Rotten Core: Former Employees say Farm-to-Table Restaurateur is Toxic and Abusive

Note to readers: This story contains descriptions of sexual harassment, assault, disparaging language and intimidating behavior. 

“If the owner walks in and everybody, front and back of house, is tensed-up walking on eggshells, uncomfortable, afraid he will talk to them, not sure what kind of a mood he’s in—it’s a terrible environment to work in,” says Leah Engel about her former boss Lowell Sheldon, a renowned Sebastopol restaurateur.

Sheldon opened Lowell’s, a high-end farm-to-table restaurant, in 2007. He went on to co-found three more acclaimed Sebastopol restaurants: Handline with his then-romantic partner Natalie Goble in 2016, Fern Bar in 2018 and Khom Loi in 2021. Currently, Sheldon is planning to reopen the Freestone Hotel, a historic landmark in West Sonoma County, as an elegant bed and breakfast with an attached wine tavern.

Engel’s description of working for Sheldon sharply contradicts the picture painted in the employee handbook for Lowell’s, which outlined the “core emotional skills” staff were expected to possess, including “optimistic warmth” and “empathy.”

“While we have high standards for proficency [sic] and work ethic, we have even higher standards for emotional intelligence: an innate care for hospitality, a capacity for working well with others, and a genuine willingness to learn and grow,” the handbook states in part.

Since April 2021, the Bohemian has interviewed 12 individuals—eight on record—with firsthand experience of Sheldon’s behavior between 2007 and 2021 in and outside of his restaurants. Eight former employees and business associates—six on record—experienced or witnessed Sheldon committing sexual harassment and regularly engaging in unprofessional behavior with people who worked for him at Fern Bar, Handline and the now-closed Lowell’s. Two other individuals—one on record—experienced harassment or troubling behavior in their places of work in Sebastopol. Two more individuals knew Sheldon from dating apps.

In August, the Bohemian began speaking to a woman who met Sheldon on a dating app. She says that Sheldon sexually assaulted her in 2019. On Monday, Sept. 27, she said she filed a police report about the incident. She asked to remain anonymous and will be referred to by the Bohemian as Jane Doe. The Bohemian also spoke to Heather Wise, a local attorney, who witnessed Doe file the report. A detailed account of Doe’s story appears here.

Three additional former employees of Sheldon’s restaurants spoke on the record to the San Francisco Chronicle, which published its own investigative article about the allegations against  Sheldon on Saturday, Sept. 25.

A signature cocktail at Fern Bar.

As reflected in the Lowell’s employee handbook, Sheldon’s restaurants appeared on the surface to be appealing places to work. They grew their own local organic ingredients and espoused their belief in personal and emotional growth, too. But Engel and others who worked for Sheldon say that the latter was all talk; while many cherished working among colleagues who were inspired by the businesses’ ethos, Sheldon’s restaurants had a rotten core.

Despite a 2019 HR investigation at Fern Bar prompted by employees’ concerns—none of Sheldon’s business partners spoke about Sheldon’s behavior publicly, instead opting to quietly remove him from Fern Bar and Khom Loi earlier this year, after Engel and another former employee of Sheldon posted on Instagram about their experiences working for him.

At Handline, Sheldon remains a partner, though owner Natalie Goble told the Bohemian that Sheldon has not managed daily operations since 2017 and that he has not performed any function relating to business operations since the spring.

His accusers say that without the restaurants’ public acknowledgement of Sheldon’s wrongdoing, there has been nothing to stop Sheldon from continuing to forge new partnerships where they fear he will continue to cause harm. Multiple sources expressed specific concern that Sheldon’s forthcoming hotel venture could be a dangerous place for women.

In a statement to the Bohemian in response to a lengthy list of questions about the allegations described in this article, Sheldon wrote, “Every allegation you list or question you asked, beyond the comment I made [that sparked the HR investigation], is either taken out of context, grossly misleading or completely false.”

