‘Influencer Network’ the FeedFeed Hit With Lawsuit Alleging Workplace Racism and Sexism – Elazar Sontag

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Filed by two women of color who formerly worked at the FeedFeed, the lawsuit alleges a hostile work environment, unequal pay, and “horrific mistreatment”

Even if the FeedFeed cooking website and social media accounts are unfamiliar to you, its aesthetic has surely infiltrated your Instagram or Pinterest: endless pictures of glimmering pasta and molten cheese pulls, all under the #feedfeed hashtag, which has collected more than 19 million photos on Instagram. Your favorite food influencer has probably collaborated with the FeedFeed account, been featured on it, or promoted the hashtags in pursuit of a boost in followers and visibility.

But according to a lawsuit filed on January 4 in the Eastern District of New York, and related reporting by the Washington Post, things might not be all glitzy food pics and cutesy hashtags at the FeedFeed. To understand what happened at the FeedFeed, where two staff members of color, Rachel Gurjar and Sahara Henry-Bohoskey, allegedly faced discrimination, pay disparities, and, according to their lawyer, a “racist caste system,” you first need to know what the FeedFeed is, who the people behind it are, and how it gained prominence in the food world.

So, what is the FeedFeed?

The FeedFeed describes itself as “the world’s largest crowdsourced publication,” and “the world’s largest epicurean social influencer network.” But what does that actually mean? While the FeedFeed does have a website where recipes are collected, the company is most prominent on social media — particularly Instagram — where it operates an account with 2 million followers, as well as the hashtags #feedfeed and #thefeedfeed, which appear under many food pictures on Instagram.

Husband and wife Dan and Julie Resnick founded the company while living in the Hamptons in 2013. It began as an Instagram account, where Dan, then a radiologist, would post photos of meals made by Julie, a digital marketing executive and a professionally trained cook. The couple created their popular hashtags as a way to centralize and organize content created by a wide array of food bloggers on social media. With permission, they reposted photos featuring these hashtags; the more they posted, the more popular their account became, prompting expansions to offices in Brooklyn and Los Angeles which act as test kitchens, event spaces, and film studios for the creation of cooking videos.

Now, in an evolving food landscape where influencers and bloggers increasingly have as much sway as legacy cooking network stars, the FeedFeed is a force. There’s no singular personality representing the account, no cult of curated personas. Instead, the brand’s social media accounts and associated website are an ever-increasing collection of recipes and food photos reposted from influencers, bloggers, and FeedFeed staffers (who are usually influencers in their own right).

Who are the plaintiffs/central players in the lawsuit?

Two former FeedFeed employees, Rachel Gurjar, who is from Mumbai, and Sahara Henry-Bohoskey, a Black woman raised in Japan, allege in a federal discrimination lawsuit filed against the company that they were “directed to work more than their white counterparts for less pay, treated worse in the form of a racially hostile work environment … Ultimately, the work environment became so emotionally distressing to both Plaintiffs that they each independently felt they had no option but to resign.” Along with the harassment and hostility the two women allegedly experienced at the hands of the company’s founders, they allege facing similar treatment from then-test kitchen director and editorial director Jake Cohen.

Gurjar, who was 30 when she was hired as a social media coordinator, worked in public relations in Mumbai before studying at the Culinary Institute of America and working as a private chef and caterer. She received a starting salary of $50,400. Gurjar’s coworker Sara Tane, who started working on the same day as Gurjar, was hired as a food editor and content strategist. She had some previous experience interning and working at cooking publications, and at 24 years old, received a starting salary of $72,000. (Tane was laid off during the pandemic, and is quoted by the Post about her difficult time working at the FeedFeed.) While it’s possible Tane’s past experience in relevant jobs contributed to her higher salary — as the FeedFeed’s attorney reasoned to the Post — Gurjar and Henry-Bohoskey allege in their lawsuit that these sorts of discrepancies were a clear indicator of the inequitable conditions at the FeedFeed.

Who is Jake Cohen, and what does he have to do with this lawsuit?

Like many staff at the FeedFeed, a company that effectively operates as a platform for influencers in the food world, Cohen already had a sizable following when he joined the company in December 2018 as test kitchen director and editorial director. Cohen, who had 599,000 Instagram followers and 1.4 million TikTok followers at the time this article was published, is also the author of a New York Times bestselling cookbook aimed at infusing Jewish cuisine with a sense of youth and playfulness. Cohen left his position at the FeedFeed in August 2020.

According to the lawsuit, which lists Cohen as a defendant, he “became an immediate and active participant in the abuse” when he joined the company. The lawsuit alleges Cohen once discouraged Gurjar from having children, saying “now is not the time to have kids.” In a statement to the Post, Cohen denied this, saying he’d been speaking of his own decision not to have children. Cohen would allegedly mock Gurjar for her pronunciation and grammar, an accusation which the Post says other former FeedFeed employees confirmed to them. The lawsuit alleges that Cohen would, among other things, yell across the office, telling Gurjar and Henry-Bohoskey to “perform menial and degrading tasks.” According to the lawsuit, Cohen would also allegedly “[leave] his dirty pots, pans, and dishes out for Plaintiffs to wash, dry, and put away, as though they were his personal maids.” In a statement to the Post, Cohen told the publication that the allegations were all false or misleading.

One particularly striking allegation in the lawsuit is that at the onset of the pandemic, Cohen allegedly said in conversation to several FeedFeed staff, “Oh my god, I am so scared I am going to get the coronavirus because I have so many crazy rich Asians living in my building who keep getting packages from Korea and China!” Cohen said in a statement to the Post that the quote had been embellished, and that he “treated everyone at the Feedfeed equally and fairly and never demeaned or disparaged any of my co-workers in any way.” And when it comes to his anti-Asian remarks, Cohen told the Post he regrets making the comment and that he referenced the movie title in relation to Asian travelers coming through his apartment lobby because, according to the Post, he was scared.

