A former management trainee at Demos’, the Murfreesboro-based restaurant chain, is claiming he was terminated for being married to a man, and the hospitality recruiter that coordinated his employment has since refused to place potential candidates with the company.
Allan (AJ) Celento alleges he was treated harshly from the moment Demos’ executives discovered he is married to a man. He was fired by the company at the end of his first 90 days, just shy of earning a hiring bonus.
Celento has a long resume in guest services and restaurant management, having worked in management for companies including Disney, Hard Rock Hotel, Bonefish Grill, Hilton, and Buffalo Wild Wings. He and his husband Josh moved back to Tennessee last year to be closer to Josh’s family. He applied to Demos’ for one of its open general manager positions late in 2017.
“My recruiter originally told me it was a very Christian company and asked me if I was okay with that,” Celento said. “I said that was totally fine, since both Josh and I are Christians. When I sat down with [Director of Operations] Bill Worman, we went over all my work credentials, and all of that was fine. When we finished that portion, he took his glasses off, set them on the table, slapped the table, and said, ‘Now let’s talk about you and your personal life. Are you married?’”
When Celento answered affirmatively, he recalls Worman then asked a series of follow-up questions:
“What’s her name? What does she do? Is she assisting you? How long have you been married? Do you have kids? I need to know your personal life!”
Celento was taken by surprise at the invasive turn in the interview, and told O&AN he made every effort then to redirect the conversation back to work-relevant issues. “I was being grilled,” he said, “and I kept trying to return to the restaurant industry, talking about what I know about the business at hand. But when the glasses came off and his hand came down on the table, it meant nothing I said about work mattered. What mattered was, what are you? Who are you married to? I skimmed over that as best I could but it was very uncomfortable.”
The family-owned Demos’ Restaurants corporation is no stranger to controversy around LGBT issues. In 2015, President and CEO Peter Demos led a prayer at the Murfreesboro Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, where he referred to “God’s definition of marriage” and prayed, "We ask that you keep the thoughts of man and ideas of political correctness from perverting what you have set forth for us" (DNJ.com). Demos argued that his comments had been misconstrued in the media.
This led to the formation of a Facebook group called "Boycott Demos' and Peter D's Restaurants," where information about the controversy, including a full recording of Demos’ prayer, can still be found. Demos’ Restaurants also operates Peter D’s restaurant in Murfreesboro and last year announced plans to open a new eatery, called PDK Southern Kitchen and Pantry, in Bellevue and Mt. Juliet.
Immediately following his interview with Worman, Celento called his husband, Josh. “They really want me to have a wife,” he recalled. Josh encouraged him, though, to “just get to work and show them what you can do,” hoping that if he was a good worker it ultimately wouldn’t matter.
Over the next couple weeks, he said, every trainer asked him about his wife and family. “I kept deflecting,” he said, “until finally I decided I would sit down with my trainer Linda Morton. I said, ‘I am married, as I spoke to you about, but it is to a male. We’ve been together for 18 years.’ I was told that I had a day, at most, to get an email out to Bill, that I’d need to email him and tell him this.”
Celento met with Bill Worman the next day, where he restated the information. “When I told him this, he said, ‘So you were dishonest?’ I said, ‘Well, in my opinion, Bill, that’s not part of the interview process, so I didn’t disclose.’”
“At that meeting,” Celento recalled, “he asked me, ‘If you know our values, and that we don’t condone your lifestyle, why would you want to work here?’ I said, ‘Because that doesn’t impact my job, and I like the company and I can do a good job for your company.’ And he replied, ‘I don’t understand why you’d want to take this position knowing that we are against what you stand for!’”
Within hours, Celento was given a written warning from his trainer in which he was asked to agree that he would never again be dishonest. According to Celento, the warning did not reference his same-sex marriage as an issue. It was the dishonesty for which he was being reprimanded.
“I signed off on that,” he said, “again, hoping that we’d just move forward and my work would speak for itself. Every day I went in, I was treated very different. At one point I was made to clean the grout lines in the tile in the bathrooms with a toothbrush. During training I’ll do what I’m told.”
“But then we got to the night before Thanksgiving,” he said. “When my shift ended at 8 p.m., I was called into the office. Linda sat me down and said, ‘Hello, friend. It’s not a good fit. We don’t believe you can run the restaurant. We are going to part ways. It’s within your 90 days. I need you to sign here.’ I signed and walked outside. We’d just bought our new condo.