What employees say Lowell’s was like 

Most of the employees the Bohemian spoke to worked for Sheldon within the past six years. However, one source who contacted us shed light on what Sheldon was like when his first restaurant opened 14 years ago. She asked to be identified only by her first name, Lee.

Lee met Sheldon at a party in 2007. She was 23 when she interviewed to work at his restaurant, which was still under construction. Lee says, “The initial way I felt about him was admiration. He was only a couple years older than me and [was] doing this project that stood for something really cool.”

Lee says that she was a hard worker and began the job with excitement. But her eagerness quickly turned to discomfort and she quit within two months because of comments Sheldon made about her appearance.

“They weren’t necessarily flattering comments; they were kind of derogatory like, ‘you should do something more with your hair—make it look prettier,’ or ‘you should wear makeup,’” Lee says.

The clincher was when Sheldon told her to wear a belt to show off her waistline more. “It was a very confusing comment, because he had just given me this t-shirt which was the uniform of his business. And he wasn’t happy that it wasn’t fitting me tightly enough,” Lee says.

Maddy Miller worked at Lowell’s from July 2016 until February 2018. She was 23 when she started. Miller says staff would often stay at the restaurant after hours drinking wine with Sheldon. It was also common for them to go to local bars after their shift.

One night, while Miller and a group of her coworkers were drinking with Sheldon, she remembers that Sheldon asked the group how they washed their genitals and if they used soap or not. “I think he enjoyed being provocative and making people a little bit uncomfortable,” she says.

Miller says, “I definitely remember feeling really uncomfortable in the situation. Not answering his question, and feeling like it was really crossing boundaries.”

When she reflects on that time now, Miller says, “He was our boss and our access to our living wage. I think it was really inappropriate for him to cultivate intimate relationships when that power dynamic was there.”

In 2017, the musician SZA performed a concert in San Francisco. Sheldon bought four tickets and invited a friend and two young women staffers to meet him there. When his friend couldn’t make it, Miller was given the fourth ticket. By then, she says, Miller already felt some distaste for Sheldon, but her friends were enjoying his company more.

Miller says that Sheldon bought them all drinks, including one woman who was under 21 at the time. After the concert, one of the women suggested going to a nearby strip club. Sheldon paid everyone’s cover and gave them money for tipping.

“I remember feeling really grossed out, feeling like it was really inappropriate. I didn’t want to be there with my boss having that experience,” Miller says. “But I think there was another part of me that … was putting pressure on myself to have a good time or play it cool or something.”

The next day at work, Miller told Engel and an older coworker, Joni Davis, about the experience. That same day, Miller says, “I got a message from one of the girls I’d been with and she was texting saying that Lowell had asked her not to tell anyone what had happened the night before and that he was asking all of us to not share.”

For Davis, a pastry chef who worked at Lowell’s from July 2015 until December 2017, Miller’s story about Sheldon was a tipping point that got her looking for other work. Because Davis worked early in the mornings, she didn’t have to interact with Sheldon much. As others have described, Davis loved working with seasonal, fresh produce and took pride in her job. But she felt hypervigilant when Sheldon did come into the kitchen, especially because he would lean his body against the side of her body when there was no reason to.

Davis says it was an expectation of the job that staff at Lowell’s would volunteer on the restaurant’s farm. She says that Sheldon would sometimes single a person out who hadn’t been on the farm in a while. In this manner, at the end of one shift, Sheldon told her to come pick satsuma plums with him. She says that she clarified that she would stay clocked in, but that Sheldon told her no, they were just hanging out. Because he was her boss, Davis felt she had to go.

That night Davis learned Sheldon had taken photos of her at the farm without her consent. He texted them to her with a note that he “couldn’t help himself.”

Joni Davis portrait
Joni Davis quit her job as a pastry chef at Lowell’s because of Sheldon, who once sent her photos he took of her without her consent.

