News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Northern Inhospitality

An unvarnished view of Andrew and Briana Volk of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club

by | Feb 6, 2022

illustration/Martin Shields

For months before the COVID-19 pandemic erased their livelihoods, many restaurateurs and bar owners were facing another apocalypse. Angered by European subsidies and taxes involving the airline and tech industries, the Trump administration threatened in December of 2019 to impose tariffs of 100 percent on wine, spirits, and many food products imported from European Union countries. The import tax would’ve instantly doubled the cost of everything from champagne and Irish whiskey to Italian olive oil and French cheeses — staples of fine-dining and drinking establishments everywhere.   

“[T]he last month has passed in a blur of fear and dread,” New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wrote in a Jan. 6, 2020 column. A tariff of that magnitude “would be catastrophic for Americans in the beverage and hospitality industry,” according to Asimov, and cause “disastrous ripple effects” in related trades.   

Members of Portland’s world-renowned restaurant scene were venting their worries about the tariffs on social media. But two of the community’s most prominent representatives — Briana and Andrew Volk, the couple who own Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, a cocktail bar in the Old Port — had a decidedly different take. 

“It is disappointing to see our peers in the restaurant & bar industry stay silent for years on harassment/assault (and continually be friends/supporters of men who perpetuate), mindful consumption, raising the minimum wage for their workers, or literally anything else 45 has done, but to now speak out about wine tariffs,” the Volks wrote in a message posted on Instagram the same day Asimov’s column appeared. 

“Doing so shows us all that you only care about yourself,” they continued. “Let’s start working to raise up and care about everyone in our industry, not just the price of a bottle of wine.” 

“I’m just a scrappy kid from Munjoy Hill, and I saw that,” said Joe Fournier, owner of A&C Grocery, a neighborhood market then located on Portland’s East End. The tariffs posed “a severe threat of impacting everyone’s livelihoods,” he said. “It was very, very real. We’re a food town and we kind of rely on all these imports from Europe.” 

“To say that we don’t care about all this other stuff was just self-righteous bullshit,” said Fournier. So, “just being stupid,” he reposted a screenshot of the Volks’ message to his Instagram account with the addition of two words, animated with flames: “BULLSHIT ALERT!” 

Fournier didn’t think the gag would cause much of a stir. “I do stupid stuff on social media all the time,” he said. “But then the floodgates kind of opened.”

The immediate response from peers in the food-and-beverage biz was overwhelming — dozens of likes, direct messages, texts, calls, comments at the counter — and “99 percent positive,” according to Fournier. Two months later, when Mainer first interviewed him for this story, industry people were still popping into his shop and thanking him for standing up to the Volks, saying things like, “‘Holy shit! I can’t believe you just did that,’” Fournier said.  

That such a flippant social-media post was cheered as an act of heroism testifies both to the power the Volks are perceived to wield around here and the widespread fear and resentment they’ve engendered in Portland’s otherwise friendly foodie community. The couple elevated cocktail culture in Portland when they opened Hunt + Alpine nine years ago, but they’ve also fostered a nasty undercurrent of competitiveness and conceit that’s poisoning the well.      

“I don’t believe in speaking bad about anybody,” said Josh Miranda, who owns Blyth & Burrows, an Old Port cocktail bar, “but I can’t tell you how many times I was included in a text thread or social-media post about some ridiculous thing [the Volks] said or did, and I don’t have time for that. Life’s way too short for that kind of negativity.” 

During a pre-pandemic interview, a prominent Portland restaurateur who’s known the Volks for years gestured toward the busy kitchen. “If we were to walk over right now and I were to just say, ‘Briana Volk,’ you would get a [negative] reaction out of 90 percent of the people … who work for us, who’ve been in the industry. And you would ask them, ‘Why? What’s the deal?’”

That’s the question this investigation sought to answer. Because it soon became clear what was happening on social media was just the tip of one of those giant cocktail ice balls.   

According to former employees, friends and colleagues of the Volks, lives have been trampled for years by this boozy power couple’s vain pursuit of fame and fortune. The Volks mask their negligence and vindictiveness with a façade of liberal activism that’s earned them lots of local and national attention, and they wield their self-righteousness like a sword against anyone who dares to question them. If they are not unmasked, these sources worry other workers and business associates will unwittingly fall prey to these bougie vampire people.  

In addition to Hunt + Alpine, the Volks previously co-owned and operated Little Giant, a restaurant on Portland’s West End. Two years ago, they announced plans to open a “classic old school American tavern and market” in downtown Waterville, called Verna’s All Day, to be located in a new student-housing complex owned by Andrew’s alma mater, Colby College. 

The New York Times covered that news in an article, published Feb. 25, 2020, about Colby’s investments in the city. Though the pandemic subsequently strangled their industry, the Volks continually claimed Verna’s would be open by the end of 2021. The business’ most recent Instagram post, from last June, seeks a chef who’ll also be a “long-term partner in this great space.” 

That space is now for lease, and it was never “great.” A peek in the windows last month revealed that almost nothing was done to develop it into a commercial property— the ground inside is still covered in gravel and rocks. 

It turns out that when you look a little deeper into most of the Volks’ claims, you discover they’re hollow, or maybe half-true. For example, Briana has served on two important city boards, but rarely attended their meetings and was effectively kicked off one of them, Creative Portland, for failing to show up. 

In 2020, the couple solicited political donations via sales of a cocktail book, Collins Against Collins: Drinks for a Revolution, pledging to donate the funds to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a progressive hospitality group. PBS NewsHour noted the book’s “publication” during a nationally televised interview with Briana about her political views, which were presented as being representative of Maine liberals’ views more generally. But there’s been no accounting of the money, the Volks refused the answer questions about it, and the “book,” which was actually only going to be a downloadable file, cannot be downloaded.             

