UMN mainstay Purple Onion leaves behind complex legacy

Some patrons remember a late-night hangout, while some employees remember a sense of community eclipsed by management’s behavior.

Morning+light+spills+over+the+now+shuttered+entrance+to+the+Purple+Onion+Caf%C3%A9+on+Tuesday%2C+Oct.+27.++After+30+years+as+a+campus+constant%2C+the+caf%C3%A9+has+permanently+closed.

Kamaan Richards

Morning light spills over the now shuttered entrance to the Purple Onion Café on Tuesday, Oct. 27. After 30 years as a campus constant, the café has permanently closed.

Jasmine Snow, City Reporter

The Purple Onion, a longtime Dinkytown staple, rocked campus with news of its closure in October. While many remembered the restaurant fondly, some former employees described an “abusive” workplace culture fostered by leadership.

After nearly 30 years on the University of Minnesota campus, the restaurant and cafe is one of many local businesses to shutter during the pandemic.

People loved “Ponion” for many different reasons, including the location, the atmosphere, the performances from local artists and groups, and — maybe most of all — the French toast.

Third-year Russian and technical writing major Nina Afremov said, like many students, the Purple Onion served as the cornerstone of her social life, where she often met up with friends and family on campus. She said one of her favorite memories included working for hours on a big project there with friends last fall.

“It felt like the center of my social life,” Afremov said. “It felt like it was my third [home].”

Like others, Afremov said she was not surprised to hear the news of its closing, considering all the changes the restaurant made to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel like the initial heartbreak happened when it still wasn’t opened at the beginning of the year,” she said. “When they finally announced it, I just wasn’t really that shocked. But it’s still sad, of course.”

Former employees also said they enjoyed serving on campus and that customers and fellow co-workers were their favorite part about working there.

Michaela Ronyak worked there from August 2017 to February 2019. She said she thought her co-workers were amazing and loved the working environment for the most part.

“I have a really big passion for coffee, so that’s why I started working there,” she said. “You kind of got to set the vibe of the coffee shop. … You were always scheduled with at least one other person, and you got to create some really good friendships out of that.”

However, several former employees said that upper management — particularly Pat Weinberg and Greg Galles — created a hostile work environment that often included verbal abuse and other “inappropriate” behavior. Employees said abusive behavior included occasional aggression or shouting directed at certain workers or customers, often followed by condescending or “shaming” attitudes when that behavior was brought up.

Liz Hilliard worked at the Purple Onion from about August 2017 to February 2019. As a manager, they loved caring for a staff of about 20 students.

Hilliard often had to act as a mediator between the staff and Weinberg, who they said struggled to communicate with his employees.

“He was pretty aware that he had a very difficult personality and that he had a temper,” Hilliard said. “He would say it as he’s ‘passionate.’ But he has some real anger issues and is pretty emotionally abusive.”

Hilliard said they felt that the owners — particularly Weinberg — largely got away with inappropriate behavior due to the regular turnover of student workers who had low standards of how they should be treated.

Weinberg said he was devastated by the loss of his business and, in a message to the Minnesota Daily, said “thank you to the people at the u of m” for 32 years of support. He declined to comment on former employee accusations without knowing their identity prior to publication.

Galles could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.

University graduate Peyton Ordner, who worked there recently for two years, said she loved her co-workers and the customers. However, she said she felt uncomfortable by what she thought was “inappropriate behavior” from Weinberg and felt shamed and discouraged when brought it up with Galles.

“After I told Greg, I felt like he continued to kind of shame me for coming forward about it to the point where I got so scared and anxious,” she said. “Being around him, I felt like he was taking all this anger out on me and yelling at me a lot.”

Ordner said she continued feeling as though she were being pushed out until she was fired.

Despite struggles with management, employees still held that they loved many aspects of working at Ponion, and many customers said their University experience was deeply shaped by the time they spent there.

The French toast was one of 2020 University graduate Sarah Lardy’s favorite things about the locale. She said she was devastated by the news about it closing.

“I would often have homework sessions there with other people,” Lardy said. “That was literally the reason I got through my computer science course. Just late-night studying with the fries and my friend at Purple Onion.”

Chelsea Visser Severin, a 2017 University graduate, said she always tried to drop in when she was back on campus. She said she used to love the chai tea and all the memories she made while in college.

“I’ll miss it,” she said. “I was bummed when I heard it was closing. I went there with so many people. … There’s just a ton of memories.”