“It immediately freaked me out. It made me feel super violated, but I just deleted them because I wanted that job.” Davis only told her sister about the incident at the time. The Bohemian spoke with Davis’ sister, who confirmed her recollection of Davis’ experience.

One day at work, Davis observed Sheldon berate a coworker who had called him in because they couldn’t figure out why the deli case wasn’t turning on. Davis says that Sheldon turned it on with ease, then called the coworker a “fucking retard.”

Davis says, “She was really upset and felt terrible, wished she had never called him to get help.”

It was a blog post called “What inappropriate touching actually feels like,” by Pastry Chef Dana Cree in December 2017 that helped Davis grapple with the feelings she had been avoiding about Sheldon.

“It was empowering to hear [Cree] say, ‘You’re not just “too sensitive”—something’s going on, and it’s not right,’” Davis said.

It troubled Davis to remember her own experiences and to recall Miller processing with her about the visit to the strip club. “I could see that it upset her, but I could also see her trying to make sense of it.”

After that, Davis says, “I felt like Lowell is a predator and nothing seemed as important to me as getting out—the experience, my resume looking good, none of it mattered anymore.” 

Every former employee that the Bohemian spoke to said Sheldon was known to use cocaine regularly, sometimes with his staff. Two former Lowell’s employees told the Bohemian that Sheldon used cocaine with them. Because of the criminalized nature of the substance, these employees requested their names not be used.

One woman says, “There were times at the bar when Lowell would give me and other friends I was working with cocaine, and we would do that with him.” She recalls one night, after a Valentine’s dinner service, when Lowell used cocaine with her and another coworker at the restaurant once it had closed.

Leah Engel portrait
Leah Engel

Leah Engel worked for Sheldon’s businesses from early 2015 until April 2021. She was on the management team at Lowell’s and, later, Handline. In 2016, she started to manage social media for Lowell’s and, as they opened, for Handline and Fern Bar.

“When I started at Lowell’s, I remember feeling like, ‘This restaurant is so cool,’” she says. “They’re working with local farmers, they’re so beloved by the community, they’re really doing farm-to-table in a way that feels authentic.”

Engel says that all of Sheldon’s restaurants gave the impression that there was a feeling of community between staff and ownership. The Lowell’s Handbook states, “The only way we can put ourselves in a position to make the Lowell’s experience a positive one for our customers is if we create a positive environment for ourselves first. This means treating your coworkers like teammates, and with time, like family.”

But despite the restaurants’ supposed emphasis on positivity and warmth, Engel says that she experienced and witnessed a litany of troubling incidents involving Sheldon.

At one point, Engel was taken aback to learn that someone under 21 was given an alcoholic drink at the end of her shift at Lowell’s. A complimentary drink at the end of one’s shift was customary for staff of legal drinking age. Engel, who worked during the day, says that when she brought her concern to Sheldon and fellow managers, she was made to feel like a square. “I was saying, ‘This is a big deal, this is illegal!’ and I was shrugged off. The manager—in Lowell’s presence—told me this was the culture and I just didn’t get it,” she says.

In 2018, when news broke that the founder of Four Barrel Coffee was accused of sexual assault by at least 10 employees, Engel told Sheldon she did not feel comfortable with Lowell’s serving their coffee. Engel says that Sheldon earnestly listened to her perspective at multiple manager meetings, including an offsite one-on-one meeting they had at Ragle Ranch Park, yet Sheldon continuously resisted her desire for them to work with a different coffee brand, citing that he really wanted to give them a chance to do better.

“There are so many lovely coffee purveyors… . It just really sticks out in my mind, seeing him fight so much for something that should have just been like, ‘Okay, my employees are uncomfortable. We’ll get a new coffee purveyor,’” Engel says. 

Engel says that Sheldon’s attitude toward his employees was erratic; some days he would be bubbly and shower her with positive attention, other days he would not make eye contact and wouldn’t acknowledge her existence. “That’s a really insecure place to be with your boss,” she says.  

