Standing behind a hostess stand built to look like a pulpit, Kristin Potler smiled earlier this month as she greeted guests at Church bar. Her daughter waited tables as diners sat in pews, ordering $13 cocktails from a menu that looked like a Bible. On a bright, early evening, blackout curtains and electronic music made the space feel like the home of a hip vampire.

There was little evidence of the firestorm that has engulfed the Old Goucher establishment, which recently reopened after a monthlong shutdown during which it changed hands. During that closure, Church was named one of the top bars in the country by Esquire magazine — a choice that baffled employees and investors who say the reality of the bar never lived up to its lofty aspirations and glossy images. Former employees have taken to social media to blast Church and in particular, one of its founders, Chelsea Gregoire. And they have questions about the bar’s new owners and their plans for the business going forward.

Former employees and investors interviewed by The Baltimore Banner said Church’s original owners sold them on a vision for the bar that espoused transparency and equality at a time of reckoning in the hospitality world. But under Gregoire’s leadership, they said, Church became an unusually chaotic and dysfunctional place where workers and vendors were frequently paid late and both employees and investors were misled about the bar’s finances and operation.

“Chelsea harmed many people during the process of opening & operating Church, including me and my family,” former business partner Marisa Dobson said in a statement. “I don’t have a hope of seeing a return on my years of investment and money, but I’m still hoping that these new owners pay back every original employee and investor.”

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Gregoire, who uses they/them pronouns, said they intend to step away from the hospitality industry “in an effort to reflect, listen, and learn from my past year and the experiences of others.”

According to several ex-employees, Gregoire was often physically absent from the bar while simultaneously taking on more responsibilities for its operation. In an Instagram post earlier this month, Gregoire said mental health struggles while running Church contributed to their “not being able to keep up with the work … which meant that making payments as owed got more and more difficult over time.” Gregoire acknowledged late payrolls and bounced checks and apologized “for the harm and division I have caused.”

Still, some former employees and investors said they felt betrayed, describing how they were drawn into the concept in part by the star power of Gregoire, a respected figure in local hospitality circles who has worked at local bars such as True Chesapeake Oyster Co. and Ida B’s Table and was named Esquire’s beverage director of the year in 2019.

“Imagine that you’ve put $50,000 into something and you’re just watching it burn up in front of you,” said investor and former restaurant owner David Hart.

Church is located in Baltimore’s Old Goucher neighborhood. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“We were thrilled to support this younger person’s dream,” said Alisa Rhone-Simmons, who also invested in the bar with her wife, Christine. The couple, who previously lived in Baltimore but now reside in Mexico, were familiar with Gregoire’s work and had even solicited the mixologist’s help with building out their home bar.

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As experienced hospitality professionals and queer Black women, the Rhone-Simmonses were impressed by the vision of the founders, who also included Dobson, a well-connected publicist, and Martha Lucius, a Baltimore restaurant consultant.

The goals for Church were ambitious. “It was a utopia that was proposed,” Christine said. Church planned to offer financial literacy classes to employees, to support struggling restaurants and to foster equality and transparency in the workplace. But the Rhone-Simmonses felt the team of visionaries was up to the task. “They placed the bar pretty high, but it was not unreachable,” Christine said.

“The mission and vision was one of holding everyone up,” said Hart, who was on board with the project from early on.

Five former employees said they signed on to work at Church with the understanding that they’d eventually earn $23 to $26 per hour through a tip-pooling program. Gregoire told them there would be room for growth and opportunities for workers to try out different career paths. “Everything was good in theory,” said Akiko Scott, who worked in a floor support role, bussing tables and running food.

Employees were told the name “Church” was meant to foster a new kind of space, particularly for queer individuals, which is how many of the workers identified. It also reflected Gregoire’s own journey: The bartender, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Baptist Liberty University, told Baltimore magazine that they had once considered a career in ministry but had been ostracized from that Christian community for their sexuality. The bar was a means of creating a new type of church. Gregoire encouraged workers to call them “Bar Dad,” “Church Dad,” or simply “Dad.”

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Looking back, said former hostess Myoshi Smith, the atmosphere bordered on cultish. During a training session before the bar opened, employees were encouraged to bare their souls and share their experiences of trauma from past jobs. “People were literally crying,” Smith said. Staff were assured Church would be different. At first, Smith was thrilled to be in what they thought would be a “queer safe haven.”

