In Seattle, HoneyHole is a sandwich heaven and a touchstone on Capitol Hill. Employees say it used to be hard to get a job there because no one wanted to leave. But last week, that image went kablam.
On Sunday May 21, a former employee blasted off a scathing email to the company’s marketing list with the subject-line “HoneyHole Harasses Employees.” The message accused the company of selling moldy and expired food and described a restaurant that treated employees as disposable.
The HoneyHole owners deny treating their employees unfairly or serving anything but fresh and safe food, and they’ve passed recent health inspections.
Co-owner Patrick Rye said we should talk to employees for the real story.
“I encourage you to talk to people who are currently working there,” he said.
The Stranger talked to 17 current and former employees of the Capitol Hill sandwich institution. Several requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. While some workers claim they saw poor food-handling and others outright denied the food was unsafe, all but one claimed co-owner Kristin Rye has made HoneyHole a HoneyHell.
Current and former workers accused Rye of yelling at and mocking employees in front of other staff, cutting hours for employees who called out sick, and ignoring and dodging employees who called about missing wages, including those who filed complaints to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. Queer employees say the restaurant enabled a former manager to repeatedly misgender and disrespect them.
Kristin Rye denied or told different stories about most of these claims and said she couldn’t speak to other peoples’ experiences but only to her own intentions.
“Certainly, we’ve had employees in the past who have been let go because their job performance was not adequate–and sometimes it is hard to differentiate between ‘I’m disappointed with your actions’ or ‘your job performance is unacceptable’ and ‘you as a person are unacceptable,”’ she said.
In general, she believes employees can be honest with her, and she hopes “she isn’t scary.”
Former HoneyHole employees filed six claims to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries between November of last year and May of this year.
L&I declined two of the claims, either because the employee did not continue to pursue their complaint or because it was not the type of complaint the department covers.
A pending L&I complaint claims Rye slashed the worker’s pay rate on their last check from $20 per hour to $17 per hour and deducted a $300 cash advance that they did “not request or receive,” public records show.
The Ryes claim they resolved that complaint with L&I and await official confirmation from the department. They declined to share emails suggesting as much because they contained "sensitive employee information."
The department has yet to assign an agent to the most recent claim, which a worker filed on May 18.
HoneyHole paid former employees who claimed unpaid final wages in two now-closed complaints. L&I spokesperson Matthew Erlich told The Stranger the department didn’t cite HoneyHole because they paid up.
“The vast majority of cases L&I investigates usually end this way,” he wrote in an email.
However, four workers corroborated stories of former employees who called the restaurant about missing checks. They say Rye avoided these calls and made disparaging comments about the callers.
Rye said that’s false because employees don’t handle L&I claims, she does. She recalled only one phone call from L&I to verify that a staff member accidentally cut themselves with a knife.
Employees said staff knew to look for short checks and unpaid sick time. Four workers said they’d experienced it.
Former cook Paige Waugh said the restaurant lowballed his check several times in a row. Rye fixed the checks, but the problem was “annoying and recurrent,” he said.
Paycheck irregularities concerned former bartender Yareli Buster the most. She made a TikTok about her experience.
Rye said HoneyHole rectified all payroll disputes and unpaid sick time–and that the restaurant clarified its sick time policy earlier this year. She said people were never punished with fewer hours for requesting sick time.
Queer Employees Felt Unwelcome
Queer and trans employees told The Stranger Rye enabled a middle-aged, white, former manager to create a hostile atmosphere at work. They allege the restaurant fired him only after trans employee Taylor Coe resigned in a company-wide message posted on the platform 7Shifts Employee Scheduling.
Coe said she quit because this manager misgendered transgender employees every day. Her breaking point came when he misgendered her as she trained a new hire.
“I cannot, in good conscience, continue to subject myself to working with a manager who constantly shows a lack of respect for my identity and the identities of those I work with and care about,” she wrote in a June 2022 message to staff. “Calling me a man and making me listen to why ‘this is difficult’ is not an offense I am prepared to forgive the same person once a week for months on end.”
Coe said Rye did not discipline this manager or respond to queer employees’ stories about his behavior, including one instance where he allegedly called a gender nonconforming employee “Cinderella” as they swept because they wore nail polish. That comment enraged the employee, who quit the same day, multiple sources said. Coe said other queer employees began to leave the restaurant, too.
Rye said HoneyHole immediately addressed misgendering with the manager, but he didn’t improve fast enough and HoneyHole fired him. HoneyHole now trains management and staff on pronoun usage, she added.
Former HoneyHole employee Cameron Dewitt Ruiz said in a meeting Rye defended the manager’s behavior, saying that HoneyHole was a safe space for everyone, including middle-aged straight white men who are “under fire for just existing.”
Rye said Dewitt Ruiz took her statement “out-of-context.” She claims she said that the workplace did need to be safe for everyone–including white men–but she did not say they were under fire.
A "Toxic" Workplace
All but one employee The Stranger interviewed said HoneyHole has shed workers at an astounding rate. Five current and former employees said they endured the restaurant because they couldn’t afford to leave.
Management fires or punishes people for small mistakes, the sources said. Even employees who said Rye treated them well believe her actions created an unhealthy work environment at HoneyHole and pushed people to quit.
“We’re in fear for our jobs every day,” said one worker. “You say one wrong thing to her and she can get on [sic] a mood and fire you and you’re done. There’s always an animosity when she comes into the building.”