Sheldon had an affair with one of his Lowell’s employees for two years. During this time, the woman was promoted to the management team. At the time, Engel and her colleagues did not know the woman was having an affair with Sheldon.

“This person was absolutely talented enough and deserving of that promotion, but in my mind, you can’t disconnect the fact that there was an abuse of power by Lowell connected to it,” Engel says.

Not long after Goble—who was then Sheldon’s business partner and significant other—found out about the affair, the woman left her position at the restaurant. Her replacement on the management team at Lowell’s was Alexandra Lopez, who was hired in late 2018.

Alexandra Lopez
Alexandra Lopez

Lopez says that she was still finding her footing at Lowell’s when Sheldon invited her to lunch at Handline to talk to her about the affair. “I thought it was super weird that this was being shared privately with me over lunch … but [Sheldon] was making it feel super normal, so I just went with it.”

Goble confirmed in a statement to the Bohemian that she knows of two romantic or sexual relationships Sheldon had with employees.

In mid-2019, Lowell’s was scaling down its staff and Lopez was invited to move to Fern Bar as assistant manager to Sam Levy, general manager and partner at the restaurant. Lopez says that by then her relationship with Sheldon had deteriorated.

Similarly, Engel had moved to Handline in 2018 specifically because she felt like she couldn’t work with Sheldon anymore. She says that Goble offered that at Handline, Engel would have less contact with Sheldon. “It was a known thing that I was feeling done because of him,” Engel says.

While the Lowell’s Handbook advised, “At our best, we should not let a guest leave without feeling as though they’ve been satisfyingly hugged,” at his restaurant, Sheldon was giving Lopez and other staffers hugs and backrubs that they didn’t want from him.

Alternately, Lopez says that Sheldon was particularly cruel to a young server she hired, berating her on the floor with all the servers present. “He was trying to train her on the espresso machine, but he was really talking down to her to the point that she was almost in tears. She was so uncomfortable that she walked over to me for protection,” Lopez says.

A few weeks later, Lopez learned from the same server that Sheldon came onto her at a Fern Bar staff party. The Bohemian was unable to reach the server in this story for comment. 

Metastatic Growth – beyond Lowell’s

Accounts of Sheldon’s harassment and boundary-crossing begin at Lowell’s, but extend to his other businesses and beyond.

Rebekah Carniglia, who uses they/them pronouns, worked as a kitchen manager at The Nectary for a year, beginning in 2018. Carniglia says that The Nectary—whose owner Gia Baiocchi is a partner at Fern Bar—has a prep kitchen that is attached to Fern Bar’s kitchen. 

After the 2019 flooding of The Barlow, where both restaurants are located, Carniglia says they were putting in long hours, sometimes working alone in the kitchen. One evening, Carniglia says, they were baking a cake to fill a special order. Sheldon, they say, came into the kitchen and said “Are you making a cake for Daddy?”

“I just looked at him and told him to get the fuck out of my kitchen. He gave me an ugly smirk and walked out,” Carniglia says.

Jesse Hom-Dawson worked as the marketing communications director for Lowell’s, Handline and Fern Bar from late 2018 until the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020.

Jesse Hom-Dawson portrait
Jesse Hom-Dawson

In 2019, Handline was a food vendor at Huichica Music Festival, an annual micro-festival at Sonoma’s Gundlach-Bundschu Winery. Engel and Hom-Dawson were both working.

“[Sheldon] was on mushrooms, and then he tried to shove mushrooms in Natalie’s mouth while she was working, and she was like, ‘Hey, I’m cooking, I have to drive home,’” Hom-Dawson says. “So then Lowell was just tripping balls while we were all trying to work and he was supposed to be working as well.”

Engel witnessed Sheldon on mushrooms and recalls Hom-Dawson telling her that day that Sheldon tried to shove a mushroom cap in Goble’s mouth. Goble told the Bohemian that she recalls Sheldon using mushrooms that day but does not recall him trying to put a cap in her mouth.

