This story has been updated with a correction.
The founder of Holy Land grocery store and deli promised to overhaul employee training, review management practices and become a community leader in the fight against racism to repair the damage caused by his daughter’s offensive social media posts.
Former employees and the leader of a boycott campaign, however, say the problems at Holy Land go much deeper and are of a much longer duration than one person’s Twitter or Instagram comments. In interviews with Sahan Journal, they cited unfair pay practices and preferential treatment given to white or Arab customers.
Iman Hassan, the boycott leader, said a Facebook post Thursday in which Majdi Wadi, Holy Land founder and CEO, outlined the company’s plans was “a really good start.” But she added that she was frustrated he didn’t take any personal responsibility for the problems, and said the boycott would remain in place to push for improvements in labor practices and the work environment.
On Facebook, Wadi said in the wake of the scandal caused by the social media posts made by his daughter, Lianne, several years ago, the company had instituted mandatory training to combat racism and hired an outside firm to audit management practices. He said he has been meeting with community leaders and customers.
Wadi fired his daughter and former catering manager June 4 after tweets from 2012 and an Instagram post from 2016 showed Lianne using racial slurs. In reaction to the posts, eight markets removed Holy Land products from their shelves, a move that cost Holy Land an estimated $5 million, according to Wadi.
Four employees quit, and more than 30 others lost their jobs due to the closure of the midtown location and hummus factory, Wadi said in an interview with Sahan Journal. The Northeast Minneapolis location re-opened last week.
While he said that Holy Land had sympathized with movements for greater equality, “We now know this is not enough. We have underestimated the power of our voice to spark change in the fight against racism in all forms,” Wadi said.
“We plan to take the lead in the fight against racism and oppression, advancing our shared goals of bringing community-wide healing,” he said.
Former employees speak out
Several former employees said Holy Land had a long way to go to reform its culture.
Mahad started working at Holy Land in 2013 and asked to be identified by her middle name since she currently works with members of the Wadi family.
Mahad, who is Somali, alleged she was paid less than her Arab coworker who was hired around the same time as her and who once showed Mahad her paycheck.
“Nobody spoke out about it because our jobs would be on the line,” Mahad said.
If a white or Arab customer came to the store, Mahad was encouraged to “give them extra bread,” while customers of color, the majority of Holy Land’s clientele, weren’t treated as well.
According to Mahad, Lianne and her father would follow black customers to make sure they weren’t stealing. Comments from customers on social media echoed the same concern.
“Every time they would see a black family grocery shopping, [Lianne] would leave the cash register all the way on the other side, run and tail that black family just to see if they’re stealing,” Mahad said.
Hana Muse also said she witnessed Lianne follow black customers when she worked there in 2015.
“There were a lot of Somali families that would come to that restaurant,” Muse said. “They were treated like crap.”
Muse said she once came to work with her hair braided, but her managers told her to “take out your hair.”
“They were just so harsh,” Muse said. “I thought that this was how every work environment was, until I quit Holy Land.”
At the end of the night, Muse said Lianne would watch over any black employee counting the cash drawer.
Asked about the complaints regarding pay, Wadi said Holy Land pays employees in accordance with the law and the current market rate for the position.
“I can confirm that we have never paid anyone below the minimum wage,” Wadi said in a statement to Sahan Journal.
Employees subjected to possible discrimination should notify a manager or the human resources office, according to Holy Land’s employee handbook. Human resources would then investigate the allegations and implement corrective action.
Wadi said to his knowledge, no one has complained about any racist experiences in the past.
But Muse and Mahad both said the management perpetuated a “take it or leave it” attitude towards complaints. Neither of them ever felt comfortable filing a complaint about racism with a manager.
Northeast Minneapolis community organizes
Hassan is a Northeast Minneapolis community member heading a campaign to boycott Holy Land. Hassan quietly stopped shopping at Holy Land years ago, and until now had avoided speaking out about her family’s experience as customers in order to protect an immigrant-run business.
“We’re really frustrated with the things that were going on that we thought were a pattern,” Hassan said.
As part of the campaign, Hassan helped compile a document listing the stories of about 60 people who experienced what they regarded as racism at Holy Land over the years. The stories, while disheartening, were not surprising, Hassan said. She said she had heard staff use racially-charged terms in Arabic while she was shopping.
“I, as a black Somali Muslim woman, walk into your store and I’m afraid to be called a slave in Arabic — that’s wild to think about,” Hassan said.
After Wadi posted his apology on Facebook Thursday, Hassan said she would continue boycotting Holy Land until labor practices change.
“Sometimes you just have to hope to god that someone in their heart actually means what they’re saying and it isn’t just a ploy to reestablish themselves in the community,” Hassan said.
Sagirah Shahid, who worked at Holy Land 10 years ago, helped Hassan facilitate conversations with employees. After the police killing of George Floyd, Shahid noticed more people coming forward with stories about racism at Holy Land.
“It wasn’t just owners, it was a culture. And this is why I think it’s still going on,” Shahid said. “It’s a culture of abuse that they had from the top down. That doesn’t go away overnight.”
Dennis Williamson, an academic dean at Prodeo Academy, who has organized protests against Holy Land has met with Wadi and came away convinced of his sincerity.
When he first saw Lianne’s social media posts, friends began reaching out to him with experiences of racism at Holy Land. Forty people gathered in the back parking lot of Holy Land June 6.
“I’ve not heard of a single thing that’s good about them except for their food products,” Williamson said.
After the protest, Wadi set up a meeting withWilliamson and created better impression.
“I can tell genuinely that Mr. Wadi definitely cares about the community,” Dennis said. “All in all, it was very positive.”
Wadi told Williamson that he’s going to be bridging the gap by supporting African American community events and charities.
“Sympathizing with the cause is not enough anymore,” Wadi said. “Our main concern and main focus is the needs of our brothers and sisters in the African-American community and in the African immigrant community.”
Wadi said he’s been asked to pledge $2 million to the black community, but has not confirmed the amount he will pledge.
“We have a course of action, a financial commitment and an accountability plan,” Wadi said. “In order for me to fulfill my commitment, I need to get my business back to where it was before.”
CORRECTION: After the publication of this story, Holy Land provided Hana Muse’s pay records. They showed that Hana was paid $8 per hour during training and $9 per hour after completion of the training. Hana told Sahan Journal that she believed she was paid about $7 an hour at Holy Land in 2015. We removed that information from the article. We also removed some details regarding the payment of a former employee we identified as Mahad because we couldn’t verify them. We regret the error.
Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.