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The retail casualty: Johnny Imgrund endured years of cruel jokes at MOA

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

‘Old Man Johnny’

Fifty-nine-year-old Johnny Imgrund has worked in restaurants all his life.

In northern California, he edited a dining guide that once earned a nod of respect from retired Star Tribune restaurant critic Jeremy Iggers. After he moved to the Twin Cities in 2000, he served tables and kept bar at places like the Grand Café, King’s Wine Bar, and Pane Vino Dolce —small, high-rent enterprises focused on fine food and wine.

Five years ago, Imgrund had an accident, the circumstances of which he asked to keep private, and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He spent six weeks recuperating at Hennepin County Medical Center, underwent counseling and physical therapy, and shed 65 pounds. He emerged with an essential tremor in his left hand and a slightly uneven gait.

Friends encouraged Imgrund to apply for disability. He lived alone in Loring Park, had always survived by the merits of his own wits, and loathed the label. He tried waiting tables at the Normandy Hotel. Others had to make accommodations. It wasn’t his style.

In the fall of 2016, Imgrund got a job at VomFASS, a liqueur, wine, and spirit boutique for the well-to-do on the third floor of the Mall of America. Retail was a new world, but Imgrund knew the wares. He sold them enthusiastically, staying on his feet eight hours a shift.

Johnny Imgrund was the only VomFASS employee assigned a nickname by management.

Johnny Imgrund was the only VomFASS employee assigned a nickname by management. courtesy of Johnny Imgrund

But Imgrund also faced a new problem, something he’d never dealt with before. The 29-year-old assistant manager, Lizzie Bellman, needled him constantly about his age.

According to former VomFASS employees, Bellman often worked with phone in hand, filming videos for social media and reading aloud insults she’d written online about other people. Occasionally she’d engulf co-workers in unsolicited hugs and hold them in place for selfies.

In an Instagram photo, Bellman pressed her face against Imgrund’s chest as he cracked an uneasy, thin-lipped smile. “My favorite coworker turned like 90 today. Proud of him for still being alive!” she wrote.

Another close-up of her hand clutching Imgrund’s is subtitled, “My old man is my fav.”

Once Imgrund brought up visiting his cardiologist and being given a “big decision to make.” Bellman commented, “Is the choice on when to pull the plug?”

She filmed him eating lunch on his break. In one video, she narrated from behind the camera, “There he is, just back there eating his bag of mixed nuts, the weird old person that he is. Coworkers are special.”

Bellman was also fascinated with exposing Imgrund’s sexual orientation, which he considered nobody’s business.

One night Imgrund turned down her offer of a ride home. Bellman quipped, in front of new hires, that he must have wanted to take the light rail to the Gay 90’s.

“Can we get matching tattoos of this?” she texted him around Christmas, along with a badly drawn tattoo of two men with their penises entwined. She followed up with a meme of a naked Santa Claus captioned, “You better not scream, you better not cry, cause Santa is goin’ in dry!”

“I think we need to schedule a meeting with the staff psychologist, Lizzie,” Imgrund responded, according to screenshots of the exchange.

Despite everything, Imgrund didn’t complain to the store’s owner, Tamra Kramer. Nor did he confide in the office manager, Kristi Elder Szewczyk, Kramer’s daughter. Bellman was a family friend. Besides, the sexual texts were too embarrassing to acknowledge, Imgrund says.

In 2017, Bellman put a label over Imgrund’s employee coat hook reading, “Old Man Johnny.” His hook was adjacent to that of the owner’s. Imgrund believed it should have been obvious to Kramer and Elder Szewczyk that it wasn’t appropriate. He admits a part of him wanted to wait and see how long it would take for them to act.

He hung his VomFASS apron there nearly every day of the 58th year of his life. In the meantime, he sent his resume to other businesses. But no one ever offered an alternative job.

“I kept my head down and my mouth shut because I needed a job. There is not a long line of employers looking for a nearly 60-year-old with a brain injury.”

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‘And then the nestlings peck it to death’

There were days when Johnny Imgrund had to force himself to enter VomFASS.

He gained weight, suffered from insomnia and depression, and developed problems with his digestion. For the first time in his life, he began taking medicine for anxiety. The stress amplified the tremor in his hand.

Imgrund’s family, friends, co-workers, and doctors saw things more objectively.