The Volks want to influence public policy, and they have political aspirations of their own. Andrew ran for a Portland City Council seat in 2019. He lost, but he got support from some major players in Maine’s Democratic Party, including Gov. Janet Mills’ chief of staff, Jeremy Kennedy, and Jon Breed, who managed Congressman Jared Golden’s successful 2018 campaign. The couple subsequently joined a “dark money” political group, the 16 Counties Coalition, that blasted Sen. Susan Collins during her 2020 campaign.  

The Volks have been vocal advocates of raising the minimum wage, including the sub-minimum “tipped” wage paid to wait staff and bartenders, as well as instituting Portland’s pandemic “hazard pay” provision, which set the municipal minimum wage at $19.50 — both highly divisive positions not widely shared by their colleagues. Last December, Briana Volk skewered well-known Portland restaurateur Steve DiMillo on Twitter for his opposition to hazard pay and called the state’s restaurant-and-lodging lobbying group, HospitalityMaine, “a shill for big corporations like McDonalds [sic] and Burger King.”      

That charge may be true, but the Volks’ authority to make it or any of the countless other potshots they’ve taken at industry colleagues rests upon their oft-declared claims to be paragons of virtuous hospitality management. They say they pay their staff more and train them to stop sexual harassment and promote “mindful consumption” of alcohol. In a tweet last November seeking kitchen help, Briana listed “other benefits” that include “paid vacation and sick days … subsidized CSA from our farmer, multiple sober staff members for those who are as well, profit sharing, and everyone genuinely likes each other!”  

Numerous people who formerly worked at Hunt and Little Giant said the Volks fostered a toxic and dysfunctional work environment. They said the couple neglected to train them to do their job, then put them through hell every time they didn’t meet their bosses’ vague expectations.  

“We were doing incredible amounts of sales, a new record every Saturday,” said a former Hunt + Alpine employee. “But they wouldn’t show me how to do my actual job. They showed us they had nothing   to give us when it came to training and doing our jobs properly, because they didn’t know what they wanted.”

Staff turnover was high at both Hunt and Little Giant in the years before the pandemic, and several workers who stayed for half a year or longer said the noxious atmosphere the Volks created became debilitating.  

“As time went on, I got to points where I couldn’t leave my house because I was so anxious about my job,” said a woman we’ll call Worker One, who put in six months at Hunt. “There was just so much general anxiety that came from working for these people that it made it crippling to do anything else.” 

“There was a lot of anger going around between coworkers … when the reality was that it was just Andrew and Briana were not properly running their business,” Worker One continued. “They weren’t necessarily putting their employees first. It was really like they were putting making money first and that was what really they cared about.”

In pre-pandemic interviews, multiple people who worked for the Volks said they’d sought psychiatric help for lingering anxiety and anger problems stemming from their employ. They spoke of being blackballed and banned from the Volks’ establishments, becoming the target of false and malicious rumors, and of being unable to get a reference or pay stubs. Having escaped the couple’s clutches, subsequently seeing them cited and celebrated in the media (social and otherwise) so frequently now feels like salt in a knife wound. 

“It think the reason it’s had such a hold on me is it’s so difficult to see this public image and know there’s people that buy into it,” said Worker Two, a woman who also worked at Hunt for about half a year. “As somebody who’s a social justice warrior and a rabid feminist, it’s infuriating … seeing them out there parading as these feminists, and they’re for women in the workforce and, like, for the people, and they’re here to represent the industry, and it’s such bullshit. It makes me so mad.”  

Briana is a savvy and seemingly tireless public-relations professional. She’s used her PR skills and connections to successfully promote the couple’s businesses and turn their own lifestyle into a marketable brand, based on their 2018 hardcover book, Northern Hospitality With the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. She’s also had some notable success as a food writer. In November of 2020, Insight Editions published Wonder Woman: The Official Cookbook, vegetarian recipes inspired by the superheroine (and officially licensed as a Wonder Woman product), authored by Briana Volk.  

Briana has also done freelance PR work for other local hospitality businesses, promising to help them get media coverage. There’s no doubt she’s got some pull. 

• In the fall of 2013, the popular food website Eater declared Hunt + Alpine one of the “30 Hottest Cocktail Bars in America Right Now.” It had only been open about a month. 

• In 2018, Food & Wine dubbed the Volks “Maine’s Coolest Culinary Couple.” 

• In 2020, Wine Enthusiast included them among its 40 Under 40 Tastemakers. 

• The Portland Press Herald has published dozens of articles about the couple, none of them critical, including a groan-inducing 2018 feature, “True Concessions,” detailing what they like to eat at Hadlock Field during baseball games (“I like hot dogs,” Andrew revealed). 

• Last year, the hip online cocktail site Punch posted a piece about a new collection of Lego mini-figures depicting famous mixologists that includes a Lego Andrew and Briana. 

No one questions the Volks’ ability to manipulate the media and stir up public outrage, which is also why almost no one questions the Volks. 

“That’s what they’re really good at, is making people feel like they have so much power,” said Worker Three, who was at Little Giant. “That they have the connections where other people may not” — especially with influential food and booze media, whose attention can make a real difference come tourist season in a town crowded with great places to eat and drink. 

“I know that so many people in the industry have kept quiet” for that reason, Worker Three added. “I hope people understand that not only are they abusing employees, but they’re going after other businesses.”   

