Cannelle employees allege hostile work environment

In December 2021, Matt Knio and Sam Abbas opened a bakery on East Washington Street called The Great Commoner, named after Abbas’s Dearborn restaurant. The Great Commoner provided baked goods to a number of cafes and restaurants in the Ann Arbor area. Knio and Abbas’s partnership lasted six months, until June 2022, when Knio took over full management of the store.

Knio, who owns bakeries in Detroit and Birmingham, rebranded the Ann Arbor store — he redesigned the interior, refreshed the menu and renamed the bakery Cannelle. Knio enlisted his sister, Rawaa Debs, to oversee the bakery. 

Employees were initially encouraged by these changes, hoping that new management might bring higher wages and more benefits. 

One former employee commented on the shift in ownership in an interview with The Michigan Daily. This source requested anonymity, describing fears of professional retribution. In this article, they will be referred to as Riley.

“At first, we were all super excited,” Riley said. “We thought, this is going to be so much better … because at first they promised higher wages, they promised a better environment, etcetera. We realized that not everything that glitters is gold.”

Over the next three months of their employment at Cannelle, Riley — and six other employees interviewed for this article — allegedly encountered constant surveillance through security cameras in the workplace, inappropriate comments on their bodies from members of management and excessive food waste. 

A Daily investigation revealed previously undisclosed allegations of a hostile work environment and unethical business practices at Cannelle Bakeries. These allegations range from sudden and frequent terminations without cause to employees being forced to pay for lost or broken items. 

By September 2022, three months after Knio took over the store, all seven employees interviewed for this investigation had quit or been terminated by Cannelle.

This article is based on interviews with former employees of Cannelle and a review of documents and correspondence between employees and members of the Knio family.

Knio commented on the allegations against him and Cannelle management in an email to The Daily. He denied being aware of employees’ concerns.

“As a company, we value respect towards our employees and guests,” Knio wrote. “I have undertaken an investigation of these allegations. Please note, I was not made aware of any such allegations prior to this time.”

‘It felt like Big Brother, made real’

In interviews with The Daily, multiple former Cannelle employees described a hostile workplace governed by constant surveillance through security cameras. Seven employees alleged their conversations were monitored by Matt Knio and Rawaa Debs through surveillance cameras, creating an environment where employees were always aware they were being watched. 

One former employee described Cannelle’s use of surveillance to The Daily, noting placement of surveillance cameras above their workspace. This employee requested anonymity, citing fears of retaliation from her former employers. In this article, she will be referred to as Camila.

Camila alleged Debs frequently monitored employees through surveillance cameras placed in various locations in the store. According to Camila and several other former employees, these cameras transmitted audio as well as video. Camila said she and her coworkers felt uncomfortable having conversations within view of the cameras.

“We would whisper, or we would go to areas where there weren’t cameras,” Camila said, “so we could just talk like normal humans and not actively censor (our) conversations.”

Camila described feeling terrified by the extent of surveillance in Cannelle. 

“It felt like Big Brother, made real,” Camila said. “It’s absolutely terrifying.”

Knio commented on the allegations of surveillance in his email to The Daily. He said there are cameras in each store, but did not respond to the allegations that he and Debs used these cameras to monitor employees. He did not specify whether these cameras were capable of transmitting audio.

“Cannelle (stores) are outfitted with camera systems for the purposes of remote monitoring of the premises, including oversight and for police investigations in the event of criminal activity,” Knio wrote. “In no instances are the cameras within areas where individuals, either staff or patrons, have an expectation of privacy.”

In one instance in July 2022, Camila took out her phone during her shift to text her mom. She immediately received a text from Debs, who was not in the store at the time. The Daily obtained a screenshot of this text.

Text from Debs. Obtained by The Daily.

“Hey (Camila) plz phone only for emergency thank u,” Debs wrote.

“There were times when I would be three words into texting my mom about how my day was, and I would get a call from Rawaa saying, ‘you have to put your phone away.’” Camila said. “Not only was it terrifying, and really weird and stressful, but it was such a violation of trust between employee and employer.”

Camila told The Daily the constant surveillance forced her to modify her behavior to avoid getting in trouble with her bosses.

“Every conversation I would have with my (coworkers),” Camila said, “I would try to talk in a way that I didn’t sound like I was complaining … because I don’t want (my bosses) to know more than I think they should know if it’s going to make my job harder.”

Riley, who worked at the Ann Arbor location in the summer of 2022, described similar instances of her conversations with customers being monitored over the cameras by management. 

“There would be times where I would be getting calls from management saying, ‘Hey, why is this happening?’” Riley said. “When those calls are so constant … it just feels like a violation of privacy.”

On one occasion, Debs texted Riley reminding them to keep their conversations with customers brief after allegedly watching through the cameras. 