In the wake of the lawsuit and the Post reporting, numerous Jewish publications reported on Cohen’s involvement in the allegations, and followers online have expressed their disappointment that a food figure who has built a persona around being a self-describedNJB” (or Nice Jewish Boy) could possibly have been simultaneously making work life unbearable for two women of color — and many of the other staff who worked under him.

Reading this article about Jake Cohen and what went down at feedfeed and that he was able to profit off that smiley NJB brand while treating folks like that…nope.

— Ruth S (@Ruth_Mensch) January 5, 2022

Cohen has yet to respond to the lawsuit or Washington Post article on social media.

What else is in the lawsuit, and what part did the FeedFeed’s founders play?

Though Gurjar and Henry-Bohoskey described to the Post a workplace in which they say they were subjected to racism and sexism and regularly felt disrespected, they also say they were allegedly used to promote the FeedFeed’s public-facing diversity. All the while, the two allege they were treated as “second-class employees,” discouraged from taking lunch breaks, and expected to work evenings and weekends, often without receiving overtime pay.

In October, after both women had quit and the Post had made inquiries leading up to the publication of its story, the FeedFeed paid Gurjar and Henry-Bohoskey more than $31,000 each for previously unpaid overtime. Matthew Berger, the company’s attorney, said that the FeedFeed disagreed with the overtime claims, but said that “to the extent there was any inadvertent underpayment during their employment, we wanted to make sure they were compensated.”

The lawsuit and Post story paint the picture of a workplace where, even as both staff and following grew, Dan and Julie Resnick were unable to relinquish even the slightest control. To move up through the company, Gurjar and Henry-Bohoskey claim they had to consistently overextend to meet the founders’ ever-shifting standards. According to the lawsuit, both women say they were denied raises and title changes for jobs they requested while at the FeedFeed, with the Resnicks citing lack of experience and shifting company needs during the pandemic. In an interview with the Post, Henry-Bohoskey said she was eventually promoted to social media manager in October 2020, after she pointed out a sizable pay disparity between her and a white social media manager.

Though the Resnicks denied the allegations of pay disparities and bygone promotions, saying they are “simply untrue,” and the company’s attorney argues the two women were lacking the qualifications for the roles they sought to fill, the plaintiffs allege that discrimination played a major role in their slow climb through the company’s ranks.

During and after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 which demanded racial justice and police accountability, Henry-Bohoskey expressed feeling tokenized by the founders’ sudden desire to have her featured in more video content. Henry-Bohoskey shared a call with the Post — which Eater has reviewed — she recorded on June 24, 2020, in which Dan Resnick told her that “The thing you mentioned about like, feeling tokenized, I strongly disagree with that … Whether that was before recent events or now, we’ve never put pressure on you to create content … In this environment right now, I find that to be a very slippery slope to make those statements, but I’d love to hear why you feel that way.” But in a Slack conversation from several weeks before the call, shared with the Post and Eater, Dan Resnick said that if the company believed a “non-white” person to be the right fit for a video campaign “we are 100 percent within our right as a company to request that Sahara shoot it … ”

The two women allege that as they spoke up and raised concerns over issues at the FeedFeed, the Resnicks became hypercritical of their work, making life difficult for both. And in December 2020, shortly after someone who Gurjar believed had been hired to replace her came on staff, she was the only one who didn’t receive a holiday bonus. The Resnicks told the Post that was because Gurjar had “repeatedly violated company policy on posting content for competitors and current clients.”

Gurjar quit her job at the FeedFeed in December 2020, and is now an associate food editor at Bon Appétit. In January 2021, Henry-Bohoskey resigned, forfeiting her state-mandated maternity leave despite being pregnant at the time.

How has the FeedFeed responded?

In a response shared with the Post, the Resnicks called the allegations “simply untrue,” saying they’ve created a work culture akin to a “close-knit family.” Berger, the company’s attorney, has sent a cease and desist letter to one prominent food blogger who criticized the company and encouraged other Instagram users to stop utilizing FeedFeed hashtags in the wake of the lawsuit, citing “false and defamatory social media posts.”

In turn, Crumiller, the self-described feminist litigation firm bringing the case against the FeedFeed, has offered to represent anyone facing the cease and desists — pro bono. Susan Crumiller, the firm’s founding attorney, says that when it comes to cease and desists letters, if FeedFeed is “dumb enough to follow through with an actual lawsuit, New York’s laws entitle us to recover our fees on the basis that the lawsuit is frivolous and is designed to harass and chill speech.” Crumiller says that filing defamation cases serves to bring “way more attention to [a company’s] reprehensible conduct.” In a statement to Eater, the FeedFeed’s attorney, Berger, said that the “Feedfeed respects everyone’s right to their opinions but will continue to defend itself from false and defamatory statements.”

A post on the FeedFeed Instagram account, signed off by both founders, elaborates on their denial of the claims: “While we would never want to invalidate someone’s feelings, the complaint is built on false, inaccurate, and misleading information,” it reads. The post goes on to outline how the company now boasts a team of “15 talented and diverse female employees” and asks that followers “reserve judgement on this matter until all facts are presented in a court, not just parsed online.”

The post’s caption, which includes a contact email address, expresses that the FeedFeed’s “door is always open for discussion.” Meanwhile, the post’s comment section is closed.

Women allege racism, sexism at food media company Feedfeed [WaPo]

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