Mainer sought comment about the Volks from over 50 current and former employees of Hunt + Alpine and Little Giant, past and present business associates, and many of their peers in the Portland hospitality industry. Nearly all of these sources would only speak on condition of anonymity, citing a fear of retaliation. 

That was true even of people who live and work in other states. At first, their request for anonymity seemed overly cautious, beneath the standards Mainer applies when deciding whether to use off-record remarks. How far would the Volks really go to go after a critic? 

Last spring I e-mailed a source who had a long history with the Volks and was residing in another state. “I’d be happy to answer questions but not go on a tirade,” the source wrote back. “I can’t imagine anyone being worse than they were. They fight dirty. I won’t.” 

Naturally, my first question was, What do you mean by “fight dirty”? But before an answer arrived, Mainer found out — the hard way.     

I’d already conducted a lengthy in-person interview with the Volks at Hunt + Alpine last April. After doing further research online, I’d e-mailed them some follow-up questions. Briana responded by e-mailing not only me, but every member of the Mainer News Cooperative for whom she could find an e-mail address. Before I’d had a chance to read her response, music writer Joe Sweeney resigned from Mainer, unnerved by the Volks’ allegations that my questions amounted to “abuse.” (Some members of our cooperative still don’t agree with the decision to publish this story.) 

“Chris … you are using your position to be abusive towards me and to perpetuate a dishonest narrative about us and our business,” Briana wrote, addressing this reporter on behalf of herself and Andrew. “You have continually and repeatedly asked questions that violate me; the only conclusion I can draw from your questions is that you are attempting to discredit me as an individual, as an advocate and as a person.”

“You asked me to defend myself against an abusive man [Fournier] who used humiliation and monitoring of my personal social media to try and publicly shame me into not using my voice,” she continued. (For the record, Fournier said someone sent him a screenshot of the Volks’ infamous Instagram post and he does not follow their accounts.) 

Briana also took offense to questions regarding some significant biographical events that are documented online but have not been mentioned in any of the many feature stories about her and Andrew’s journey to cocktail stardom. I asked Briana to provide two dates related to those events and if she would care to comment on how they may have shaped her life and career.    

“This is perhaps your most violent display of abuse,” Briana wrote in reference to that inquiry. (Mainer is not disclosing those biographical details in deference to her concern.) “To set boundaries and to feel safe in my own life, this will be the final interaction I will have with you,” she concluded. “I will continue to do the work I believe in. I will politely ask you to not contact us again. I need to focus on my mental health and healing.”

Like I said, she is savvy. Her objections, received just days before the print deadline for our May 2021 issue, effectively scuttled the story, at least temporarily. I decided to wait until the Volks opened Verna’s All Day to publish it. Most of the problems workers shared with us happened when the couple was trying to run two places (Hunt and Little Giant) at once. They were reportedly preparing to hire up to 30 full-time employees in Waterville — many of them, no doubt, Colby students lured into their lair by the aura of hip sophistication that hangs about their establishments like the scent of Axe body spray.            

Last month, having seen no update from the Volks regarding the status of Verna’s, I drove to Waterville to take a look. Gravel and rocks. Roll the presses! 

Inside the downtown Waterville space originally slated to be the location of Verna’s All Day. photo/Chris Busby

Laybacks

Briana met Andrew Volk about a dozen years ago, when he was tending bar at Clyde Common, a trendy tavern in Portland, Oregon, attached to a hip hotel. “He was the cute bartender I flirted with all night as he made me Old Fashioneds,” she wrote in the introduction to Northern Hospitality. “Our first date, a few days later, took us from bar to restaurant to bar to bar before he sang me ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ on the car ride home at 2 a.m.,” she continued. “Since that night, food and drink has been a constant in our lives.” 

Briana, who’s from a small town in Oregon by the coast, was then working at Wieden+Kennedy, a big ad agency based in the other Portland. In 2002 she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Theology/Philosophy from the University of Portland, according to her LinkedIn page.  

Andrew, who’s two years her junior, grew up in the tony town of Charlotte, Vermont, and graduated from Colby in 2005 with a degree in International Studies. His father is Tim Volk, former president of Kelliher Samets Volk, a marketing firm with offices in Burlington and New York City.

Briana lost her job at Wieden+Kennedy in 2010 — part of a “big chunk of layoffs,” she said — and the couple moved to Mobile, Alabama, where she’d landed a new marketing job. “We told ourselves we’d give it a year and if we didn’t like it, we’d go somewhere else,” Briana said. “We gave it 11 months.”

Andrew laughed, hard, at the memory of Mobile during our interview outside Hunt last year. “We were kids,” he said, “We hadn’t turned 30 yet.” 

“We had no responsibility,” Briana added. 

“The only obligations we had were, like, a car payment and a cell phone bill,” said Andrew. “You can live anywhere.”  

Tim Volk suggested Briana apply for a position at VIA, an ad agency in this Portland. “It was between New York City and here,” said Briana. “So we were both like, New York will always be there, jobs in New York will always be there, we eventually want to be in a smaller town anyway, so let’s do this and see how it works, and here we are!”    

It was “a really cool time for restaurants and bars” in Portland, Andrew said. “Between 2011 and 2014, it seemed like a lot of people were moving back to Maine or coming up to Maine — lots of couples, lots of families — and doing stuff that you couldn’t do in big cities because it was too damn expensive.”

The pair saw in this Portland what they’d observed in the other a few years prior: an “evolution,” as Andrew put it, from craft beer to craft cocktails. Although they found a few bartenders who could mix a drink to their taste, and some spots with interesting cocktail lists, Andrew wondered, “Where’s the place that focuses on cocktails?”