Text from Rawaa. Obtained by The Daily.

“And plz if you don’t mind make short w customers!” Debs texted. 

Another former employee who worked at the Detroit and Ann Arbor locations from 2021 through the summer of 2022 corroborated Camila’s account of surveillance at Cannelle. This source requested anonymity, citing fears of professional retribution. She will be referred to as Ella in this article. 

One camera was positioned directly above the front counter. The Daily obtained a text from Debs which appears to show the remote feed from this camera.

View of Cannelle’s front counter from a surveillance camera. Obtained by The Daily.

In one instance at the Ann Arbor location, Ella, who worked at the front counter, took a drink of water during her shift. Shortly after, she received a text from Debs, who was not in the store at the time, reminding her not to drink in front of customers. The Daily obtained a screenshot of the proceeding conversation.

Text from Debs. Obtained by The Daily.

“And plz no eating or drinking in front,” she texted. 

Ella said she believed Debs was watching her through the store’s cameras at the time.

“The only way you could’ve seen my water bottle is if you’re looking at the camera,” Ella said. “I always knew (we were) being watched … (Debs) always has it on her phone.” 

In an interview with The Daily, Ann Arbor-based employment lawyer Sarah Prescott of Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter, PLLC, commented on the alleged use of surveillance at Cannelle. Prescott has no legal involvement in these cases. Her comments are expert opinions based on information provided by The Daily.

According to Prescott, employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in areas such as bathrooms, but cameras can be placed freely in most areas of a private business. The use of audio monitoring is likewise legal, so long as it is disclosed to employees.

“This can catch employees unaware,” Prescott said, “where maybe there’s some line buried in a handbook that says, ‘By the way, we may audio, video and otherwise surveil you,’ and if that is disclosed to employees … then the employees’ rights are much more limited.”

Undisclosed audio surveillance falls under Section 750.539c of the Michigan Penal Code, which prohibits the recording of a conversation without the consent of all parties present. 

None of the seven former employees interviewed for this article recalled receiving an employee handbook or being informed of audio surveillance when they were hired by Cannelle. Camila commented on her concerns regarding the lack of a handbook.

“I did not ever receive an employee handbook (from) Cannelle,” she said. “We were rebuked for things we weren’t aware of and roped into uncomfortable situations, like hyper surveillance, without that being prefaced.” 

Ella told The Daily she wasn’t aware Cannelle had an employee handbook.

“There is no employee handbook as far as I know,” she said. “I never had one.”

‘If you’re fat and working at Cannelle, you’re gonna get looked at a little sideways’

In interviews with The Daily, multiple former Cannelle employees alleged Debs made inappropriate comments about employees’ bodies and appearances. Riley alleged these comments were fat-phobic in nature and created a hostile work environment for fat employees. 

“It felt very much so that our looks and (physical appearance) were more important than our actual character and work ethic,” Riley explained. “(Debs) does this thing where she’ll praise those who are smaller figured, and then just look at (fat employees) like we’re beneath her.” 

In one particular instance, Riley was making a shift meal when Debs allegedly commented on their weight. 

“She made an offhand comment of ‘Hey, you might want to stay away from the kielbasa,’” Riley said.

Camila alleged Debs and Sirina Knio, another member of Cannelle management, made seemingly positive comments about her figure during work.

“The first time (Sirina and I) met, she looked me up and down and was like, ‘You must work out, you have a great body, you look awesome,’” she explained. “I would also get a lot of comments from (Debs) … about how professional I looked or how good I looked in a skirt and how I was making the bakery look much more appealing.”

According to Riley, Debs’s conduct created a workplace where fat employees felt disfavored by members of the Knio family. 

“If you’re fat and working at Cannelle, you’re gonna get looked at a little sideways,” Riley told The Daily.

Speaking on behalf of Debs and Sirina, Matt Knio denied the allegations of preferential treatment and fat-phobia.

“At this time, (Debs and Sirina Knio) deny making any such comments,” Matt wrote in an email to The Daily.

‘It was a backdoor firing’

In interviews with The Daily, multiple former employees described the use of “backdoor firing” practices by Cannelle management. 

“Cannelle’s firing and termination practices are informal and unprofessional,” Camila said.

In August 2022, Camila talked about potentially reducing her hours with a coworker during their shift in the Ann Arbor store. Camila believed Debs heard this conversation through the store’s cameras. After that shift, Camila was informed by Debs that she was taken off the shift schedule. Camila’s coworker declined to comment on this article.

Text from Debs taking Camila off the shift schedule. Obtained by The Daily.

“Since we r training new people u will not be on schedule for a while, And since also I heard that u cant work only one day that works for you I think,” Debs said. 

