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Historic Wine Country hotel moves forward with restaurateur accused of sexual misconduct, despite calls to sever ties – San Francisco Chronicle

The historic Freestone Hotel is getting redeveloped by Lowell Sheldon, Jeffrey Berlin and Noah Churma. Despite sexual misconduct allegations against Sheldon, the partners are moving forward together.
Two partners in the historic Freestone Hotel said they will not sever ties with prominent Sonoma County restaurateur Lowell Sheldon, despite calls that he step down after nearly a dozen former employees accused him of either sexual misconduct or creating a toxic work environment.
Co-owner Jeffrey Berlin said he and his partner, Noah Churma, have decided to keep Sheldon at the helm of their redevelopment plan for the nearly 150-year-old landmark, but Sheldon will not be involved in day-to-day operations. Berlin will oversee them instead, and the partners intend to hire a third-party human resources organization for the project, which includes an inn and wine-focused restaurant.
Berlin said that he has witnessed Sheldon working toward “addressing the mistakes he’s made in the past” and called allegations such as a pattern of unwanted touching “agenda-based press.”
“While I believe wholeheartedly in the dismantling of the patriarchy and shining a spotlight on every manifestation of misogyny in our society, I am not the kind of person that turns his back on a friend when they have made mistakes and are genuinely trying to learn from and correct them,” Berlin wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
Sheldon told The Chronicle that he has attempted to apologize to women he hurt in the past and will continue to try to “make things right.” He and his partners also plan to “engage with the community in an open and cooperative fashion” as they prepare to open, Berlin said. Sheldon, who was removed from ownership at Sebastopol restaurants Fern Bar, Handline and Khom Loi this year, denied most of the allegations when they were first made public and still maintains that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone.
“I know that I messed up in some very real ways and that my mistakes have rippled out and caused pain around the community,” Sheldon wrote in a lengthy statement that he sent to his email list Tuesday. “My heart is heavy, knowing that I cannot change my past.”
Three women who made allegations about Sheldon said they were disappointed by the decision. Leah Engel, who held multiple positions at Sheldon’s restaurants and accused him of inappropriate behavior with employees, called the hotel’s choice to move forward with Sheldon “dumbfounding.”
Alexandra Lopez (from left to right), Jesse Hom-Dawson and Leah Engel are three former employees of Lowell Sheldon who don’t want to see him involved with the Freestone Hotel.
Alexandra Lopez, a former manager at Sheldon’s restaurants who previously accused him of repeatedly kissing her forehead and hugging her without her consent, said she wants to see the hotel partners explicitly address Sheldon’s past with the community and explain what safeguards they’ll put between him and staff.
In a September investigation by The Chronicle, 11 former staffers who had worked with Sheldon between 2015 and 2021 accused him of sexual harassment or creating a toxic work environment. Several came forward because they were concerned about Sheldon’s involvement in turning the 148-year-old Freestone Hotel into a wine-focused restaurant and inn in late 2023 — a major development for a town with a population of 32. Sheldon is also an owner of the hotel.
Lopez and others also pointed to a sexual assault allegation published in the North Bay Bohemian in September as a reason to fear for people who might end up at the hotel. After a night of heavy drinking in November 2019, an anonymous woman said Sheldon kissed her, put his hands in her pants and ejaculated in her mouth without her consent. The Chronicle interviewed the woman and her ex-husband, whom she told about the alleged assault the day after it occurred. The Chronicle also reviewed social media posts and journal entries from the woman that soon followed the alleged incident.
The woman filed a report with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office on Sept. 27, two days after The Chronicle’s investigation was published. The Sheriff’s Office confirmed that it is not pursuing the sexual assault case that was reported that day, but could not confirm identities of those involved due to privacy rights. (Heather Wise, an attorney who accompanied the woman to make the report, said prosecution was not the goal; the hope was that her report would make it easier for other victims to come forward.)
In a phone conversation with The Chronicle on Monday, Sheldon didn’t deny the woman’s account. “It breaks my heart that someone feels I didn’t treat them well. That’s just a terrible thing (for her) to have to feel,” he said. “It’s very important to me at some point that I can let her know that.”