By opening night in late September 2022, there were troubling signs. Gregoire missed Church’s launch, telling staff they were exhausted by the demands of the job. Lucius stepped in to manage but walked away from the operation soon after. Lucius attributed that decision to an illness in her family but declined to comment further, saying only that “the utopia that we wanted to create, I was very much excited to be a part of.” Dobson was on maternity leave from January through March of this year and departed the operation for good in April.

With little leadership on-site, Church’s operations felt rudderless, the former staffers said. The menu changed every few months, designed by a rotating team of “chefs in residence” who spent just a few days on-site. Often inexperienced cooks scrambled to execute dishes with little guidance, said former cook Tula Honkala.

In February of this year, employees said they learned that Melanie Kerr, the chef in residence at that time, hadn’t been paid for her work. As a result, Kerr notified Church’s staff in a text message that she wouldn’t be allowing the restaurant to serve the dishes she designed. In an emailed statement, Kerr said she was eventually paid, but only “after multiple failed attempts to communicate directly, a cease-and-desist letter, and a final meeting confirming that I was pulling my menu.”

Afterward, Kerr said that she told Gregoire that the experience “was unacceptable and triggering to me as a Black Woman Chef” and reminded her of times when she had been treated with racism in the industry. Still, Kerr wished Church’s new owners well. “The mission of Church deserves to be actualized in the world,” she said.

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Five former employees of Church claimed that Black staffers had fewer opportunities to get ahead than their white counterparts. “The majority of the Black people who worked at Church bar — they all worked behind the house, which is usually a bad sign at a restaurant,” said former host Nana Lora, who is Black. Two white staffers were promoted to “bar lead” positions and given raises, Smith said, but she said other employees, including Black workers, were not given the chance to apply for those positions. Scott — who uses they/them pronouns — said they told Gregoire several times about their desire to train as a bartender and offered to do the job on a trial basis, even stepping in to mix cocktails when the bartenders on duty were overwhelmed. But Scott said their requests were dismissed by Gregoire. Fed up, Scott eventually left Church, accepting an offer to design the coffee program at a local bakery.

Dobson said that while she didn’t discount the experiences of Black employees, she wasn’t part of personnel decisions and “didn’t personally witness any“ of the alleged treatment.

Gregoire wrote in an email that they are “heartbroken by the experience that some folks have had… at the business under my watch. This was absolutely not the aim, nor in line with the ethos of what I attempted to build.” They attributed some of the lack of promotions to the restaurant’s pace and said that “employees of color were given opportunities to advance as soon as the schedule warranted it, but most of these requests for switching roles came at a time when business was slower and we could not justify switching them into a different role when the shifts were not there.”

Myoshi Smith, a former hostess at Church Bar, has been outspoken about her time at the establishment. She is styled by Erika M. Cartledge.
Myoshi Smith, a former hostess at Church, has been outspoken about her time at the establishment. She is styled by Erika M. Cartledge. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Two troubling events also shattered Smith’s notions of Church as a safe space. The night the establishment first opened, she said a patron touched her inappropriately in the dining room. She said she was groped again in November 2022 by a different customer.

In both cases, Smith said the perpetrators remained in the bar, and she saw her hours reduced, which she viewed as a punishment for speaking up about the incidents. She didn’t report the alleged assaults to police because she “just wanted to heal and have it go away.” Smith said she told Lucius about the first incident but felt unsupported in the aftermath. Lucius declined to comment.

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Gregoire said in a statement that they were “thankful that this employee did speak up about the assaults, so that we could all learn how to better support each other, and I am sorry that this employee feels that they were failed by the business.” Gregoire added that they had, at Smith’s request, entered into mediation with the hostess following the opening night incident. “I was eager to hear the employee out and to hear about their experience, and I learned a lot from our conversation,” they said.

Meanwhile, investors grew frustrated with what they saw as a lack of transparency from Gregoire about the bar’s operations and finances. Hart said he never received an operating agreement despite repeatedly asking for one: “We emailed, our lawyers emailed. That’s when you know something’s not right.”

Christine and Alisa Rhone-Simmons said monthly emails from Gregoire went from substantive messages of a few paragraphs to just a few sentences, and never included financial reports. “You get a feeling in your bones,” Christine Rhone-Simmons said. “Something’s not right here.” The couple’s alarm increased when they attempted to modify their investment agreement and heard nothing in response.

