Founders will reopen Detroit taproom in 2020, donate all profits to charity

The Michigan brewing giant hired Detroit-based Thomas Group Consulting to help with community efforts and to create a diverse workforce

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

After weeks of controversy stemming from a racial discrimination lawsuit, Founders Brewing Co. will reopen its Detroit taproom early next year.

Additionally, the company announced Thursday that 100% of profits from the reopened location will benefit Detroit charities and community organizations through at least 2022.

The Michigan brewing giant also hired Detroit-based Thomas Group Consulting to help Founders with community partnership and to create a diverse workforce.

The brewery's co-founders Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens, along with Buzz Thomas of the Thomas Group Consulting firm met with members of the media Thursday morning at the taproom in the Cass Corridor. They answered questions and talked about Founders' increased charity efforts and commitment to diversity following this backlash. 

"We want to do this right and we want to make sure that when we open our doors we do the best job that we can for the folks in Detroit," said Stevens, adding that the Detroit taproom is looking for a new general manager, preferably a native Detroiter. "Once we get that in place we're going to really accelerate things to get the doors open."

"When we do open, our plan is to give 100% of the profits back to the community of Detroit and in that effort we have a lot of things to put together, a lot of folks to talk to, but what we're really striving to do here is to work with the community, work with fellow Detroiters," said Stevens. "We want to work with the neighborhoods, we want to work with our staff." 

They didn't express exactly which charities or community organizations would receive the taproom's profits. Founders wants to reestablish and build relationships with local groups to understand better how their donations can make the best impact in the community. 

Stevens estimates they'll be able to donate $2 million over the three years. 

Dave Engbers (left) and Mike Stevens, co-founders of Founders Brewing Co., announce that all profits from the Detroit taproom will benefit Detroit charities and community organizations through at least 2022.

He admitted the past few weeks — which included the temporary closing of the Detroit tap room and local bars and restaurants pulling Founders products from their shelves — "has been tough." 

►More: Founders Brewing Co. settles racial discrimination lawsuit

►More: Founders Brewing diversity and inclusion director quits

►More: Details of deposition related to racial discrimination lawsuit against Founders Brewing Co. goes public

Stevens said the staff at the Detroit taproom will be paid at least through the end of the year. He added that he estimates that Founders made a $3.1 million impact in the city in the two years the Detroit taproom has been open through employee wages. 

Dave Engbers (from left) and Mike Stevens, co-founders of Founders Brewing, listen to Buzz Thomas, interim director, diversity equity and inclusion for Founders, about the future of the Detroit taproom.

Besides getting a new general manager for the taproom, Founders says they plan to hire formerly incarcerated Detroiters.  Once a new manager is in place, they'll look at a timeframe for re-opening, but said it could be a soon as January. 

Thomas will act as the interim inclusion director, replacing Graci Harkema who announced her resignation Oct. 25. Stevens noted at the press conference that Founders is one of the only beer-makers who has such a department to begin with. 

"Our work at Thomas Group is very simple. We help our client align themselves to the aspirations of the community in which they're serving," said Thomas as the press conference Thursday. "Everybody wants to come to Detroit. It's a hot place to be, and we want new folks to come to the city but many times folks get here and they don't know what the next steps are. Too often their aspirations don't fit the needs of the community." 

Founders also announced plans to hire a firm to perform an independent audit of its workforce to see what improvements need to be made. They said they plan to implement what they learn in Detroit and apply it to their brand in Grand Rapids and nationwide. 

Founders' Detroit taproom will remain closed until early 2020.

As for all the Detroit-area bars and restaurants that have pulled Founders' products from shelves and taps, Engbers says they will to go back to the grassroots style that they started with and go from account to account and try to convince business owners to believe in them . 

"There's no question that people are questioning our brand and our motives," said Engbers. "We've been doing this for 22 years now, and I've always said that beer brings people together ... we're going to go back out there and hit the street and do what we did when we built the brand, and that's going door to door, make a lot of telephone calls, reassuring people that we're the same company that we always have been." 

Stevens said this fallout has resulted in "a few hundred lost accounts on the national level." 

►More:Bankole: Founders case a hard lesson on inclusion

While the racial discrimination lawsuit was filed by former employee Tracy Evans last year, the backlash started after pages from a deposition were leaked to the news media last month.

In the deposition, Founders' former Detroit taproom manager Dominic Ryan avoided questions about Evans' race and claimed he didn't know President Barack Obama was black because he "never met him." 

At Thursday's press conference, Engbers and Stevens said Ryan has been relieved of all his duties at the Detroit taproom and is on leave. 

Founders Taproom in Detroit is one of several restaurants that are temporarily closed after an employee tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

The lawsuit included accusations made by Evans that employees had used the N-word and not been fired for it. (Evans is still employed within the company.) Evans also stated in the case that Founders' Grand Rapids offices had two computer printers that were labeled "white guy printer" and "black guy printer." 

According to the lawsuit, Evans says he was passed up for promotions that went to white co-workers who hadn't been at the company as long. He also claims he received harsher discipline than white workers for tardiness. 

Following backlash and boycotts of the brand that reached beyond Michigan, Founders closed its Detroit taproom, citing safety concerns for its employees there.

The beer company, said to be the largest in the state, started in 1997 in the Grand Rapids area. As of this year, Founders is largely owned by Spanish company Mahou-San Miguel Group.

More:Founders Brewing Co. settles racial discrimination lawsuit

More:Founders Brewing diversity and inclusion director quits

Twitter: @melodybaetens