Dr. Laura Kotowski of Hennepin County Medical Center believed Imgrund’s job endangered his health. She ordered him to observe an anti-inflammatory diet, which included eating healthfully. But after Bellman ridiculed him while he ate lunch, he stopped eating at work altogether.

HCMC’s Dr. Stefanie Stevenson agreed that the chronic stress Imgrund faced at work threatened his physical and mental health.

Now and then, various VomFASS employees commiserated with Imgrund in emails and text messages, sharing their own observations.

One former co-worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said she once overheard employees discussing how the store should avoid playing classical music while Imgrund worked because it would slow him down even more. VomFASS was like high school, according to the co-worker.

“I just never understood why they were so derisive toward Johnny because he has this lifetime of experience and he was so professional, and he was kind of a Steady Eddie,” she says. “This was the attitude that was really sickening. It was like of an injured little bird, and then the nestlings peck it to death because it was the weak one.”

Denise Maples, Imgrund’s sister who lives in Alaska, worried that the bullying damaged her brother’s self-worth and made it more difficult for him to manage his recovery. She encouraged him to move in with her.

His friend Tim Johnson suggested he lawyer up. Johnson is an account manager for the wholesale wine vender Paustis & Sons, and got to know Imgrund from his days as a waiter. The photos and video Imgrund shared made Johnson’s blood boil.

Yet Imgrund was unwilling.

“Here’s my take on it: Johnny Imgrund thinks he can change people’s behavior,” Johnson says.

“I’ve never met this manager person, but I just know that John’s way more intelligent than she is, so it had to be pretty hard for him to take the kind of mistreatment that he was receiving from her. But John always wants to think the best of people regardless of their circumstances. I think he thought they should just apologize to him.”

‘Kick me’

When no apology came by last September, Imgrund resigned in a terse email. He thanked his managers and requested a reference letter.

But he had no luck finding a retail job elsewhere. In need of money, he rescinded his resignation before his two weeks’ notice was up, and asked to stay on.

Kristi Elder Szewczyk, the office manager, took him up on the offer. She asked why he wanted to quit in the first place.

Imgrund took the opportunity to voice his frustrations. Yet he had difficulty summarizing all the reasons he’d bottled up over two years.

In an email to Elder Szewczyk and owner Kramer, he instead painted a culture in which everything he did—from washing the absinthe fountain, to pouring samples for customers, to placing his backpack on a table where employees put their purses—was second-guessed and judged, as though “my every instinct is off-base, my facts wrong, my world view katywampus.”

He didn’t complain specifically about Lizzie Bellman. Nor did he invoke the word “ageism.” He was determined to keep his job.

Ultimately, Imgrund lasted just five more months. Last January, he had an epiphany: He couldn’t look at the “Old Man Johnny” name tag for another year.

Kramer had recently accused him of stealing a cleaning product—not knowing he’d brought it in himself for everyone to use—and teased him about wearing a “kick me” sign on his back.

It was just one example of the nagging abuse that seemed reserved for him, Imgrund told Elder Szewczyk in his second resignation letter.

Shortly thereafter, the name tag vanished and Bellman texted an apology.

“I didn’t know you didn’t like the nickname,” she wrote. “If I had, I would have never said it again or even the first time. I can’t change what was said. But know it was never coming from any place other than love. It was meant to be endearing, and it clearly didn’t come off that way. I’m really sorry.”

They continued to work together for three more weeks. (Bellman didn’t return multiple requests for comment.)

“I can assure you that as a female senior myself, and with several other senior employees on my staff, I have a deep appreciation for the value that experienced team members add to VomFASS,” Kramer wrote in a statement. “I am committed to running my business with fairness, ethics and respect for diversity of all kinds.”

‘I see no evidence of malicious intent’

Johnny Imgrund left VomFASS at the end of January and filed for unemployment.

Though most people who quit their jobs aren’t eligible for benefits, the law makes an exception for those subjected to such hostility that it would have forced any reasonable worker to resign. Yet that only applies when the employer knew or should have known about the abuse.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development quickly approved Imgrund’s application. VomFASS’ unemployment tax rate may go up slightly, but the state would pay his benefits.

Tamra Kramer appealed.

In a statement to unemployment Judge Bonnie Bennett, she argued that while Imgrund resigned from VomFASS twice, he never provided a reason until after he was gone.