It wasn’t Sangillo’s, the townie tavern at the foot on Munjoy Hill that got squeezed out as the neighborhood gentrified around it. But that’s where the Volks were, “about a year after our arrival, during a blizzard and probably a few too many whiskeys,” when “the idea of opening a bar came up,” Briana recalled in Northern Hospitality. Sangillo’s was “stumbling distance” to their “airy loft” on Middle Street above a classy little restaurant with views of Casco Bay. 

The couple made connections in Portland by throwing parties for fellow foodies. The exclusivity of these invite-only gatherings was an overt part of their appeal. The Volks called these events “Hush, Hush,” and continued the concept for years afterward. In Northern Hospitality, they shed some light on what went on during those secret soirees. “[W]e set up a large prize wheel, and guests took turns spinning it,” they wrote. “Prizes ranged from shirts and sunglasses to things that were more experiential, such as laybacks (where someone lies down on a table or bench and has a shot poured into their mouth).” 

The couple collaborated on events with several now-celebrated Portland chefs before any of them opened their own place, including Damian Sansonetti (who now has Chaval, in the West End, with his wife, pastry chef Ilma Lopez), and Chris and Paige Gould, who’ve earned accolades for their Old Port restaurant, Central Provisions.  

“For us it was clear,” Andrew recalled. “If there isn’t a place that’s focusing on the things I know how to do, why can’t we make that? … Seeing our peers do this cool stuff, we said, ‘Well, we can figure that out.’”

“I joke,” Andrew continued, but “we were able to open [Hunt], honestly, because of … President Obama. After the economic collapse of 2008, a bunch of money poured, as we’re seeing again, into state funding programs, and [the Finance Authority of Maine] got a bunch of money to lend to small businesses. We got turned down by bank after bank after bank.” 

The couple had some funds of their own, and Tim Volk cosigned their loan, but they also attracted investors by selling memberships to the “Lodge” inside the future club. For $2,000, members got what was essentially a $2,500 Hunt gift card and the exclusive right to hobnob inside the Lodge — a wood-paneled room that occupied about a third of the seating area inside Hunt.  

“We felt like calling it a ‘Lodge member’ was … just like a kitschy, funny, cute thing, and I think other people took it as more like, ‘It’s exclusive,’ which I fully understand,” Briana said during our interview. “It was never the intention, though.”

I pointed out that membership did cost two grand. 

A promotional image for the Volks’ interview with director and spirit-maker Steven Soderbergh.

“It was exclusive at first,” Andrew conceded. But then a funny thing happened — the Lodge members got lonely. 

“What we found was, the people who paid that money wanted to sit at the bar and wanted to talk, wanted to have drinks and [socialize], not sit in a room off to the side,” said Trey Hughes, the bar manager at Hunt and one of the Volks’ first hires. Hughes said there were between 50 and 75 Lodge members at the program’s height, and the program continues, though the Lodge itself was dismantled during the pandemic. 

In addition to Hughes, who’d been making drinks at Blue Spoon, a restaurant atop Munjoy Hill, the Volks hired master mixologist John Myers. Myers, who declined to comment on the Volks, previously penned the cocktail column for Mainer’s predecessor publication, The Bollard, and was then tending bar at The Grill Room, an Old Port restaurant across the street from Hunt. 

Hiring Myers, who brought along his own following, and affable people like Hughes, who also fronted two memorable indie-rock bands (Harpswell Sound and Honey Clouds), was smart. It helped Hunt appeal to a broader swath of the town than its coldly modern appearance — Scandinavian furnishings that bring IKEA to mind; “the instructions for that bar must have been incredibly difficult,” a source joked — its members-only Lodge, and the fact it’s called a Club may have otherwise attracted. 

What sources, almost to a person, describes as the Volks’ colossal snobbishness was its own impediment. After all, the foundation of good hospitality is kindness.

“Whatever you do, you can’t come off as a condescending prick here,” a friend told them in the early days. “You’ll eventually run out of people to support you. It’s cool to do something new and educate people and whatever, but you can’t be a condescending shithead. … This is not how Portland plays. Maybe that’s like Portland, Oregon, but you can’t do it here.” 

Worker Three said one of her relatives met the Volks shortly after Little Giant opened. “That was honestly one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had,” the relative said, according to this source. “I’m not sure what is wrong with those owners, but I’ve never experienced such cold, bitchy behavior in my whole entire life.”    

“I don’t know them well,” said a salesman for a local beverage company. “They just suck. I dealt with Andrew for a little while, and he’s a very entitled individual. … On numerous occasions I had to be like, ‘Andrew, you can’t talk to me like that, man.’ … They’re not nice people, as far as what I understand. Nobody I know that’s interacted with them particularly likes them very much.” 

Maine’s Coolest Culinary Couple is resented by many of their industry peers for what they perceive as the inauthenticity of the lifestyle depicted in Northern Hospitality. For example, a typical evening in the Volks’ fantasy Maine might involve dragging the kids and a bundle of wood onto a frozen lake to build a fire and drink hard liquor from a glass. 

“That’s not how it’s done, that’s not ‘northern hospitality,’ and it doesn’t make any sense,” the aforementioned Portland restaurateur said. The Volks’ efforts to become a sort of tattooed Martha Stewart for moneyed Millennials may be verging on self-parody, but they’re continuing to push the brand, most recently with a newsletter on Substack that lured paying subscribers with “extra great things” and the satisfaction of “supporting us and our little bar in Portland, Maine that is beloved around the world.” 

Launched in late November of 2020, the Substack page, which promised twice-weekly newsletters and recipes mailed to subscribers four times a year, petered out last May after just 14 posts. 

