After allegations of sexual misconduct, Two If By Sea parts ways with co-owner | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

After allegations of sexual misconduct, Two If By Sea parts ways with co-owner

The popular Dartmouth cafe has cut ties with Zane Kelsall.

After allegations of sexual misconduct, Two If By Sea parts ways with co-owner
Meghan Tansey Whitton

“Zane was not moving through the world respecting other people,” says Dean Petty about his former business partner.

Zane Kelsall, one of the city’s most celebrated young entrepreneurs and a Dartmouth success story who’s been profiled in local and national media (including The Coast) is now without a job.

Two If By Sea Cafe and Anchored Coffee have severed all business ties with their co-owner after learning from multiple former employees about accusations of abusive behaviour and sexual misconduct.

“It was large enough that, you know, we felt there needed to be a separation created in order for these businesses to remain respected by the people we work with and to have our staff be supported,” says Petty, who co-owns Anchored Coffee with Kelsall.

The complaints brought to him and TIBS owner Tara MacDonald ranged the gamut, he says, involving a “wide range of people” impacted to different degrees.

The Coast has spoken with over a dozen current and former employees of the businesses about their experiences with Kelsall. Many of those interviews describe an atmosphere of manipulation and intimidation. Some say it caused them to leave their jobs. Most weren’t comfortable with being named because of the close-knit nature of the local food and drink scene and Kelsall’s prominent, often heralded role at its centre.

It’s a #MeToo moment for the local food scene, in an industry already regarded as persistently degrading to young female employees.

The story begins last fall when former TIBS employee Emily Fells—who was still working for Petty—came forward to a co-worker with her experiences involving Kelsall. The two women told other co-workers and friends, starting a snowball of similar stories.

The complaints reached Petty in January, just as Kelsall was leaving for a business trip to Peru. Petty initially hired an HR professional to begin sorting through the situation, and after a two-and-a-half-week period looped in MacDonald.

The two met with TIBS staff the following week to begin the process of dealing and healing. Three weeks ago, they met with Kelsall and ended their professional relationships. MacDonald and Petty are now working toward buying out his remaining shares, and he’s no longer allowed on the property.

“We basically came to the conclusion that some behavioural patterns in his life, just, they were not in line with our morals, personally,” says Petty.

“People started reaching out to us, you know, and it was brought to our attention that it was a lot bigger than we had realized,” adds MacDonald. She and Petty say they believe the multiple people who’ve come forward, and that formed a major part of Kelsall’s exit.

“That’s when Dean and I had to ask Zane to step down from both companies.”

Last week, the two business owners met with The Coast in an effort to be as transparent—and accountable—as they could be about recent events given the current climate of uncovering long-whispered about sexual impropriety. They’re scared, says MacDonald, but hopeful.

“This is not a time to be passive.”

Emily Fells was 17 when she was hired as a barista by Two If By Sea in 2013. She remembers being warned early on by a coworker, who left the cafe soon after, about Kelsall’s behaviour.

“I was young and I didn’t really think twice about it. It was my first job too,” she says. “Zane took me under his wing in a sense. I was this young kid that he definitely favourited and I think he gave me a lot of opportunities he didn’t give a lot of other people at the time.”

Within just seven months of making coffee she was offered another position, one with more responsibilities, working alongside Kelsall at his newly launched roastery, Anchored Coffee.

When Fells finally left both jobs in late 2014, she says the work environment “wasn’t a happy place.” After moving to Calgary for a few years, and working in another cafe—a job Kelsall helped her get—she returned to the east coast last September and took a position with TIBS’ tenant Yeah Yeahs Pizza (co-owned by Petty).

While on the hunt for a new apartment, Fells was looking for a short-term place to crash and Kelsall offered up a room in his house. On a night in October, she came home from a shift to find Kelsall and a couple of friends drinking wine. Fells, who had to work the next morning, stayed up to socialize until the guests finally left. When they did, she says she and Kelsall sat in the living room listening to records.

“Zane was quite drunk, and offering me drinks,” claims Fells, who confided in Kelsall about issues she’d been having with family and relationships. As she opened up, Fells says Kelsall started to compliment her personality and her body. Then he put his hands on her face, she says, asking her to look into his eyes.

