 to $250,000 to back Menton, Sportello, and Drink when they opened between 2008 and 2010, and some say they’ve received less than 6 percent back in dividends in the years since. The investor responded to Lynch’s e-mail, asking how to cut ties and exit the investment. “I don’t know how you regroup from this,” the investor said.
Another investor in Lynch’s Congress Street restaurants said he has essentially given up on getting a return from his investment. Communications from the restaurant group are so infrequent, he said, that “I wonder if she’s forgotten about us.” That disconnect, he said, means that investors have little sway over Lynch’s actions.
Some other investors, watching from the sidelines, say they hope she can find a way forward.
“I was so saddened by the recent articles,” Vin Ryan, an original investor in No. 9 Park, said in an e-mail. “With what was represented as true, there is no doubt that Barbara needs support and needs to seriously undertake whatever measures are necessary to get back to her gracious, competent self.”
“This is a complex situation,” said Bob Davoli, a longtime acquaintance of Lynch’s who along with his wife, Eileen McDonagh, has invested in her restaurants. “Barbara is a good friend, and the people who invest in the restaurant business don’t go into it for the money. You do it because you’re helping talented artists pursue their careers.”
Davoli said he supports Lynch and wants her to succeed and be happy. He also acknowledged her tough upbringing in South Boston, calling her “incredibly talented and also a tortured soul.”
“I have no animosity toward her whatsoever. She needs help and hopefully she’ll get it. She’s been battling these problems for a long time,” Davoli said. “If she does get help and kicks the addiction, [the business] will thrive.”
But some who’ve been close to her worry she’s unwilling to do that, and has pushed too many people away. Michael Dudas is one. He was director of operations at Lynch’s restaurant group, until he was recently let go in the wake of the fallout at Menton. Dudas said he did his utmost all last year to help Lynch open her Gloucester restaurant, but even reaching basic decisions on glassware and silverware was a struggle.
The initial April 2022 opening date got pushed to a one-night soft opening in September, which Dudas described as a disaster, he said. “People left without getting any food.” They held off on opening during the end of 2022 season so as to not lose more money, but finally opened in April 2023 — a year after originally planned. By opening night, Dudas was gone.
The Rudder’s tables were full on a recent Friday night, though its service was somewhat spotty (a common occurrence for restaurants in their early weeks). There were no printed cocktail or raw bar menus. A server apologized for being unfamiliar with the wine list, as it had just been completely overhauled.
With few exceptions the tables were populated by older patrons for whom the name Barbara Lynch clearly held sway. Diners seemed to enjoy themselves, even though some could be heard audibly griping about the wait time for their dishes.
“There are twelve tables, here,” one said, unprompted, to a nearby guest in line for the restroom, while motioning toward the dining room. “None of them have food.”
The waiter was unfailingly cheerful, comping various elements of the meal and pouring extra-full glasses of burgundy to compensate for the kitchen hiccups. But several items on the slender menu were not available. The food that did arrive included some Lynch staples, such as roasted beef tenderloin ($48) and potato gnocchi bolognese ($28). When the kitchen ran out of halibut, the server suggested Lynch would be willing to prepare one in her apartment upstairs.
Dudas said Lynch has been living above the restaurant, instead of in her large historic home nearby, because its proximity to Gloucester’s working waterfront reminds her of blue collar roots in Southie. “Boston doesn’t feel anything like it used to,” he said.
The city has changed. The restaurant industry — and its workers expectations — have too, he noted. Yet Lynch seems unwilling to acknowledge that, Dudas said. Now, hearing about the new restaurant’s foibles, Dudas sighed.
“They are rudderless,” he said.
Victoria McGrane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.