 

 The Poop Bandit

Shortly after opening Hunt, the Volks found themselves short of money. They turned to one of their Lodge members, Ian (pronounced yahn) Malin, for help. He and his wife, Kate, who’s from Yarmouth, agreed to make a more substantial investment in the bar in return for an ownership stake, which the Volks recalled was about 10 percent. (Ian Malin, a fund manager and investor by trade, declined to comment for this story.) 

Things seem to have gone well for Hunt after that. Andrew was there a lot, working and leading the staff, as was Briana, and the bar was named a semifinalist by the prestigious James Beard Foundation for its Outstanding Bar Program award in 2015 and 2017. 

But 2017 was also the year the Volks and the Malins teamed up to open Little Giant. In early 2017, “It was heads down, everyone is working … the work was actually getting done,” said a female Hunt employee we’ll call Worker Four. Then, as duties elsewhere drew the Volks away from their Old Port bar, “they just dropped off the face of the earth. No one, suddenly, wanted to do any of the work. … People started quitting left and right.” 

“They put me through hell for two years straight,” Worker Four said of the Volks.  

Among those who quit that year was a head chef who put in his notice after just a week on the job. “He said he’d had enough and wanted to work for a real kitchen, not two hot plates and an Easy-Bake oven,” Worker Four said. (In Northern Hospitality, the Volks list Hunt’s kitchen equipment as “two induction burners, a small convection oven, and a few tools we love: Vitamix blender, Sunkist juicer, and a meat grinder.”)  

The head chef “mainly quit because we weren’t given the tools we needed to do our job,” said Worker Four. “People were working in two inches of standing water. The drains weren’t working, the dishwasher was broken, it was a massive shit show of everything breaking at once.”

Another constant problem was Hunt’s lack of refrigeration. There were three “mini-fridges” upstairs, said Worker One, and “either three or four of those stand-up coolers that you keep soda bottles in [at] a gas station” downstairs, in a basement, as well as a freezer.

This worker claims employees were told to lie about the restaurant’s storage of perishable products when city health inspectors made their annual visits. “That was the biggest one that [the Volks] told us to be hush-hush about, was that all of our food was stored downstairs as well as all of our alcohol — everything was stored downstairs in the basement,” said Worker One. “It was not clean, it was not sanitized, it was not anything that was food-code by any means — all things that they told us not to tell health inspectors when they came in.”

Andrew Volk confirmed that items are stored in refrigerated units downstairs — “there’s actually a big commercial cooler down there,” he said — but he denied that he or Briana ever told workers to lie about that or otherwise conceal the existence of those coolers when health inspectors showed up. 

I noted that in reports dating back to 2016, city health inspectors make no mention of any refrigeration units aside from those upstairs. “Well, then we should get them back here,” Andrew said of the inspectors. 

Hunt hasn’t failed any health inspections since 2016, though some reports note refrigeration units that either lacked a thermometer or were at the wrong temperature, as happened in 2019, when a fridge was found to be almost 20 degrees warmer than is allowed: “ALL FOOD INSIDE WAS DISCARDED,” the report states.  

The former Hunt employees we interviewed spoke of being drawn to work at the bar by its elegant atmosphere. “The setting of the actual restaurant is gorgeous and almost intimidating with how beautiful everything is,” said Worker One. “It’s almost as if you walk in and you don’t want to touch anything, because of how nice it all is.”

But behind the scenes, they discovered the Volks’ beloved meat grinder was also a fair description of their working conditions. 

Worker One spoke of being frustrated by an erratic manager. “She’s seemingly really stressed out,” the worker recalled. “I’ve caught her crying multiple times in the basement, in the back, smoking a cigarette. She’s always irritated, always in a bad mood. … Come to find out later that it had nothing to do with her and it was all that she had not gotten the proper training to perform in her position properly.”

Although they were busy with Little Giant, the Volks “did definitely come through and have meetings with all of us and say that they did care about us,” Worker One said. “There were plenty of things that they did that were good covers for the fact that they were not treating their people properly and that they were never there. They were kind of just reaping the benefits of all the hard work of other people.”

Hunt had a bar manager at the time (Hughes) and a series of kitchen managers. Technically, Andrew was the general manager of both Hunt and Little Giant, but he spent most his time at the latter, and Hughes worked days. That left Hunt largely unsupervised by anyone with clear management authority at night, when the place really got busy. 

“There was a lot of drinking behind the bar,” said Worker Four. “They explicitly told everyone, ‘If you drink behind the bar, you’re fired.’ But if there’s no manager there, then there’s no one to stop you. It really went downhill. Just a bunch of twenty- and thirty-year-olds getting drunk every night, having a party behind the bar, having a party in front of the bar.”

“There were shots being fed to us while we worked behind the lines all day, every day,” said Worker One. “And I’m pretty sure Andrew and Briana were not necessarily aware of how much it was, but definitely they knew about it, and they used to give us shots while we were behind the bar; they would buy us shots. There were definitely nights where I had to refuse them multiple times because I was too drunk to be working.”

“It’s not like [the Volks] encouraged [it], but they very much knew how much we were all drinking on the job. And there was a lot of drinking going on at that job,” said Worker Two. “It was another reason that I decided I couldn’t work there, that it was unhealthy and toxic. It seemed like everybody working was a functioning alcoholic. I had co-workers that were so wasted at work at times that I had to send them home and then just do all of their work. They couldn’t sit. Like, blackout drunk.”

Rather than supervise their staff at Hunt, these workers said the Volks contributed to the chaos by showing up at the bar late at night, highly intoxicated, and acting inappropriately. 

