SANTA ANA — Two former managers of Francoli Gourmet Emporio in Fashion Island have sued the imported goods store, alleging they were fired because they are not Italian and did not fit with the business' ambience.
Lisa Crawford, the store's general manager, and James Drakeford, the former coffee and deli manager, alleged in separate lawsuits they were terminated this past summer after the owner of the company sent two memos ordering non-Italian employees "be replaced by Italian" workers.
Francoli Gourmet "should be Italian in effect," according to one of two memos included in the lawsuits and apparently written by an owner who lives in Italy. The lawsuits were filed in Orange County Superior Court last week.
A manager at Francoli Gourmet declined to comment Tuesday, saying only: "Please do not call the store regarding this matter. We're awfully busy right now."
Francoli Gourmet sells imported foods and gifts at the Newport Beach mall. The store features a wine bar and a coffee and deli section, and employees invite customers to sip Italian coffee as they browse.
Drakeford and Crawford had worked at the store since January, 1994. Both said they performed their duties competently and were terminated not because of their work but because they were not Italian. Drakeford was fired last May and Crawford last June.
In their lawsuits, Crawford and Drakeford allege Francoli Gourmet violated California labor and civil rights laws by firing them on the basis of their race. Both claimed emotional distress and asked for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
The former employees said in their lawsuits that one of the memos instructed management to terminate non-Italian employees "gradually" to avoid attention.
"I regret that you have only now understood that the choice of the staff is important, since it is certainly impossible to 'suddenly' change all [employees]," said the May 9, 1994, memo by owner Luigi Francoli that is included in the lawsuit. "In any case we will do it gradually, but firmly."
Neither Drakeford nor Crawford could be reached for comment Tuesday.
"It's an odd situation to see someone discriminated against on the basis of them not being some nationality other than" American, said J. Scott Humphrey, a Beverly Hills attorney who represents both former employees. "But there's no doubt that they were fired because they were not Italian." Drakeford alleges that in June, Silvia Francoli, who was sent from Italy to supervise the store's operation, told him during a meeting that he had "done a good job" but did not "understand the Italian way of doing business." Humphrey said Silvia Francoli is the daughter of an owner.
In her lawsuit, Crawford said she also was fired for refusing to let go other employees who are not Italian. In November, 1994, Crawford said, she was told by one owner that "the Francoli store was 'not Italian enough,' and that she should only hire Italian personnel."
According to the two memos in the lawsuits, Francoli Gourmet has been losing money.
"Given that after an opening of one year the Gourmet has been a debts maker, I must take measures," wrote Luigi Francoli, who Humphrey said is one of the partners of Italy-based Fratelli Francoli, which owns the gourmet store.
In the second memo, Francoli wrote: "Regarding the Gourmet business close [sic] or selling, all will be determined based on the trend of the next months. The continuous financial rescues put us in a difficult situation. . . ."