“I kept leaning away and he started saying, ‘Do you know how long I’ve wanted to kiss you for?’ He started asking if he could kiss me, like almost begging, to which I kept saying no.”

“Don’t ruin this friendship,” she recalls saying, before telling Kelsall she was going to bed because she had an early shift.

Fells went to take out her contacts. Upon leaving the bathroom she found Kelsall had come back downstairs completely naked.

“I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘Just making sure you’re OK,’” says Fells. Kelsall then asked her to sleep in his bed, instead of the one she’d been staying in, because it was more comfortable. She refused. He persisted. When she made her way to her room, he followed, standing in her doorway and continually asking her to sleep in his bed until finally giving up.

“He was really weird and persistent and pathetic about it,” says Fells.

Petty, who confirms the details of the event as they were told to him, says the incident was a primary factor in the decision to part ways with Kelsall.

For weeks after the encounter, Fells processed the events of that evening on her own, tolerating an “over-friendly” Kelsall and his brotherly play-fighting at work, until finally one day an escalated disagreement over the restaurant’s playlist pushed her to a place where she was ready to share her story.

“Yeah Yeahs was playing different music than Two If By Sea was, and he came up and just completely flipped. Pissed off, shouting in front of customers and co-workers, just all directed at me,” she says.

Reeling from the confrontation, she opened up to a colleague, who in turn confided in Fells. She, too, had had an incident with Kelsall.

“The next three weeks was one of the saddest times of my life,” says Fells. “I was not even trying to find out information and it just kept coming up from people that I knew. There were just so many of us.”

After allegations of sexual misconduct, Two If By Sea parts ways with co-owner
Aaron McKenzie Fraser
MacDonald and Kelsall pictured here in 2012 for a feature in Air Canada's enRoute magazine.


ara MacDonald and Zane Kelsall opened Two If By Sea on Ochterloney Street in 2009, before the downtown Dartmouth “renaissance” was a thing. Prior to pairing up to conquer the cafe scene, she was busy selling out of her gargantuan croissants at the Alderney Landing Farmers’ Market while Kelsall, a decorated competitive barista, honed his java prowess as a manager at Steve-O-Reno’s.

TIBS was an instant success, achieving a cult-like following upon opening. Dartmouthians had a neighbourhood hangout and Haligonians a reason to ride the ferry. With founders and staff clad in tattoos and t-shirts declaring their love for Dartmouth, the brand became the city’s ambassador almost effortlessly. MacDonald handled the food, Kelsall the coffee.

“I managed the bakery staff, and then I took care of all of our backend stuff, like paying bills, all that kind of stuff, boring stuff. And then he took care of the cafe side: Scheduling, dealing with the staff, HR stuff, ordering coffee, that kind of thing,” says MacDonald. “And we kind of got into a routine where we just respected each other’s space. So he was doing his thing and I was trusting him that he was doing it well.”

By 2012 the pair had opened a sister location in Halifax’s Historic Properties, and Kelsall had scored top prize in the nationwide BDC Young Entrepreneur Awards, winning $100,000 to help open a side business—his own roastery, Anchored Coffee—which would cohabitate with the Dartmouth cafe and eventually be run with the help of Dean Petty. Anchored got roasting in 2013, and Kelsall and Petty quickly upped the ante with a spin-off Anchored espresso bar on Quinpool Road in 2014.

In the meantime, TIBS continued to earn a reputation as not just Dartmouth’s trendiest coffee shop, but a family-centric, community hub that hosted TIBS Family Dinners and TIBS at Nite in its off hours with chef Renée Lavallée. After renting the cafe’s second floor to open the first iteration of her popular restaurant The Canteen in spring 2014, Lavallée expanded into a larger space on Portland Street, while Petty embarked on another small business venture—teaming up with Josh Nordin to take over the upstairs space. Yeah Yeahs Pizza debuted last spring with an immediate splash that echoed Two If By Sea’s.

Over the last year the Halifax locations of TIBS and Anchored have closed up shop, but the communal, collaborative energy of the Ochterloney building has remained palpable.

“It’s a space where the staffs are friends. Although the businesses are separate, there’s a symbiotic relationship in that space, in that we roast the coffee for TIBS,” says Petty. “It’s an amazing space in that regard. It’s also a challenging space when there is something glaring in front of us because there are three sets of staff that all are very tight and they’re all people we care about.”

