Randall Goldman, who for two decades has exerted influence over Charleston's world-famous dining scene and highest-profile weddings, has been accused by several former staff members of bullying them through sexually suggestive behavior that crosses professional lines.

According to eight former employees who shared their stories with The Post and Courier, the Patrick Properties Hospitality Group CEO is a chronic trespasser of social boundaries, prone to doling out backrubs, planting kisses and sending unseemly late-night text messages against recipients’ wishes.

These employees contend Goldman’s conduct flourished unchecked, creating a toxic workplace culture in which men and women feel physically and emotionally besieged.

“This was out of the ordinary, and this was insidious,” said Angel Powell, a former Patrick Properties publicist who now runs the influential South City Public Relations. “I think there is a lot of play at other restaurants that can cross the line. But in those situations, you can say, ‘don’t touch me,’ and people will generally back off. (With Goldman), you don’t know what’s happening, and you don’t know what to do about it.”

Celeste and Charles Patrick declined to comment. The couple in 1997 formed Patrick Properties Hospitality Group, the company that now owns Lowndes Grove Plantation, the American Theater, the William Aiken House and the restaurant space that last housed Fish. Through a publicist, they referred questions to their attorney, Allan Holmes, who said Patrick Properties has no record of complaints against Goldman.

“We are at a loss to understand why anyone with 'serious and substantiated' charges has never made a complaint to anyone with Patrick Properties," Holmes wrote, pointing out that the company has a comprehensive anti-harassment policy that explicitly instructs employees to immediately report violations.

When first approached by The Post and Courier late last year, Goldman strenuously denied all of the allegations. "This is the first time I have ever heard that," he said, adding that he would have known if employees had any concerns.

Confronting allegations

Since then, the allegations have circulated more broadly, and Goldman took steps this week to contain the controversy. On Tuesday, he filed a libel lawsuit against an unidentified person who used a masked email account to send messages suggesting that Goldman is “facing allegations of sexual harassment and creation of a hostile work environment.”

That person, named in the suit as "John Doe," allegedly contacted the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association. Goldman serves as president of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, as well as a member of the James Beard Foundation national advisory board.

Also on Tuesday, Goldman filed a lawsuit under the state Freedom of Information Act contending that the Charleston Wine + Food Festival continuously violated the law by holding illegal meetings. He is seeking an injunction to stop the festival board from meeting Thursday “to consider the charges of ‘conduct unbecoming a director’ against a board member and to consider the board member’s removal.” Goldman, the festival’s immediate past chair and a current board member, did not name the board member or elaborate on the conduct under review. 

A festival spokeswoman referred questions to the group's attorney, who did not return calls for comment.

The meeting, announced Wednesday morning on the festival’s website, comes just days before Charleston Wine + Food welcomes 20,000 ticketholders to its annual event. The festival starts on Wednesday; its schedule of more than 100 programs includes the debut of Patrick Properties’ new restaurant, Parcel 32, set to host a sold-out dinner.

Patrick Properties on Jan. 30 convened a companywide meeting to brief employees on the allegations leveled against their boss, which Goldman’s personal attorney, Alice Paylor, dismissed as baseless. The Post and Courier was not present for the meeting, but obtained an audio recording from an employee in attendance.

Paylor told the group gathered at the American Theater that two women had reported that Goldman “made them feel uncomfortable because he told them that they looked nice. OK? And they say he kind of leered at them, whatever that means. One time is not sexual harassment, OK?”

In response to a question about what employees should do if confronted about the rumors at an event, Paylor advised, “I think you can say, ‘We had a briefing and it was basically nothing: Two incidental comments that he made to two different people, and they felt uncomfortable. And that’s all.’ No touching. No assault.”

In character

At the meeting, Paylor drew a distinction between Goldman’s alleged behavior and “Harvey Weinstein’s raping women.”

“We’re in the South and a lot of Southerners are very friendly,” she said. “They like to hug; they like to kiss on the cheek; they like to do all of that stuff. If you don’t like it, you tell that person, ‘You know, I don’t like that. You’re invading my personal space.’”

Paylor said she’s had to fend off advances from fellow attorneys. Still, she said she was shocked that positive comments about appearance wouldn’t be well-received, suggesting a woman who has just given birth would likely appreciate hearing she “looks great.”  

Many of the offending words and gestures attributed to Goldman could be dismissed as comical or creepy, his accusers allow. For instance, they cite numerous incidents of Goldman removing his shoes in one-on-one meetings and throwing fits over birthday cakes and get-well gifts he considered insufficiently grand.  

“I think in Charleston, where characters are sort of valued and mythologized to some extent, he became kind of a caricature,” said Jenny Badman, who served as Patrick Properties’ marketing and PR manager from 2007-2009. “But saying ‘that’s just him’ is part of the reason we’re in this mess. We’re making this madness OK, when you would never want to have to deal with it.”

