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He built a powerhouse set of Wine Country restaurants. Ex-staffers say he sexually harassed employees along the way

It wasn’t unusual for employees of prominent Sebastopol restaurateur Lowell Sheldon to meet up for drinks after work at a local bar. It also wasn’t unusual for Sheldon, widely celebrated for his farm-to-table ethos, to show up.

On one of these evenings in the fall of 2019, a staffer at one of his restaurants, Jesse Hom-Dawson, said she returned from the restroom to see her boss in her seat. She said Sheldon told her, “Come sit on daddy’s lap.”

The remark was a breaking point for Hom-Dawson and some of her colleagues who either witnessed or learned of the alleged incident. Alexandra Lopez, then a manager at his trendy, cocktail-centric restaurant Fern Bar, sent a letter to Sheldon and his business partners, accusing him of abusing his power and sexually harassing employees.

For years, Sheldon created a toxic work environment where employees, particularly at his acclaimed and now-closed restaurant Lowell’s, constantly felt on edge and often dreaded his presence, 11 former employees who spoke with The Chronicle allege. He was also behind Fern Bar, casual seafood spot Handline and Thai cuisine newcomer Khom Loi.

Six of the workers accused him of sexual harassment, saying he engaged in a pattern of unwanted touching and inappropriate comments. One recalled an increase in discomfort after Sheldon took her to a strip club after work. Another woman described a sexualized atmosphere at one of Sheldon’s restaurants and quit after three months. Later, he attempted to place his hand under her dress in the back seat of a car, she said; an employee and Sheldon’s then-girlfriend, who was also a business partner, sat unaware in the front, she said.

All 11 former employees, who worked at Sheldon’s restaurants between 2015 and 2021, said they wondered who might be Sheldon’s target on any given day, subjected to harsh criticism about minutiae like the distance between a chair and a table or the way sausage looked on a pizza. (Eight of the staffers spoke on the record, and three did not wish to be identified by name.)

Sheldon told The Chronicle that he regrets the “daddy’s lap” comment he made to Hom-Dawson and feels sorry for the pain it caused.

Jesse Hom-Dawson, former communications director for Lowell Sheldon’s three restaurants, started the group’s first sexual harassment training program for everyone in the company. She says Sheldon invited her to “come sit on daddy’s lap” during a night out with co-workers.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

“I have been trying to focus on moving forward in the community in a positive way ever since,” he said in a written statement. “At no other point during Lowell’s twelve years of business did anyone ever accuse me of sexual harassment or creating a toxic work environment.”

He denies all other allegations, which he characterized as “either taken out of context, grossly misleading or completely false,” though he did not provide details regarding specific incidents.

In response to Lopez’s 2019 letter, Sheldon’s partners hired an outside investigator to examine his behavior and, eventually, worked to buy out his ownership stake in two of his restaurants: Fern Bar and Khom Loi. At Fern Bar, he was initially suspended for an extended period, though his partners now say he is no longer part of operations.

But some former workers want to see more accountability from Sheldon, particularly as he embarks on a new project: a wine tavern and inn he hopes to open in the Freestone Hotel, a Sonoma County historic landmark between Sebastopol and Bodega Bay. That includes Lopez.

“You have used your ethos as a cover for your bad behavior,” Lopez wrote in her letter, referring to his restaurants’ motto of putting people above profits.

Lopez told The Chronicle that Sheldon hugged her and kissed her on the forehead without her consent several times. “I have set boundaries for you and you have repeatedly ignored them,” she wrote, “seemingly thinking you are untouchable: I am telling you that you are not.”

Everyone in Sebastopol seems to know Sheldon, who is now 40. He grew up in the quirky and progressive West Sonoma County town, which became a Wine Country destination with the steady conversion of apple orchards to vineyards. He received a Waldorf education on a campus with a biodynamic farm. After a brief stint in Seattle, he returned home to open his first restaurant, Peter Lowell’s, in 2007, at age 26. Peter is his middle name.

Peter Lowell’s stood out as soon as it opened. It was the county’s first restaurant housed in an environmentally friendly LEED-certified building — a space designed by Sheldon’s father, an esteemed architect. Sheldon said he wanted to run the restaurant like a nonprofit, donating to local charities and commissioning dining room decor from local artists. Some former employees praised his work ethic, generosity and strong sense of community.

“Whenever something was broken, it was Lowell (who fixed it). He was a vital part of working there,” said former cook Tyler Woodbury.

When he teamed up with a farmer to grow food specifically for the restaurant, whose name was later shortened to Lowell’s, Sheldon gained national attention and drew comparisons to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.

It was at this first restaurant that he met Natalie Goble, who started as a server and became a romantic and business partner. Together, they opened Handline in 2016, and brought on other partners to expand with Fern Bar two years later. When his eponymous restaurant shut down in 2019, he recruited the owners of Sebastopol’s popular Ramen Gaijin to open Khom Loi in its space.

Ex-staffers said they were drawn to Lowell’s for its idealism and its vegetable-centric cooking that celebrated rural Sonoma County. Many said they loved their jobs preparing the best produce, serving loyal regulars and working with a team of passionate people.

The cost, they said, was dealing with Sheldon. Workers described a pattern of his casually touching employees in intimate ways over the course of several years, actions that led some to quit, upend their lives and sometimes deal with diminished mental health. Ten of them confirmed that Sheldon routinely massaged employees’ shoulders and backs, though not all considered this sexual harassment; some said that Sheldon often pushed boundaries, but they didn’t feel his behavior was intentional or hostile.

Lowell Sheldon fixes breakfast in his Sebastopol home in 2017.

Lowell Sheldon fixes breakfast in his Sebastopol home in 2017.

Mason Trinca/Special to The Chronicle 2017

Rebecca Tally, a server at Lowell’s from 2016 to 2019, said that early in her time there, Sheldon would press his body against hers when they were near the service station at the same time to grab glasses or enter orders. Tally said she learned to step away whenever he approached.

Tally, who was 26 at the time, didn’t report the behavior. “I felt angry because I felt like he was in a position of power and he was using it to his advantage,” she said. “And then I was angry because it worked. I was young and scared and didn’t say anything.”

Eventually, she said, he stopped — temporarily. A few years later, she recalled, when she was working behind the bar, Sheldon grazed her rear end with his hands multiple times during one shift. She said she vented about it to a supervisor in the middle of the busy shift and that the touching ceased.

Tally said her experience at Lowell’s, and at previous restaurants, led her to write a college paper on misogyny in the hospitality industry. She’s now volunteering at a local rape crisis center and wants to build a career around helping sexual assault and harassment victims. But she also needs to earn money, having been mostly unemployed throughout the pandemic.

“Finding a job has been really hard because I don’t want to put myself in an abusive situation again,” she said. “It’s been really hard for me to get past the trauma and move forward.”