THE HAUNT WAS set to open to high acclaim on Friday after a week of a successful soft open. Instead, its staff walked out.
Savannah’s foodie scene was getting excited about The Haunt, a new restaurant that sourced ingredients from local farmers and put a spin on wildcrafted foods. Heading the project was Clay Ehmke, the former general manager and part owner of Fox and Fig. The project was announced in early January and built social media hype over the next few months as the restaurant built out its team and menu.
The Haunt also sold itself as an accepting place to work. Sarah Depenhart, a back-of-house team member of The Haunt, said, “When I interviewed at The Haunt, from my understanding, The Haunt had a focus to keep the kitchen free from any kind of racism, sexism, and transphobia, which made it seem like an amazing environment to be in.”
Kitchens are notorious for sexual harassment and a certain “boys-club” mentality, so conscious changes like this are crucial for a more tolerant service industry. With that pitch at the forefront of the operation, it’s clear why people were getting so excited about The Haunt.
But on Wednesday, a post began circulating on Instagram that read, “PSA if you support the haunt in sav you’re supporting my boss who sexually assaulted me.” That allegation came from a former employee of Fox and Fig, where she worked under Ehmke. After her story made the rounds, six more people came forward with stories alleging Ehmke of abuse and assault.
The allegations against Ehmke are serious and detail a pattern of abuse. Two victims accused Ehmke of lying about condom usage, a practice known as “stealthing,” and one victim said that Ehmke penetrated her anally without her consent. One victim said that Ehmke recorded her and a partner having sex in The Haunt's office via its surveillance camera. Victims’ rights advocates obtained a screenshot of the footage.
Other stories by Ehmke’s former partners describe emotional manipulation and gaslighting. Many say that they believed they were the only ones who were treated by him this way.
Ehmke has roundly denied any allegations of assault, saying in a statement he posted and then deleted, “I have not sexually assaulted anyone at any point in my life. I have, however, hurt a number of people close to me in a past filled with unhealthy decisions and unhealthy people, including myself. I am sincerely sorry to those individuals whom I’ve caused pain. I’ve struggled with addiction issues and these have been a major cause of problems in my life and the life of those around me. I am actively seeking more intense treatment.”
To be clear, stealthing is sexual assault because it betrays a partner’s consent to protected sex.
The Savannahian reached out to Ehmke for further comment, but has not heard back as of this writing.
As the stories rolled in on Thursday, Depenhart resigned her position with her kitchen manager because she didn’t want to talk to Ehmke directly.
“That day, Clay had posted a statement in our Slack in which he seemed to not take any accountability for his actions and didn’t even seem apologetic or have any explanation,” she recounts. “And it was only addressing one accusation.”
Ehmke called a staff meeting the next day, but Depenhart didn’t attend.
“During and after the meeting more accusations began to come in and staff one by one began to quit,” she says. “Publicly in our chat, 12 staff members quit. I’m not sure if the rest did it privately or are going to continue working there.”
The Savannahian obtained screenshots of The Haunt’s Slack channel that appear to show eight employees resigning their positions in less than 24 hours.
Friday was a confusing day for followers of the Haunt, who saw the Instagram bio change from “reopening soon” to “closed.” The Haunt posted on its Instagram story, “…currently working on a transfer to new ownership. The Haunt will not reopen under the same previous owner. He will have no involvement going forward.” The same statement was posted, then deleted, in the Haunt’s Slack, leaving staff unsure of The Haunt’s future.
The future of both Ehmke and The Haunt is largely up in the air, but what’s clear is that Savannah won’t take this anymore. The service industry effectively shut down a restaurant in days by amplifying the voices of victims and holding one of its own accountable.