Rye said staff turnover is higher than she wants, but the top complaint she hears from employees is about her not holding staff to high enough standards.
“I think you would find a decent amount of people who would criticize me for being too lenient,” she said. “So it’s hard to please everyone, I guess.”
Patrick Rye said staffing has been an issue since they bought the restaurant in 2021, and they’ve struggled to find managers who support employees.
Four workers alleged that Kristin Rye gossiped about staff behind their backs, insulting their intelligence or ability. Current and former employees said Rye sometimes berates or mocks people in front of others when they make mistakes.
One kitchen employee, who never had a personal problem with Kristin and defended the restaurant’s food quality, said he witnessed her loudly fire an underperforming cook in front of staff. Sources said this cook frequently talked on the phone using a bluetooth device, which caused him to mess up orders. He also threw plastic into compost bins, they said.
Former cook Noelle Perera remembered Rye yelling at the man within earshot of customers.
Rye said HoneyHole does not berate or fire employees in front of customers. Phone usage in the kitchen is “not acceptable for health and safety reasons” and grounds for immediate termination, she said.
Former managers and employees also told The Stranger that Rye frequently promoted new hires into positions with no training, and later fired them when they didn’t perform to her standards. Only one employee disagreed.
“I think part of it is that she thinks that people are really plug-and-play, [Kristin Rye] thinks she can put them in a position she wants and make it work,” one employee said.
Rye said she is often forced to make “tough calls” that may come across as harsh; she may fire employees who don’t grow in a “reasonable amount of time.”
Former manager Echo Leyson said this April Rye attempted to pressure them into a solo opening shift the morning after their father died. Rye allegedly said Leyson would have privacy in the event of an emotional breakdown. Leyson refused to work the shift but said Rye called about work several times during their bereavement, which lasted more than a week, and impeded their ability to grieve.
Rye regrets that Leyson felt pressured by her initial call. She only aimed to clarify plans for the following morning. On subsequent calls during Leyson’s bereavement, she shared condolences from staff and asked about two missing roof keys needed for an urgent repair, she said.
The employee with a pending L&I claim told The Stranger that Rye allegedly made a “slick” comment about how their “health issues” affected their attendance. In one instance, they called off for a surprise ER visit. They say their blood pressure read 180/110, which is nearly high enough to cause a stroke or heart attack, according to the American Heart Association.
In an email, Rye said she was unfamiliar with that story.
“As a general policy we do not inquire nor comment about an employee’s specific health issues other than to ask the general question, ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ Generally, when I hear of anyone taking a trip to the emergency room, my response is, ‘Are they OK?’” she wrote.
In this instance, the employee was already on their way to the ER when they sent Rye a text that read, “Omw to the ER.” Rye replied they should inform another manager, too.
“I saw that text and handed the phone to my boyfriend and I’m like, my blood pressure is going to get even higher if I continue to look at this,” the employee said.
HoneyHole has passed all recent routine health inspections.
The Pike Street location on Capitol Hill has a “good” rating on the King County’s food safety rating system, which is based on the average of high-risk violations from the last four routine inspections. The currently closed Jefferson Street location in the Central District has an “excellent” rating.
A King County health inspection of the Pike location on May 23 found no mold in the kitchen or ice machine; invoices confirmed the restaurant serviced beer lines on a monthly basis.
Current and former staff shared examples of what they believed to be poor-quality food served to customers, but The Stranger could not validate those claims.
“We pride ourselves on our health inspections,” said Patrick Rye. “A couple weeks ago… I think the main thing we got dinged for was an employee who was not changing their gloves often enough.”
One current employee who works in the kitchen said they eat their shift meal “five times a week” and have never seen any health violations. Another current employee said untrue claims about food safety distract from how Kristin Rye allegedly treats employees.
The Stranger first reported on the HoneyHole email last Monday morning in a Slog AM post that included alleged details sent by a former restaurant manager shared widely on social media, including Twitter and Reddit.
As we parsed the validity of the email’s claims, Patrick and Kristin Rye sent us a “cease and desist letter” that threatened a lawsuit for monetary damages because we reported on the existence of the letter, directing the blog to “desist from publishing other factually untrue statements.” They had sent public health inspection reports a little more than two hours before the pre-suit letter.
Patrick Rye offered to read a name-redacted statement allegedly written by multiple employees who say HoneyHole is safe. We asked that he send it by email and confirm which employees wrote this statement, but we did not hear back.
Despite what these employees say has happened at HoneyHole, they want to see the restaurant survive because it’s important to the neighborhood and they think it’d thrive under new ownership. They lamented HoneyHole’s current direction and expressed passionate support for current and former coworkers.
“On paper, it was probably the best place I’ve ever worked,” said one employee. “Every issue came from Kristin.”
Buster, who grew up in Seattle, said she believes HoneyHole is too important to vanish, but she thinks the place deserves criticism.
Perera, the former cook, says she loved HoneyHole, but she left her job because of Rye’s alleged behavior. She still regrets quitting, but she knows it was the best decision for her.
“I would hope people come back to HoneyHole,” she said. “I think people should stay away from it for now–because ownership isn’t the true HoneyHole they’ve learned and loved, it’s not the HoneyHole you remember… I currently believe HoneyHole is just a plaything right now.”