Closing in

A one-time member of the Coast Guard, Goldman enrolled in Johnson & Wales University’s culinary program in 1991. As a student, he worked as personal chef to the Patricks, who he would later join in remaking upper King Street as a tourist destination. Under his watch, the company cultivated a reputation as a community patron and host to the city’s highest-status weddings. In 1997, he married his wife, Jennifer, who's also a Patrick Properties executive.

And he always wears cologne.

That last detail is common knowledge among Patrick Properties staff, because its distinctive scent warned employees when he was on his way toward them.

“You’re like, ‘Oh my God, he’s here: Where can I go so I don’t have to face him?’,” remembered Patrick Willey, who left Fish after six years as a server when former chef Nico Romo offered him a job at his new restaurant. “He does this thing where he grabs your face, and kisses you on the cheek, and you’re sitting there in shock.”

Badman added that Goldman’s conversation with subordinates was equally intrusive. In addition to “com(ing) into our tiny, tiny office and wedg(ing) himself between our desks, which was no place for anyone, let alone a man of his size,” she recalled closed-door marketing meetings in Goldman’s office that ended up touching on “the ins and outs of my relationship.”

“I’m a gay woman, and he latched on to that right away,” Badman said.

Goldman insisted he always avoided bringing up personal matters at work. "I have found over my years in the industry, it's not appropriate to try to get into that." Still, he concedes some discussions may have delved into employees' private lives at their request.

"I'm not a therapist, but then again, if someone said, 'Oh my God, I'm having a hard time with my significant other,' I'm going to listen," he said. "I'm going to be compassionate."

He says his approach to physical interactions is guided by a similar principle. “Touching is a gray area,” he said. “So we handshake, and once in a while, if we’re coming back, like after this winter break, there’s a ‘hey, good morning, how are you?’ with a very distant hug, but nothing that could be misunderstood.”

One built-in check on improper contact is the presence of Jennifer Goldman, he said.

“I work with my wife. That would get back to my wife.”  

Leaving for good

Willey suspects the recent opening of NICO Restaurant in Mount Pleasant by longtime Fish chef Nico Romo was instrumental in persuading some former employees to put their concerns on the record, since they’re no longer dependent on Goldman for work or a recommendation. Others remain wary of crossing Goldman and would only agree to speak if their names were not used, citing concerns that their livelihoods will be threatened. 

“Everybody was afraid of him; I’m afraid of him 10 years later,” said one former worker in the events department, who recalled morning office chatter centered on “Who got a weird text from Randall and what did it say? Who got stuck with him and kissed on the lips?”

When she considered resigning before eventually leaving the company over an all-staff e-mail criticizing her job performance, “Randall told me if I resigned, I wouldn’t get another job in Charleston.” The employee would not provide a copy of the e-mail to The Post and Courier.

After another employee gave her notice in order to relocate to the city where her fiancé lived, Goldman posted his reaction to his blog, Backstorydotcom, a site he’d excitedly described to The Post and Courier in 2009 as a way “to humanize this company we have, to add a personal feel to it.” 

“I am bitter about this one, as I have divested great time and personal energy to comfort them during recent trying times, personal and professional, only to be sold out to a higher bidder,” he wrote. “Please just leave the wad of cash on the dresser on your way out.”

Goldman's blog has since been taken down, and The Post and Courier was unable to find digital traces of his postings. The passage above was shared by a former worker who had saved a copy of the entry. 

Goldman said any such threat of retaliation would backfire in such a tight labor market.

“This is such a small town: Stuff like that, word gets out,” he said. “Who wants to work for someone where there’s going to be retaliation? If that was the image that was out there about me, that I retaliate against those that leave, then I wouldn’t have the success I think we do at recruiting young and seasoned talent.”

Goldman does recall sending text messages to valuable employees urging them to stay with the company.

“Nico’s a great example,” he said. “I texted him and said, ‘I hope you never leave,’ absolutely, but if someone comes to him with an opportunity like (NICO), he has my 100 percent support.”

Supporting women

Goldman said he’s also supported countless female employees, driven in part by his respect and gratitude for his mother, who was a single parent.

“I’m heartbroken we’re even having this conversation, because I am such a supporter of women in the workforce,” he said.

Patrick Properties is a financial supporter of Les Dames d'Escoffier International, a philanthropic society for women in the food-and-beverage industry, as well as Florence Crittenton Programs of SC, which provides help to at-risk pregnant teens; Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the James Beard Foundation. In 2013, the New York City-based foundation chose Lowndes Grove as the site of its awards finalists’ announcement, an event that restaurant chefs and food writers across the country watch on a streamed feed.

A longtime Fish staff member contends Goldman's leadership positions in the food industry shielded him from questions about his behavior. "In the past couple years, his behavior seems to be escalating, and that's terrifying for me," she said.