“One night in particular I remember them coming in plastered,” said Worker One. “They drove. They were both blackout drunk, 100 percent, both of them. Briana tried to pull me away from my line while I had tickets waterfalling over the counter because I wasn’t getting to them fast enough. It was incredibly busy … and she’s asking me to come outside to have a cigarette with her.” 

This worker said Andrew called an Uber that night and the couple got safely home, “but there were multiple nights like that where they would come in completely smashed and pull their employees away from work so that they could smoke outside for 15 minutes. It was unprofessional — completely unprofessional.”

“There were many nights like that. It happened a lot, which was not great for morale,” said Worker Four. “They’d show up well past 1:15, when we’d closed up the bar entirely. … It was weird having to constantly see your bosses, the owners, drunk all the time.”

When I first asked the Volks about these accounts, Andrew said, “It sounds like you’re describing every restaurant for the last four decades.”

So I pressed the point with these champions of “mindful consumption,” bringing up claims that they routinely showed up drunk at Hunt late at night. “I mean, four years ago I had a newborn and was exclusively breastfeeding, so that’s impossible for me,” said Briana. (The couple have two young children.) 

“We definitely went out and showed back up at our bar, but highly intoxicated might be a stretch, honestly,” Andrew added. “To learn that people felt uncomfortable with our consumption is, frankly, news. And I think that we both take our safety and the safety of our team very seriously. And it’s sad that people thought that. I’m sorry.”

Worker One saw her fellow employees getting loaded and figured, “This is the only way they can tolerate this — get ready to open at one and people are taking shots at noon.” In June of 2018, someone on staff cracked. On two occasions, workers at Hunt found human shit smeared on the walls of the staff bathroom. 

“The Poop Bandit,” recalled Worker Four, who said she knew who it was. “They started acting out inappropriately. … They did not have a strong hold on their mental health, which I think was a reflection on the bar — we were there 60 hours a week, six days a week.”

“It’s disgusting,” Hughes said, recalling the incidents. “It definitely seems pointed, but there was never like a ‘Fuck So-and-So’” message left by the perpetrator. “There were lots of theories kicking around, but they weren’t specifically staff-related. That was a mystery, and it was a really gross mystery.”

In January of 2019, a large painting that had been hanging inside the Lodge disappeared. This also left staff scratching their heads, some wondering if it was an inside job. Hughes suspects it was customers. “It happened during the winter, and I can only assume it was a group of people and one of them had a big coat and shuffled out with everybody else,” he said. 

As the Press Herald dutifully reported at the time, the painting was worth maybe a few hundreds dollars, but had sentimental value to Briana. It has never been found. 

 

Little Giant, Big Problems

Former workers described a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic between the Volks, in which Briana would angrily upbraid them and then Andrew would swoop in to try to smooth things over. “He definitely was in a place where he was siding with his wife, but he was a little gentler about it,” said Worker One. “Any time she came out and snapped at me, he would kind of like put his hand out next to her and be like, ‘Stop. She’s a person.’ But he was still pretty stern with what he said.”

After six months, Worker One had had enough. “Being anxious as all hell and not knowing where else I was going to go or what I was going to do, I sat down with them and I was like, ‘Hey, guys. I’m really sorry to do this to you, but I’m gonna be leaving this place in six weeks,’” she said. 

“That was when Briana looked at me and said, ‘Why are you leaving?’ And I said, ‘To be quite honest, this job has put me in a place where I can’t leave my house. I’m depressed. My anxiety has taken over my life. And I’m uncomfortable with the way my life is going because of this, so that’s where I’m at.’  

“Briana then looked at me and said, ‘You wouldn’t be so anxious if you just did your job.’ 

“I had no training, no information on how to do the job or any of that,” this worker continued. “So I got to have my boss sit down in front of me and tell me that my anxiety had nothing to do with her and that it had everything to do with me.”

The disconnect between the Volks’ public pronouncements and the way they treated their workers unnerved the staff, as it indicated that the couple were not merely negligent or busy, but cunningly malignant people. “I think that they’re the worst type of predators, because what they do and what they say on social media, it literally could not be more opposite,” said Worker Three. 

“I would not necessarily use ‘psychopath’ to describe them, but ‘sociopath,’ by all fucking means,” said Worker Four, who found Briana’s crusade against workplace harassment particularly hollow. “The one time I needed Briana for a harassment probe, I texted her and she didn’t text me back for three days. I had a bartender call her and tell her to text me back. It was absurd.” 

“I feel like both of them have this weird … entitlement,” said a longtime acquaintance. “They’re borderline Millennials and they think that the world owes them something. But I also think that they both have this crazy, like, sociopathic empathy deficit. They can’t tell that what they’re saying is hurtful to other people.”

The Volks claim they’re deeply committed to the success of Portland’s entire culinary community, but workers said the couple continually bad-mouthed rival establishments — “literally everyone in town,” said Worker Four.  

“They do some things very well,” said a Little Giant employee we’ll call Worker Five. “Spinning things and being evil as fuck is one of ’em. That’s what I really wrestle with. They’re incredibly vindictive, but they spin things in ways that other people eat up.” 

“I deal with serious trauma from them daily,” added Worker Five, who was at Little Giant for a substantial length of time and spoke to Mainer many months after leaving. “There’s anger, but the sadness part is real to me, because they could do good things, but all they care about is being famous and the only people they want to interact with is people who will further their agenda. As soon as you have nothing to give them, they don’t want anything to do with you. They have no integrity whatsoever.”