Camila asked if she was being let go. Debs wrote that Camila’s removal from the schedule was just temporary and told her to relax.

But following that text, Debs never scheduled Camila for another shift.

“I received a text from Rawaa saying that I was taken off the schedule until the foreseeable future, due to the fact that they were training new employees,” Camila said. “She completely affected my means of income without any consideration for what I needed. I did not want to go completely off the schedule, I still need to pay my rent and work as a student.”

Camila said she was frustrated with Debs’s termination procedure.

“It was a backdoor firing, not actually telling me that I’m fired, but letting me go without truly stating that,” Camila said.

After weeks of being off the schedule, Camila resigned. In her resignation letter, she described her frustrations with her time at Cannelle.

Camila’s resignation letter. Obtained by The Daily.

“I would like to express my deep dissatisfaction with this company’s treatment of its staff,” Camila wrote. “I am not the only employee to recently have been taken off schedule without warning. This not only disrupts the much needed income that your staff depends on, but it is extremely hurtful to people who have worked hard to make this business as successful as it is.”

Prescott commented on the alleged use of surveillance and termination practices at Cannelle and told The Daily that employees are protected under the National Labor Relations Act against retaliation for discussing their wages and hours with coworkers.

“There are laws that protect workers who are discussing the terms and conditions of their employment,” Prescott said. “Unfair labor practices may flow from … taking action against people because they’re talking about their pay, their hours, the conditions of their work … those rights are protected under the National Labor Relations Act.”

Prescott explained that certain termination practices can amount to “constructive termination,” where an employee is effectively fired without being explicitly told so.

“(It’s) recognized under the law … a constructive discharge is anything that basically amounts to firing someone without actually firing them,” Prescott said. “If (an employer) just stopped scheduling you and really substantially reduced your duties, substantially reduced your pay … that can be called a constructive termination.”

Riley and Ella shared similar concerns about their own terminations, both of which occurred within a month of Camila’s departure from Cannelle. Riley said that working at Cannelle was negatively impacting their mental health.

“I was so burnt out that I could not take it anymore,” Riley said.

Riley felt they could only give one week of notice before resigning. They approached Knio one afternoon in August to inform him of their intent to resign. But Riley was fired later that same day for an unrelated incident.

After they gave their notice to Knio, Riley recounted, they got into a disagreement with Debs over the phone about the store being overstaffed. Debs then allegedly told them to clock out and not return to the store.

“Clock out, go home, we don’t need you for the rest of your time here,” Riley alleged Debs said.

Shocked from the phone call, Riley stepped outside to take a breath. As they sat on the patio outside the store, Riley was recognized by some customers walking by. The customers asked what happened and Riley explained that they had just been fired. Riley said the customers were surprised by the situation, given the public image and reputation of Cannelle.

“That was one of the first instances where I had seen customers, regulars, have a realization of … ‘What is going on behind the facade of the front end?’” Riley said. “(It) led them to not even wanting to go back.” 

Ella was likewise met with an informal termination. With the school year nearing, Ella, a University of Michigan student, needed to lessen her hours to focus on school and retain her academic scholarship.

At the time, Ella was working long hours and had a close relationship with Debs and the Knio family. 

“There was a time when I was not doing well,” Ella said. “And (Debs) kissed me on my cheek and cried, and told me… ‘We love you … you’re like my sister. You’re like my daughter.’”

In early September, Ella texted Debs to inform her about her limited availability. 

That same day, Ella was fired over a text from Debs.

Text from Debs terminating Ella’s employment at Cannelle. Obtained by The Daily.

“That’s the context of me leaving,” Ella said. “I received a text.”

With her close relationship with Cannelle and the Knio family, Ella said she was shocked by her termination. 

“It felt like a lot of betrayal in a sense, because I’d worked 50 hours (a week),” Ella said. “I honestly was put under so much pressure.”

When asked about Cannelle’s termination practices, Knio wrote that, as an at-will employer, Cannelle can terminate employees at any time.

“Either management or a given employee can sever employment at any time,” Knio wrote.

According to Prescott, at-will employment, under Michigan law, allows employers to terminate employees without notice or cause.

“At will employment, under the law, is that you can be fired for any reason, or no reason at all,” Prescott said.

‘Every single night, whatever croissants or breads that we do not sell get thrown away’

In interviews with The Daily, seven former employees described excessive food waste at Cannelle. They told The Daily that employees’ attempts to address this issue were dismissed by management. 

As a member of a sustainability and environmental organization at the University, Camila said she was personally concerned with food waste. After she finished her new-employee training at Cannelle, she was placed on the closing shift. That’s when she started noticing how much food was thrown out each day.