Playing the patron

The allegations come at a time of growing awareness of sexual harassment in the food-and-beverage industry, and its consequences for professional women’s career trajectories.

Since The Times-Picayune in October published an investigative report detailing allegations against New Orleans chef John Besh, accusations have been leveled against chef Mario Batali, restaurateur Ken Friedman and chef Charlie Hallowell, all of whom have stepped away from their companies in response to the charges.  

Stories such as these have forced hospitality workers here to rethink their instinct to ignore Goldman’s “lingering hugs” and tendency to splay his legs when seated across from them, which multiple people say made them uncomfortable. Some said they regret not saying anything earlier, but they were young and inexperienced in the industry at the time. Several of Patrick Properties' 120 employees, for example, were hired straight out of the College of Charleston, where Goldman is past chair of the Hospitality & Tourism Management School.

“I felt very beholden to him because I had nothing on my resume, and he gave me a job,” said a former Fish employee. “He made me feel like he had done me a favor.”

Another employee who spent three years in the sales department said she finally left a few months after a run-in with Goldman so disturbing that she requested a meeting with her supervisor.

'A love rub'

The sales representative was the only person in her five-person office that day.

“And (Goldman) came in, sort of slowly walking in, and asked me specifically where everybody was, to gauge how long they’d be gone,” she said. “Once he understood that the room was clear, and was going to be clear for a little while, he came over to my desk and rubbed my back, and told me he was giving me a love rub.”

Frightened, she “smiled to shake it off.” Later, Goldman’s assistant, who doubled as the company’s human resources coordinator, discouraged her from reporting the incident, the woman said.

“She was like, 'Randall loves you. He’d be really devastated if you came forward with this,'” she said.

The former assistant did not return messages from The Post and Courier. Patrick Properties' attorney Holmes said the company would welcome the opportunity to investigate the allegation, but currently lacks enough information to pursue the matter. 

According to Goldman, Patrick Properties a few years ago retained Sandy Hill Human Resources Consulting for advice on thorny issues pertaining to employment, although it’s not clear whether the firm was advising Patrick Properties when the alleged incident occurred.

“I’ve always thought having a third party kind of helps protect everybody,” Goldman said. In November, the company also created a designated human resources position.

In so many words

Those interviewed for this story stress that Goldman never asked for sex. Still, the perceived threat of unwanted strokes and hugs loomed over the workday for some employees. “You knew if you were caught alone in the house with him, he was going to come over and put his hands on you,” a former sales representative said, referring to the historic William Aiken House, which serves as Patrick Properties headquarters and the backdrop to weddings with six-figure price tags.

People familiar with Goldman say he could also make them uncomfortable from afar.

“He would text in the wee hours of the morning, and it would be stuff like, ‘I just needed to tell you how much you mean to me’,” Badman said.

At other times, Goldman’s commentary veered into the realm of physical appearance, workers said. The woman who worked at Fish recalls him telling her, "Those stockings are so hot."

Goldman confirmed he would mention how staff members looked. “Absolutely, if someone looks nice for the day, I’m going to comment on their attire,” he said. “But not in a suggestive way. No.”

Still, in the opinion of Willey, the server, “His use of language was really not appropriate. When he first started telling me I was beautiful, I was like, ‘Oh, thanks, that’s nice, I appreciate it.’ And then it started rubbing me the wrong way. … I was out back and he was like, ‘Man, you’re sexy!’ I was so uncomfortable, but I was trying to safeguard my job.”

Nico Romo's departure

Romo, who left Fish last May after a decade as the restaurant’s executive chef, is frequently characterized as a “buffer” by former employees who relied on his emotional stability and protective demeanor. But he said staff members typically turned down his offers to intercede on their behalf, since they feared their situations would worsen if they reported Goldman’s behavior.

“Randall Goldman is the reason that I left Patrick Properties, and he is the reason that many others have left the company," said Romo, who maintains he witnessed many of the incidents cited by former colleagues. "I tried my best to protect my employees when I was there, and I'm glad to have left that chapter of my life behind me."

If there’s been a downside to the drumbeat of exposes revealing sexual misconduct in commercial kitchens, it’s perhaps been the growing sense that restaurants are natural hotbeds of misogynist debauchery.

That perception isn’t entirely off-base: When workers’ advocacy group ROC United in 2014 surveyed restaurant employees, 60 percent of the female and transgender workers who responded said sexual harassment was “an uncomfortable aspect of work life." Of the sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a full 37 percent originate from the restaurant industry.

Yet while the former employees interviewed for this story don’t dispute that food-and-beverage culture deserves its bawdy reputation, they said their other work experiences in the industry haven’t been nearly as upsetting as the time they spent working for Goldman.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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