The ex-workers placed most of the blame on Briana. They said she routinely spread rumors about staff that caused lots of internal strife. “People explain it as like a Dementor,” said Worker Three, “where every time she’s in a room, she just sucks the life out of it, and she has this demeanor that is a completely fuck-off, curt, higher-than-thou demeanor.”

Asked how often Briana caused problems at Little Giant, Worker Five said, “It’s hard to say, because are we talking about a blow up? Inappropriate kind of talk? Insidious undermining? Pathetic ineptitude? If we’re taking about her whole range, it’s every day for sure.”

“Their ethic is, basically, we hire people to make our jobs easier,” said Worker Five. “That’s their thought: everybody should make our lives better, everybody owes us something. Which I thought was fundamentally flawed. It’s the owners’ job to hire people and make their job easier. … It really affects people a lot, being treated like that. If one of your ex-employees is smearing human poop all over your bathroom, you’ve clearly done something egregious.”

The Volks are strategic regarding when and at whom they direct their wrath, workers and associates said. “They definitely picked favorites,” said Worker One. “Their favorites were people who bit the bullet and didn’t say anything. … The people who spoke out and fought for what they knew was right were definitely the people who were being belittled, talked about – there was gossip going around about multiple different things that weren’t true about other employees, and all of those random rumors are truly coming from Briana.”

“They were very different in front of me,” said Worker Three, recalling her time at Little Giant. “And the few days a week that I was there, I really didn’t see anything. With talking to other staff, I started to hear that there was a harassment problem, and that not only did [the Volks] not know how to run a restaurant, but the way they were treating their staff was really awful. 

“So the front-of-the-house manager went to the Volks and said that our female staff is no longer coming to work any longer while she is managing,” Worker Three continued. “They feel harassed to a point by her where they’re not comfortable being at work. Either she stops managing the restaurant, or we’re going to have seven women walk out because they’re not comfortable around her.”  

After she was told she couldn’t manage and couldn’t be in the restaurant, she would start to drive around the building and then call and harass people, being like, ‘I just drove by and I saw this,’ and just rip people new ones,” Worker Three added. “She would scream. I never experienced this, but she would scream in people’s face.”

Briana denied this. “That is absolutely news to me,” she said. 

“That was never brought to our attention,” said Andrew. But he added, “If employees felt that way, that sucks. … It sucks to feel like you can’t show up to your work without experiencing anxiety. That’s not fair, and if either of us ever caused that, I’m sorry, for one. I’m absolutely sorry.”

Lucy Henderson, who worked at Little Giant for over two years while the Volks were there, said she “never once heard about an ‘en masse’ threat of quitting. It was a very small staff so I feel like I would have heard about such an incident. 

“It’s not that I don’t ‘think’ that is true — I know it isn’t,” Henderson continued. “Briana was never a villain among any staff conversations I had. I know people in this industry can leave jobs feeling like they hated working at a place, and it might feel good to exaggerate a situation to feel validated, but a rumor and a lie are far harder to build a case on [than] the truth.”

“I’m happy to report that the work environment that the Volks foster was entirely positive,” wrote Henderson. “In an industry that can be extremely toxic, I felt like Andrew and Briana actively held space for their employees and were committed to equity, safety and well-being.”

Henderson reached out to Mainer after she heard we were working on this story from Sylvi Roy, who was a bartender at Hunt for over five years. Roy also had nothing but positive things to say about the Volks during an interview last year, but she left the company last month and requested that her comments not appear in print.  

Speaking outside their bar last year, the Volks were candid about their shortcomings as restaurant managers. It’s a skill set they say they’ve been trying to build by getting advice from mentors in the industry and attending management-training sessions. 

Briana said that after one particular session, she had an epiphany about her expectations of employees. While a worker may have been doing their job at “one hundred percent,” when promoted to a management position, “they’re gonna start at like zero, or maybe ten, twenty percent, and they need to be trained the rest of the way. … [S]o many times we expect them to just operate at the way they did already, even with all these new tasks and stuff like that.”

“It shouldn’t be sink or swim,” Briana continued. “That’s a terrible way to work and a terrible way to do things.” 

“Hearing you run through some of that stuff, yeah, we definitely put people in positions where they didn’t know how to do their job and we didn’t give them the tools,” Andrew acknowledged. “And that sucks to know that that happened. And from my perspective, we need to address the things we’ve done wrong and do better and hold ourselves accountable to our team, hold ourselves accountable to ourselves, and learn how to do better.”

“I can think of several people who have been through the kitchen that we probably put in a very difficult position,” said Hughes. “We didn’t give them the tools or the time to get acclimated with our systems, with our menu, and put a lot of responsibility on them. And that is absolutely a failure on my part, for my role in it, but also, like, whatever systems we had in place didn’t work.” 

The Volks denied that they fostered a toxic work environment or were difficult to reach when employees had problems. “We might not be able to show up in person right away, but we’ll answer the phone, or the Slack message, or the text at any time of day,” Andrew said. 

The former workers dispute this. “It was incredibly difficult to approach them, incredibly,” said Worker One. 

“There was no comfortable feeling approaching them for anything,” agreed Worker Four. “If we had a problem, we went on Slack, and they would forward it to someone else. … Honestly, I think people are afraid to speak out. I was afraid to speak to them at all during a great portion of my employment there. They just wouldn’t listen. They just retaliated every time.”   

The former workers at Hunt were unanimous in their high regard for Hughes. “He was always decent to all of the employees,” said Worker Four. “He was there to step up, which was the only saving grace for the back of the house.” But, as they were also quick to point out, Hughes wasn’t there at night, when shit literally hit the fan. 