Shortly after, Celento called Jason Despaine of Goodwin Hospitality, the recruiter who had helped place him at Demos’, and told him that he had just lost his job. Despaine informed Celento that he had been contacted by Demos’ and was asked to confirm if he had known in advance about Celento’s marital status.
Despaine confirmed Celento’s account with O&AN. When a representative from Demos’ called, Despaine said, she asked whether Celento had represented himself as being married with kids, in an attempt to establish that he had lied.
“She wanted to know where in my notes I had that information,” Despaine said. “I explained that it was nowhere in my notes. They merely mentioned that he had family and we left it at that. She may have read more into it but the kind of information they wanted isn’t information we would collect.” Despaine added that in the future he has no intention of placing job seekers with Demos’.
Demos’ contacted Celento after his firing—through the trainer Linda Morton—and asked him, along with his husband, Josh, to meet with a chaplain from the Chaplains of America program that comes into its locations weekly to engage company employees.
“She made it sound like he might be able to get his job back if he would talk with the chaplain about our ‘lifestyle,’” Josh explained.
“He sat down with us,” Celento said, “and he wanted to find out what we were going to do.” Over the hour-and-a-half meeting, the chaplain largely avoided the gay issue, focusing instead on the need for Celento to “forget about Demos’, move on, and let it go.”
“He was trying to make sure we weren’t going to take legal action, and was reporting back to Demos’,” Josh said, describing his impression, which he felt was reinforced when the chaplain mentioned having known President/CEO Peter Demos for years.
The situation is a stark reminder of the employment laws in Tennessee as they regard marital status and LGBT-identification, neither of which are protected. Celento and his husband have otherwise lived a quiet life. They met in Nashville 18 years ago when Josh was performing as a dancer on the General Jackson Showboat and Celento was working in the country music industry. They got married soon after marriage equality became law, and are the proud parents to two dogs, a parrot, and “the world’s oldest living bearded dragon.”
Peter Demos strongly contests Celento's claims that his dismissal had anything to do with his LGBT identity or marital status. "His termination had absolutely nothing to do with his being married to a man," Demos wrote. "We have at least two salaried managers that I am aware of that are married to people of the same gender right now, and almost a 1/3 of our salaried managers are known to us as LGBT." This incudes one waiter who was promoted to management after serving on the company's employee council.
Celento countered, saying that when an employee who discovered that he was gay before he outed himself to management cautioned him against revealing his identity. "There's a difference between having LGBT people on staff or in management and having them running your business. I was warned that many of these managers had no hope of promotion beyond their current level and that I couldn't trust that I would be treated in good faith."
Demos contends that the primary reason for Celento's dismissal was related to performance. "During those 7 weeks, we had a tremendous amount of problems with his work ethic and integrity. After his termination, we had even more problems with him," Demos wrote. He then provided a week-by-week account of the issues he noted, including noting regularly missing shifts and being late and a number of write-ups.
Celento admits to leaving early twice during his time at Demos' with permission, but adamantly denies that he was often late or absent. "I left early twice, once when my trainer allowed me to leave because we had finished for the day, and once when I got sick. But I made up the sick time that same week. And I was always early." Celento also noted that his paychecks reflect that he wasn't docked any time during his employment with Demos'. He also asserts that, of all the write-ups mentioned by Demos, he only saw and signed two, the document from Worman alleging he lied about his marital status and the document presented to him at his dismissal.
As to the issues between Celento and Demos' after his dismissal, Demos alleges a pattern of abusive text messages and online activity by Celento against upper management, many using alternate phone numbers. While Celento does admit to sending one profane text message to his trainer-supervisor in a weak moment, and to posting negative reviews about the company online, he denies responsibility for many of the unfriendly texts, suspecting that others may have taken it into their own hands to criticize the company on his behalf. He also removed his reviews in an attempt to mend fences.
The Celento family has been in turmoil since Demos’ decision. “There was a time when this first happened when I didn’t know how to get food for my animals,” Celento said. “I had to borrow money to feed them. We had just moved into a new condo when this all happened, and we are about to lose that."
As Celento sees it, there can only be one explanation: "It’s all based on the fact that I’m married to somebody that I love.”