Lowell Sheldon cooks at home in Sebastopol. The restaurateur is part of the development of the Freestone Hotel.
Berlin, who was the general manager and wine director at Oakland French restaurant À Côté for 10 years, announced the decision to stay in business with Sheldon in an email to The Chronicle. Churma, a Sebastopol entrepreneur, did not respond to a request for comment.
Sheldon’s promise to stay away from managerial duties at the hotel isn’t enough to ease concerns, some of the women who had accused Sheldon of inappropriate behavior said. “Just the idea that he could have easy access to alcohol and hotel rooms is a very frightening prospect to me,” Lopez said.
Opposition to Sheldon’s role in the hotel isn’t unanimous. The Freestone Hotel project has received mixed support from residents, with some praising the effort and others sharing concerns about changing the building’s facade and the impact on parking and noise. A public hearing to approve the building permits has yet to be scheduled. Some see no problems given Sheldon will not be there day-to-day and remain fully supportive of the hotel.
“I think the project itself is fantastic,” said Ken Freeman, the owner of Freeman Winery in Sebastopol. “We’re short on rooms, and we’re overwhelmed with visitors here.”
But Jacqueline Gleason and Ray Gonzales, who live near the hotel in Freestone, said they will no longer support the project if Sheldon stands to profit from it. Outsourcing a human resources organization isn’t sufficient, Gleason said.
“It seems like someone who has been kicked out of three restaurants for questionable and horrendous behavior probably shouldn’t have access to a liquor license and be in a position of power,” Gleason said.
Gonzales added that he’s tired of hearing about incidents of sexual misconduct. “It’s not going to change unless we chip away at it. We have to do our part.”
The exterior of the Freestone Hotel, located at 306 Bohemian Highway. Lowell Sheldon is one of the co-owners of an upcoming hotel and restaurant opening in the historic building.
Danielle Connor, co-owner of Retrograde Coffee Roasters in Sebastopol, said she hoped the hotel would sever ties with Sheldon following the allegations. After the articles came out, she banned Sheldon, who she described as a regular patron, from her coffee shop.
However, she’s not sure how many other local business owners think the stories about Sheldon impact them directly. She said she’s trying to keep the conversation about sexual harassment going in West Sonoma County by working on a resource guide for business owners about how to develop workplace policies around the issue and how to deal with it if it arises. She wishes people were “thinking about it in a bigger picture.”
“What kind of community do we want to build moving forward, and how do we move forward from something like this?” Connor said. “And what actions can I take to try to make things better or make sure something like this doesn’t happen in my workplace?”
Sheldon acknowledged that some in the community plan to fight the Freestone Hotel — and that the business might not be viable if customers don’t show up. Still, he is moving forward, saying his livelihood shouldn’t be destroyed as a result of past mistakes.
“I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “All I can do is apply the lessons I’ve learned the past few years and do things the right way with Freestone.”
Jesse Hom-Dawson, a former communications manager for Sheldon’s restaurants who Sheldon once told to “sit on daddy’s lap,” said she plans to contest the hotel’s permit and alcohol license applications. She and Engel want Sheldon to donate all of the money he received as part of the buyout processes at Fern Bar, Handline and Khom Loi. They don’t think he should be in a position of power in the industry, including as an owner of a high-profile project like the Freestone Hotel.
She’s frustrated by what she sees as a lack of accountability in how the hotel’s partners are pushing forward.
“I think it’s a sign of how women’s issues are continually ignored or not taken seriously, especially when it comes to sexual assault or sexual harassment,” said Hom-Dawson.
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @janellebitker
Janelle Bitker joined The San Francisco Chronicle in 2019. As the food enterprise reporter, she covers restaurant news as well as Bay Area culture at large through a food lens. Previously, she served as a reporter for Eater SF, managing editor at the East Bay Express, and arts & culture editor at the Sacramento News & Review. Her writing has been recognized by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and Association of Alternative Newsmedia.


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