That friendly atmosphere is part of what made Two If By Sea and its neighbouring businesses special, but those close, casual relationships could be problematic. Kelsall’s role in that culture—parties, drinking, staff strip-club visits and, as one employee puts it, “hanging out like TIBS is their kitchen, or their living room”—blurred the lines between the professional and the personal.

“My management style was very different than his. I’m arm’s-length,” says MacDonald. “I’m friends with staff—I’m friendly, but I’m not friends. You know? And it was the same with Zane. We knew stuff about each other, but not a lot. We didn’t spend holidays or any of this kind of stuff together. We cared about each other, as people, and I care about his kids and his wife. I’ve known them for a long time, but like, he never came over really to my house or anything like that. I always kept it very business.”

Some staff describe a great boss who made the effort to work around school schedules, planned creative staff outings and never made them uncomfortable. Others use words like “manipulative” and “quick-tempered.” A former employee, who worked at the cafe for over a year and asked not to be identified, says there has been chatter “for years” about Kelsall’s behaviour.

“I think it’s totally OK to have personal relationships with your employees—we were all friends there, more than co-workers,” she says. “But he took it to another level with some people. Always having women from the cafe over to his house—they were close friends, but I personally found that odd.”

“I was not even trying to find out information and it just kept coming up from people that I knew. There were just so many of us.”

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Becky Sutherland moved to Halifax from Toronto in 2010 and soon after landed a job at TIBS. She started as a barista but quickly worked her way into a managerial role, eventually taking on administrative duties for both the Halifax and Dartmouth storefronts, a position she held until leaving the company in 2012.

She describes Kelsall as the centre of attention, known for over-embellished stories and having a magnetic quality that seemed to attract people to him. He was the driving force behind the “family vibe” at the cafe—hospitable and generous, always inviting people for dinner or paying for drinks.

“I think that’s a really positive thing about him,” she says “but he started using that in ways that ended up being negative to people who were victims to it.”

Sutherland says at the time none of his physical behaviour seemed inappropriate or unwanted. She was never suspicious of anything unsavoury. Kelsall prided himself on being a feminist and scoffed at sexist remarks.

“In terms of male and female I think he would manipulate equally. I think that’s just how he operates, especially as an employer,” says Sutherland. He seemed to gravitate toward anyone giving him attention.

“I was pretty young when I started working there. I was definitely susceptible to a more manipulative type of person and was just sort of listening to anything anyone would tell me,” she says. “I think that’s very much the type of person Zane would look to employ.”

A current TIBS staffer, who prefers to remain anonymous, says while she never experienced harassment or unfair treatment from Kelsall, she’s witnessed him torment co-workers into believing they were not good enough at their jobs.

“He toed the line between strict and fear-mongering quite a bit,” she says. “He’d give just enough to people that they’d be like, ‘I guess he’s not that awful.’ And that really messed with people.”

Another employee from several years ago says she left her job at TIBS because of the stressful environment and how much she disliked working for Kelsall.

“I felt the way he handled his staff was poor,” says the woman, who also asked to remain nameless. “Basically, I never felt good going into work or good about work coming home. I knew if he was there I was gonna be made to feel like an idiot or something.”

Sutherland moved to Montreal in late 2012, seeking change in her life after a breakup. It was there, during the following summer, when her experience with Kelsall took a serious turn.

Crashing on a couch at a house where a visiting Kelsall was also staying, Sutherland says that—without consenting—her former boss laid down behind her on the couch and proceeded to touch and grab her body.

“He wasn’t just trying to hug me or cuddle with me,” says Sutherland. “It was some straight-up groping, and I made it very known it was unwanted.”

Petty says this incident—like Fells’—was among those brought to him. The details reached him in a roundabout way familiar to anyone in a tightly knit community.

The co-worker Fells had confided in divulged her story to a friend, who responded by saying her own cousin—Sutherland—had also had an experience with Kelsall. More and more began to be daylighted.

Looking back, Sutherland says it was difficult to face what originally happened.

“It was hard to not just make things go back to normal,” she says.

Having space from the situation and a supportive community has helped her deal with the experience. About two-and-a-half years ago, she finally started sharing it with her loved ones.