“I see no evidence of malicious intent toward John,” Kramer said. “He didn’t bring any concerns or complaints about co-workers’ behaviors to me or my office manager in the 2+ years he worked here, and I had no opportunity to know that he was unhappy about certain behaviors, and no opportunity to coach individuals he claims caused him to feel harassed.”

Everyone assumed that Imgrund and Lizzie Bellman were good friends who indulged in a mutual give and take, Kramer added. “The credibility of his claim is questionable.”

Imgrund turned to Ben Meinen, a corporate representative of VomFASS USA. Meinen was sorry to hear of Imgrund’s experiences, but could do nothing because the Mall of America store was independently owned.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights told Imgrund that it couldn’t be considered age discrimination if VomFASS didn’t subject other employees over 40 to the same harassment.

Ross Stadheim, a Halunen Law associate who handles workplace harassment cases, says that while Imgrund had strong evidence of ageism, he’d still face an uphill battle if he wanted to sue. He’d have a much stronger case if he’d reported his treatment to supervisors and they’d fired him, Stadheim says.

As door after door closed, Imgrund began to wonder whether society viewed him as a dinosaur, diminished, without feeling. “Some sniveling old dude who can’t take a joke, an endearing nickname,” he says. “There’s a new acceptable prejudice in our culture. I can’t buck the trend.”

Unemployment was his only path forward.

In a telephone hearing in unemployment court, Imgrund and Kramer sparred over who should have known better.

“You never specifically asked [Lizzie Bellman] to not call you ‘Old Man?’” Kramer asked in one sitting.

“Let’s say this, if it had been a different moniker, would I have said, ‘Don’t call me f—t, Lizzie?’ Why would I need to state that, Tamra?”

The evidence was so extensive, and the dispute so entrenched, that one hearing wasn’t enough. The proceedings had to be continued.

Weeks dripped by. Imgrund’s resources dwindled. His health declined. He began to sell paintings and furniture out of his apartment to pay the rent. He also took stronger doses of his anxiety medicine, plus a new pill for insomnia. When the judge called for their second hearing, he’d passed out cold and missed his chance to question Kramer.

The judge ruled against him.

He had to beg for another chance. Though she wasn’t obligated, the judge nevertheless agreed to hear him out. They re-convened August 8.

“I thought very highly of [John Imgrund] and certainly would not have ignored any information he brought to me about feeling uncomfortable,” Kramer insisted. “I’m really sorry about it, but I can’t do anything if I didn’t know about it.”

Kramer reiterated she was unaware that anyone had concerns about Bellman’s professionalism until after Imgrund left VomFASS.

But Judge Bennett fixed upon an apparent contradiction. “You were aware of the nametag above Mr. Imgrund’s coat hook?” she asked.

Kramer admitted she was.

And when Elder Szewczyk argued that she thought Imgrund was fine with his supervisor touching him or pulling him into hugs, the judge pressed again.

“Let’s cut to the chase, Ms. Elder. He had to take direction, didn’t he?”

Elder Szewczyk admitted he did.

‘Fight every day’

On August 13, Judge Bennett approved his unemployment eligibility, finding that no reasonable person in Imgrund’s place would have endured VomFASS.

“I’m shocked,” Imgrund says. “Basically, I couldn’t believe it, because things have not gone well for me this summer. I called unemployment and made them speak the words to me because I needed to hear it from a human being.”

Back pay will help Imgrund chip away at his bills. But he still plans to move to Alaska and reconnect with his sister. He flies out September 3.

Imgrund insists he has no desire to bring a lawsuit, and wants nothing from VomFASS other than it to vanish from his rearview mirror. He’s resolved to go to the gym, eat better, get stronger.

There are still little interactions that remind Imgrund that his age is what people see first, and they have little reservation about saying something. At the market around the corner from where he lives, the clerk bid him goodbye with an “All right, thanks, old man.” A bus driver called him “Pops” the other day. He read an online think piece about Joe Biden’s presidential prospects in which the primary argument was that Baby Boomers were an irredeemably terrible generation.

“It’s something people in my age group fight every day,” Imgrund says. “I think it translates into the workforce. When this sort of thing ever happens again, I need to be able to just say that I’m worth more than this. Rather than accept it as a truism, I need to accept it as a challenge.”