They also had high praise for the Malins, whom they said were approachable and responsive to their concerns. “Ian’s an incredible human being,” said Worker Five. “He has integrity. He’s an excellent guy and he’ll do whatever he can not to screw you.”

Worker Five and others said the Malins severed ties with the Volks in the fall of 2019 once they finally realized the couple was bad news. The Malins no longer have a stake in Hunt, and the Volks, originally equal partners in Little Giant, said they accepted a buyout to leave. Andrew said he and Briana decided to leave Little Giant in order to spend more time with their kids and work on other projects.  

“I think it ended up being mutually beneficial to everybody and, like, best for both businesses, too,” Briana added. “I want to see all the success in the world there, because I love that spot and it’s great and there’s some awesome talent there.”

The Volks live in Portland’s Oakdale neighborhood, near the University of Southern Maine’s campus. Their decision to relinquish ownership of a successful restaurant (Little Giant) five minutes away in order to build another restaurant (Verna’s All Day) in Waterville, well over an hour’s drive north, didn’t seem to jibe with their expressed desire for more family time. 

But, again, very little of what the Volks do or say makes sense. “They’re confusing people, and it’s as if they have no idea that anybody’s listening,” a friend said. “It’s like they just put shit out there. ‘Do you realize what you said yesterday just completely contradicts what you said now, and that you look crazy?’”

For example, in 2019, prior to leaving Little Giant, when the Volks were supposedly realizing they wanted more time with their kids, Andrew was campaigning to take on a huge new responsibility as a Portland City Councilor. “I ran hoping to be a small-business voice on City Council, hoping to be a voice of parents and one of the future, of where this city could go,” he said last year. 

Numerous sources noticed that after Andrew lost, the couple’s social-media machine, normally firing on all cylinders, went dead quiet regarding the race: no acknowledgement of the loss, no thank-you to supporters, and not a word of congratulation to the victor, Tae Chong.

“Maybe I should have” posted about the election result on social media, Andrew acknowledged. “I’m not good at social media, actually — [Briana’s] the good one. I tried to reach out to people who put in a lot of work with me and talk to them personally. … With Tae, like, he won. He’s doing good work. If I need something, I know where to find him. If he wants to talk, he knows where to find me.”

Councilor Chong does not want to talk about the Volks (he declined our request for comment). The campaign had turned nasty, due in part to racially charged comments Chong made about another candidate of color. On Facebook, Briana went after Chong using some of the same tactics and tone she employed in her last-minute e-mail to Mainer. 

“I am really disappointed with the tone of the local races these past few days,” she wrote in an Oct. 12, 2019 post. “I have seen both misogyny and latent racism at play.” Chong had allegedly declined to engage with her on a Facebook thread, and “[t]his dismissal, this disrespect is why women don’t feel safe coming forward and speaking up,” wrote Briana. “This is why so many feel unheard. Because they are by men.”

“I deleted your [campaign’s] male treasurer, your and my comments on my personal page because it serves no one,” Chong replied on Facebook at the time. “We all look bad. When you and your [treasurer] troll my personal page, it crosses the line. … Civility goes both ways and baiting people and then playing the victim helps no one.” 

Chong previously served with Briana on the board of the Portland Development Corporation (PDC), which reviews requests from small-business owners for loans and grants made from a city fund. In recent years, the owners of dozens of Portland bars and restaurants have provided their business plans and financial information to Briana and her fellow board members, who discuss the funding requests behind closed doors in executive sessions.  

During our interview last year, I asked Briana, who was appointed to the board in early 2018, why she hadn’t attended most of the PDC’s meetings. “I’ve been at most of the meetings,” she said. “There’s a few that I missed due to either just illness or child care or things like that.”

I pointed out that according to PDC meeting minutes, she’d attended just 10 of 26 meetings during her tenure on the board up to that point— both those conducted in person at City Hall and, more recently, via Zoom. “That seems like a lot” of meetings to have missed, she replied. “Certainly just life and things, and especially when showing up in person I would try to do as much as possible.”

The minutes indicate that she rarely spoke during the public portion of PDC meetings, though a board member, who spoke to Mainer on condition of anonymity to discuss executive sessions, said Briana fully participated in the meetings she attended. Her attendance improved after our interview — she missed only one of the six subsequent PDC meetings held in 2021 — and she left the board on good terms last fall.  

At the PDC’s September 2018 meeting, which Briana did not attend, Andrew showed up on behalf of Little Giant, which was seeking $20,000 for “equipment upgrades” and to hire two full-time employees, according to the minutes. The board heard his pitch before it went into executive session, and when it emerged, Little Giant was not among the businesses awarded funding.  

Andrew said staff with the city’s Economic Development Department, which works with the PDC, had mistakenly informed him that he could apply for the money despite Briana’s position on the board. Upon realizing their error, he said, they disqualified the application. 

Last September, Little Giant abruptly closed, and it wasn’t pretty. As the Portland Phoenix reported, workers found out their jobs were gone via an Instagram post and an article in the Press Herald. They said the Malins deceived them about their plan to shutter and sell the business and left them in the lurch in the midst of the pandemic. 

The Malins were widely criticized on social media, and Briana joined the fray, writing on Twitter, “This is one of those times that I absolutely do not enjoy being right about how awful someone is.” As she did with the Instagram post about wine tariffs and an uncountable number of other mean messages, she subsequently deleted that tweet.      

“I honestly try and go through my professional and personal life not bad-mouthing anyone,” Andrew told me last year. “Because I think everyone’s trying to do their damn best. For both of us, it’s about building community.”   

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