“The world we live in right now has proven that sharing your story is extremely powerful and I’m just not scared of it anymore.”

“I think I’d been lying to myself about who I was for a long time, and I wasn’t, you know, I wasn’t admitting to myself that I was at a point in life where I didn’t like myself and the life I was living,” says Kelsall.

During his meeting with MacDonald and Petty last month, Kelsall says he was surprised, at first, by the allegations being made against him. He’s since “had a lot of time to reflect” on the situation and is attending therapy. Some “terrible decisions” were made because of a lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression, he says. He got lost in some dark places.

“I hurt some people that I really, really care about,” says Kelsall. “I’m not able to be with that company any more because of the way I behaved, and the self-destructive nature of my life and things falling apart around me.”

In an interview with The Coast, Kelsall says that stepping down and moving away from the companies he helped found was the best path forward for himself, and for his former partners.

He says he worked with the HR person hired by Petty to try and resolve the situation with Fells. During that process, Kelsall says the best course of action for everyone was for him to voluntarily step aside.

“This was due in part to the situation with Emily, how the staff were perceiving it and my own mental health,” he writes over email.

Kelsall wouldn’t specify what “self-destructive” behaviour he engaged in, nor would he comment on any general complaints about sexual impropriety. He was provided a copy of Fells’ and Sutherland’s descriptions of the nights in question by The Coast, but says he remembers both incidents very differently. Only Fells’ story was brought to his attention before he left the company.

Offered the chance to give his own version of events, Kelsall writes he doesn’t think “The Coast is the correct forum for me to refute or challenge these women’s experiences.” He says he hopes in the near future to have a chance to discuss his recollection of those evenings “in order to foster healing” for the affected parties.

“I’m at the point where if I did anything that made anyone feel uncomfortable, I feel terrible about it and that’s all I can say on that.”

Though he may now realize his actions were hurtful and inappropriate, Kelsall says he didn’t see them that way at the time. He’s only now coming to terms with how the lines between work and personal lives blurred and “that’s a scary thing for me.”

Kelsall has spent over half his life working in and managing coffee shops. A third of his life has been spent on Two If By Sea. That’s no longer an option for him. Where he goes from here, he doesn’t know.

“I’m just trying to move forward in life and try to become a better person,” he says.

When asked what being a better person means to him, Kelsall declined to answer.

“I’m in a place where I’ve lost everything and everyone I’ve had, and I don’t think that’s a fair question.”

click to enlarge After allegations of sexual misconduct, Two If By Sea parts ways with co-owner
Meghan Tansey Whitton
Dean Petty and Tara MacDonald say it's been a hard process that's come with a lot of sad feelings.

The ripple effect of Kelsall’s actions extends beyond himself and the women involved, continuing to impact those in the TIBS world. Both of Kelsall’s former business partners say they’re dealing with a great sense of shame and sadness.

Conversations about what it means to be a good man were at the forefront of Petty’s upbringing, he says. He’s embarrassed that as an adult, a business leader, he could be so close to Kelsall’s behaviour and not recognize what was right in front of him.

“A lot of pain and hurt and sadness and anger and stuff that personally I’m dealing with,” he says. “Someone very close to me was hurting people.”

It was “heartbreaking” for MacDonald to find out about the allegations against her former business partner, because she realized she’d been downplaying the severity of his personality.

“I thought I was taking the brunt of it, personally,” says MacDonald. “I had no idea my staff was going through what they were going through.”

Women figure out ways to protect themselves from some people, she explains. The strategies MacDonald used are familiar in many workplaces: You brush aside off-handed comments. You downplay personality conflicts. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your eyes down. Do your work. Laugh it off.

“You just tell yourself that this isn’t happening,” she says.

For his part, Kelsall says he feels terrible for letting his partners down. He says the blame is on no one but himself. According to Petty, there have been “really direct requests on a human scale” for Kelsall to try and rectify his misdeeds—to recognize his wrongdoings and account for them. It will not be easy. None of this is.

“There’s a lot of hurt and a lot of anger from a lot of people here, and a lot of people that were very close to him,” Petty says. “That needs to be the catalyst for a big change in his life.”