One night in 2019, after a shift, Hom-Dawson was drinking at a bar with coworkers. When she got up, Sheldon took her seat. When she returned and told him to get up, he said, “Come sit on Daddy’s lap.”

The comment disgusted Hom-Dawson and her coworkers, including Lopez, who wrote a letter to Sheldon and cc’d his partners at Fern Bar.

In the letter, Lopez said to Sheldon, “…why I have cut you out and has everything to do with the fact that you have repeatedly abused your status and power as a business owner and ‘pillar’ of the community to sexually harass the women who work under you—myself included—and mistreat the men who work for you.”

This led to the partners hiring an agency to conduct an independent HR investigation into Sheldon in late 2019. Engel, Lopez and Hom-Dawson all spoke to the investigator. They knew they weren’t the only people with concerns about Sheldon, but they aren’t sure how many others participated in the investigation. Lopez says that the server Sheldon belittled and then subsequently hit on was a participant.

On a call with the Bohemian, Fern Bar’s Sam Levy said that there were “more than four” participants in the investigation. Levy said that while the allegations that came out during the investigation required remedial measures the restaurant took, they were not criminal and did not afford Fern Bar the right to remove Sheldon then.

Lowell’s had just closed in October 2019 and Fern Bar had hired the investigator, so its focus was specifically about people working for Sheldon at Fern Bar. Former employees who spoke with the Bohemian say that much of Sheldon’s troubling behavior took place at Lowell’s, however a few employees who began working for him there also worked at Handline and Fern Bar, where his involvement continued to trouble them.

Handline sign
Sheldon and his ex Natalie Goble co-own Handline. Photo by Daedalus Howell

Levy told the Bohemian, “After the investigation was completed, we drafted a good behavior clause, required in-depth harassment training, Lowell was immediately restricted from operational oversight as well as the management of our employees. We extended the existing restrictions on his ability to visit Fern Bar for a total of one year.”

Lopez recalls a 2020 phone call with Levy in which he said that the partners were going to meet about whether Sheldon could return to the restaurant. She says that Levy told her he would let her know what they determined, but then she didn’t hear about it again.

In June 2020—well under a year after the HR investigation—Sheldon dined as a guest during her shift. It was without warning and caused her to have a panic attack. She recalls that Fern Bar Partner and Chef Joe Zobel apologized and said that he thought she knew that Sheldon was allowed back. Levy then apologized and said that he thought he had told her.

Levy told the Bohemian that he does not specifically recall Lopez’s account of these events, but says that he “trusts and believes her.” He clarified that Sheldon’s restrictions from interacting with staff and visiting the restaurant began before the HR investigation concluded.

The end of the line

Both Engel and Lopez describe how, over time, they each established with the partners at Fern Bar and Handline that they did not want to have direct contact with Sheldon. 

When she moved to Handline in 2018, Engel says, “I remember having a conversation with Lowell where I essentially said to him, ‘I no longer think of you as my boss; Natalie is my boss, I respond to Natalie.’”

But this wasn’t the last time Sheldon contacted her.

Engel shared a text message exchange from June 2020 in which Sheldon asked if she was open to working with him on a marketing project. She responded, “The honest answer is that I can’t see a scenario where I would be comfortable working together again. While I have good memories from the years that we worked together, overall it was dramatic and volatile and ended very unhappily. I’m not interested in opening that relationship up again.”

Then, this past February, Sheldon emailed asking Engel—who was now under contract managing social media and marketing at Fern Bar—to design postcards for Handline and Fern Bar that he wanted to display with cards for Khom Loi, Ramen Gaijin and a possible future business. Engel forwarded the message to Levy with the note, “This was really jarring and upsetting to receive yesterday. Did you ever talk with lowell [sic] about him not contacting me directly, like we discussed?”