Another cause for concern for the couple was the bar’s Instagram account, which was rarely updated and never showed the types of crowds that they would have expected to see at a successful establishment. “You want to see shiny happy faces,” Christine Rhone-Simmons said. The sparse social media profile was also concerning to Smith, who managed a successful Instagram account as part of her own side business. After the bar opened, Smith said she approached Gregoire three separate times about taking over the business’s account in the hopes of drumming up business for Church. Each time, she was told no.

In contrast to Gregoire’s sunny emailed updates to investors, business at Church was slow. As a result, the $23 hourly wage staff said they had been told to expect never materialized, and they made closer to $16 an hour, they said. Despite working at the restaurant full time, Scott said they themself rarely made more than $1,000 a month. Employees reported being paid late and checks not clearing. Smith said there were several weeks that she received a check but no paystub.

After New Year’s, Gregoire notified the team that Church was shutting down for a few days, a move that left some unable to pay their rent the following month. “I had to crowdfund for money,” Scott said. “Everybody there was essentially unemployed,” Lora said.

The end of Church under Gregoire was just as opaque as the previous months had been. Gregoire told workers in an email in May of this year that the bar would close for a three-day spring cleaning to get ready for patio weather. But the bar didn’t reopen.

In a statement, Gregoire attributed the decision to their declining health: “I moved, albeit later than I should have in hindsight, to find new operators for Church.”

It was around that time that Potler said she received word that Gregoire, a longtime family friend, was in crisis and needed to sell their bar — and fast.

For the Potlers, it was part favor, part leap of faith. Potler and her husband Devon, a former chef, had once run their own coffee shop in Ellicott City and long dreamed of opening a restaurant. At the same time, they understood from Gregoire that Church was in “dire straits.” Church’s liquor and business licenses had been suspended over payment issues. Employees were owed back pay. “Financially, it was bleeding out,” Kristin Potler said.

She and her husband, along with their children, took unpaid jobs at the restaurant “just to get sales rolling.” They paid wages owed to staff and got back the necessary permits. The couple’s son, Kaya Potler, who also works as the food and beverage manager at the Sagamore Pendry, helped design the cocktail menu and offered insight on some operations, including how to manage a tip pool. They conducted interviews and hired a few of the previous employees, but not Smith.

Smith said she and several co-workers are waiting to receive payment for paid time off accrued while working at Church. With some exceptions, the Potlers said they won’t be paying it. “We simply cannot afford to do so,” Kristin Potler wrote earlier this month in a message to investors that was obtained by The Baltimore Banner. “And obviously, Church Bar couldn’t either. It was a failed business.”

Four weeks in, Kristin Potler said that her family is “still discovering things we didn’t know” about the problems at Church. “We didn’t know the level of mismanagement that had harmed employees — the damage that had been done.”

Ultimately, the Rhone-Simmonses said they demanded their investment in Church back from Gregoire and received what they were owed. But they’re gobsmacked by the sale of the business — envisioned as a queer utopia — to the Potlers, a white husband-and-wife team.

Since the Potlers have acquired the bar, Christian texts and allusions to the Bible have appeared in Church’s Instagram profile and posts, and recent Facebook statuses from personal accounts suggest conservative leanings. The family has hung religious-themed artwork on the bar’s blue-gray walls.

Some who invested in and worked at Church wondered what the bar’s new, seemingly overt Christian identity could mean for the staff and customers who saw it as a refuge. Scott called Gregoire’s sale to the Potlers “the biggest slap in the face.” But Hart thinks the Potlers are doing their best to keep the concept and hope of Church alive. “I’m hoping there’s a sliver of that dream that’s left,” he said.

Kristin Potler said she has been devastated by an onslaught of attacks on the family on social media and calls to boycott the bar. “We have been called transphobic, homophobic, white supremacist,” she said. Some have questioned whether the family is really from Baltimore. Given the level of vitriol, she wonders if her family’s efforts to save Church could be doomed from the start.

Kaya Potler said it’s hurt to watch people make “baseless assumptions” about his parents after the purchase of the bar.

Though his parents are white, Kaya is biracial and trans, and said his own journey has helped expand his parents’ understanding of queer identity. “There’s a lot of healing and a lot of growth that’s happened within our family,” he said.

He’s hoping for a similar journey for Church. He doesn’t want it to be a safe space, though. He thinks he has a better phrase: “Brave space.”

christina.tkacik@thebaltimorebanner.com