Every day, the remaining owners say they’re dealing with more of the fallout from Kelsall’s actions. It’s a new struggle, even if the story is painfully familiar to MacDonald. There isn’t a woman who hasn’t dealt with this behaviour in some capacity—at work, at home, on the bus—she says. It’s happened her whole life.

“I started my own business so that I wouldn’t have to deal with something like this,” she says “and it followed me.”

It’s why she was so angry at first. Angry at herself. Angry for not seeing it for what it was. But after reflection, MacDonald says she realized she needed to be compassionate to herself if she was ever going to be able to be compassionate to her staff.

“I’m a person too, and I’ve had a history of this in my life. These kinds of people seem to find me, for whatever reason. This was the first time that—I’m super-thankful to this girl who stood up for all of us, because she gave us the opportunity to stand up for ourselves—some of us for the first time in our lives. Like, I’m 42 and this is the first time I’m doing this. Then we have employees who are 20 and they’re just learning about this now, and that’s great cause they’ll carry it with them for the rest of their lives. They’ll know what it feels like to be in an uncomfortable situation. They’ll know how to deal with it. They’ll know how to push back from it. I didn’t know that. This wasn’t something that was talked about in my generation. We just ignored it. We left jobs. We left relationships. We moved cities. That’s what I did, and...I can’t do that now.”

Actually dealing with harassment and other inappropriate workplace behaviour is something the two business owners are still trying to feel their way through.

Fells says the early days of Yeah Yeahs’ HR response left her feeling defeated and powerless. The emphasis seemed to be about her specific incident, and not the bigger picture.

“It was so focused on resolving my issue with Zane, as if it was fixable,” she says. “Thankfully I had a lot of friends who reached out to my bosses and made it clear this was a systemic thing.”

Petty says the information coming to him in those initial days moved fast. He tried to respond carefully, digesting every piece of advice on what to do next.

“I do think we acted as timely and as fast as we could with the tools that we had,” he says. “I had a hammer and a screw and I needed help. I needed a full range of tools that I didn’t know about, and I needed to gather those things before I could really help.”

“The world we live in right now has proven that sharing your story is extremely powerful and I’m just not scared of it anymore.”

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There’s one thing MacDonald says she knows for sure: This can’t happen again. If it ever does, she promises there will be policies in place to deal with it immediately.

Since Kelsall’s departure, both have been working to help heal their fractured work environment. A counsellor has been brought in for employees and policies on harassment and employer behaviour are being codified. The focus, they say, is on assisting current staff, former workers and “anybody in the vicinity” who’s come forward needing support.

“It’s been a very educational process,” says Petty. “A very hard process. One that comes with a lot of really sad feelings and…”

“…Uncomfortable conversations,” finishes MacDonald.

There have been smaller changes as well, to try and boost morale. Schedules are posted a month in advance instead of weekly. MacDonald says she’s supporting employees who want to learn more skills and grow their knowledge. Anchored is a more collaborative workspace now, says Petty. Conversations are supportive and respectful.

“It’s like light,” says MacDonald about the change in climate. The love in that community space that had been so stifled is now flowing freely.

“Since this has all happened, it’s like exploded. The atmosphere in that space is so different and it’s so positive.”

The efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by staff. One current employee says MacDonald has been around “every single day trying to make everyone comfortable” and listening to concerns. The mood is different. A dark cloud has finally lifted.

“It’s nice to hear employees say they don’t feel like going home crying anymore,” adds the staffer. “We used to have customers complain our staff wasn’t really friendly, but it’s probably because no one was in that great of a mood just being there.”

Fells credits the employees who came forward and friends of TIBS outside the workplace who reached out to Petty and MacDonald for helping ignite this change. It was made clear that if things didn’t turn around, more and more staff were going to be leaving.

“To my knowledge as of late, they’re making changes,” says Fells. “It’s not going to be an overnight thing, but it’s much more hopeful than it was.”

MacDonald prays it’s enough to weather this storm and come out the other side having healed old wounds.

Two If By Sea wasn’t Zane Kelsall, she says. The cafe was never about just one person.

“There is a base level of extreme love at that place—our customers have it for us and everybody else—and I’m clinging to that, that it’s what people will ultimately come back to.”

If you’ve experienced harassment or sexual misconduct in the service industry and want to talk about it, contact [email protected]

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