Engel says that Levy said that he did speak with Sheldon, but that she believes he “kept it kind of vague. My impression was that Sam didn’t want to rock the boat with Lowell.”

On a phone call, Levy told the Bohemian that at the time Sheldon contacted Engel there was a firm agreement in writing restricting him from contacting employees.

Engel describes how she had compartmentalized her job and no longer felt like she worked for Sheldon. When he contacted her earlier this year, it caused her to confront the fact that technically, she still did work for him.

“When I realized what was happening to my body when I got a message from this person, I just said, ‘Fuck, that’s the answer. In the simplest terms, I obviously cannot be connected with this person.’”

She was open with Goble and Levy about her intention to make a public statement about her decision not to work for Sheldon. Engel says that her contract was up at the end of April and that she and Levy discussed that she planned to make a personal statement on Instagram.

Leah Engel Instagram statement
Leah Engel made this statement on her Instagram in April 2021. She worked for Sheldon’s restaurants for six years.

For a while after the HR investigation, Engel says that there was talk of Fern Bar possibly making their own statement about Sheldon. She and Levy discussed that if there was a statement, she would not be expected to manage the public response to a post, so Levy would take over the account. Engel made the personal post she described in mid-April, which she and Levy say happened a couple weeks before Levy was expecting her to do it. Engel says that an emotional conversation with Levy afterwards was painful for her.

Despite Levy’s past acknowledgement that she went through something terrible, Engel says that she feels like he was mad at her for saying something out loud at the wrong time, which has caused her to reflect on whether the support was ever sincere.

“I was given so much acknowledgement by Sam about how hard he understood this was for me. I explained to him that I gave him more than a month of notice about the statement I planned to make and it was a year and a half after the [HR] investigation, so for him to be upset that I did it two weeks before he thought I was going to do it just makes his acknowledgement feel fake,” Engel says.

Engel, Lopez and Hom-Dawson say that they went public with their stories because they believe Sheldon deserves accountability for his actions. When she first spoke to the Bohemian in April, Hom-Dawson said, “If I thought that [Sheldon] did the investigation and he took classes or whatever and he learned, I would let it go, but I don’t think he learned and he’s just going to keep doing this to women, until somebody stops him.”

In a statement to the Bohemian, Sheldon said, “I deeply regret making [the Daddy’s lap comment I made to Hom-Dawson] and am sorry for the pain that it has caused.”

Regarding the decision to remove Lowell as a partner at Fern Bar, Levy told the Bohemian, “Our partners decided unanimously that there was not a path forward with Lowell as a member in April.”

Matthew Williams, one of the owners of Khom Loi, told the Bohemian, “Lowell was involved as an investor in the business and helped do the general contracting work. After a social media post was made that we found out about, we had a conversation with the person who made it to hear their story. Then we asked Lowell’s side of it and we asked him to step away from the business under a clause and all of our partnership agreement that was basically a good behavior clause.”

Levy told the Bohemian that Fern Bar did not need to utilize their good behavior clause and instead purchased Sheldon’s shares of the restaurant with Sheldon’s cooperation.

Engel says that in ending their partnerships with Sheldon, “[Fern Bar and Khom Loi] have removed such a person of power in the community. There’s an obvious reason why they did that, but having no plan to speak to it [before we told our stories publicly] just allows him to go and open up another business and do this again.”

She continues, “[Hom-Dawson, Lopez and I] all knew in our hearts from what we experienced and what we witnessed that Lowell was capable of worse.”

Engel says that, since she made  her Instagram post in April, other women have reached out and shared their stories, including Jane Doe. “It’s being proven to us that what we were afraid of is true.”

Click here to read the Bohemian’s story about a woman who says Lowell Sheldon assaulted her on a date in 2019.

On Friday, Oct. 1, Handline announced on social media that Sheldon will no longer be a partner in the restaurant. Read our coverage of the announcement here.

Got a tip? Chelsea Kurnick can be reached at [email protected].

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