“At the end of the night, any croissants that weren’t plain or chocolate would get put in a large, black trash bag (and be) thrown away,” Camila said. “Every loaf of bread, also thrown away. So all of it to the dumpster. I think on average we would take out about three trash bags worth of croissants.”

When employees raised concerns in June over the amount of food waste that Cannelle was producing, managers responded sympathetically — but employees alleged nothing changed even after they spoke with the owners. 

“After a couple shifts, I would start to ask my managers, … ‘Why are we contributing so much … to the amount of waste that already goes out into the planet?’” Camila said. “They would be like, ‘I hate it, too … I’ve spoken up about it, nothing’s been done. It’s just a policy we have to follow.’”

After a lack of action from ownership, Camila drafted a “Cannelle Leftover Plan” to lessen the amount of food waste the bakery was producing. She was fired before she could present it to Knio.

Camila and Riley alleged they were instructed by Debs to lie about food waste to customers. 

“We were told to not let customers know that we throw everything out,” Riley said. 

Riley corroborated Camila’s account of these events and echoed Camila’s concerns over food waste in Cannelle Bakeries. According to employees, management gave various reasons for refusing to donate unsold food. Ella said Knio cited liability concerns in one instance.

“I remember (Matt Knio) specifically said liability was a big thing,” Ella said. “But if someone came up with a plan, I really don’t think it would even matter. I think it’s about money, honestly.”

Riley also commented on employees’ frustrations with food waste.

“It truthfully just felt like an excuse of, ‘I don’t want my croissants in someone’s less fortunate mouth,’” Riley said. “‘I want my money if someone’s going to eat my stuff.’”

Ella expressed that she lacked confidence a food plan would change anything.

According to one section of Cannelle’s employee handbook, employees must pay for any baked good with their employee discount regardless of whether or not it will be discarded at the end of the night. Violating this policy is a fireable offense. 

Cannelle policy regarding employee discount. Obtained by The Daily.

A screenshot of this section of the handbook was sent to an employee group chat by a manager to remind employees of the policy. None of the employees interviewed for this article recalled receiving a full version of Cannelle’s handbook.

Seven former employees reported feelings of frustration at this policy due to the amount of preventable food waste Cannelle produced daily. 

“You’re watched on camera,” Ella said. “If you’re grabbing something, they can see. If you’re taking a bag out of the store, they’re watching. So you better ring yourself up.”

Camila said she was frustrated with the fact that the food waste could have benefitted the housing and food insecure community.  

“I got really sick of carrying all these beautiful pastries out to the trash every night when I would walk home and walk past so many people who are asking me for food,” Camila said.

Camila said she thought of taking food home in an effort to reduce waste, but was scared for her job security if her managers found out. 

“It’s just insane that your job can weigh on the fact that you’re taking home three croissants that were gonna be in the trash anyway,” Camila said.

‘If there were any shortages in the drawer, we were the ones to pay it back.’

In interviews with The Daily, five employees alleged that when restaurant items broke or Cannelle’s money drawer was short, employees were instructed to pay their own money to compensate the store. 

Riley explained how they were allegedly required to pay their own tips to Cannelle on numerous occasions.

“We would be the ones paying it back (if drawers were short),” Riley alleged. “It would always come from our tips or (be) deducted from our other checks.”

Camila said that if the money drawer was short, employees would notify Knio and Debs. The owners would then divide the value of the missing money by how many employees were working and allegedly instruct the managers on shift to collect the money. 

A text sent by a manager instructing employees to make deductions from their tips. Obtained by The Daily.

“The register was short last night so ppl worked yesterday owe $2 each,” Camila’s manager wrote in a text in one instance.

Riley explained that the money they paid to Cannelle sometimes amounted to multiple hours’ worth of wages. 

“It would take me four hours to pay for two (lost items),” Riley said. “And that just further proves why those deductions were much more hard hitting on us as employees than it was on (the Knio family) as business owners.”

In one instance while Ella was working in July, a glass bottle fell and shattered on the floor, cutting her finger. Debs texted her saying she had to pay for the broken bottle. The Daily obtained screenshots of the ensuing conversation.

Text from Debs. Obtained by The Daily.

“U know if we damage items we need to pay for it right,” Debs wrote in her text. “U cut ur self with the lemonade.”

Knio commented on these allegations in his email to The Daily. According to Knio, employees were asked to contribute tips to cover any costs of “employee negligence,” and money was not taken from their paychecks.

“We ask each shift to contribute a token amount of money from the pooled tip fund for expenses resulting from employee negligence,” Knio wrote. “Such funds are not withheld from paychecks.”

‘I really hope that the Ann Arbor community … realizes that the business they are supporting does not support them’

Cannelle management’s alleged treatment of employees disappointed the former employees who spoke with The Daily. Riley said they felt employees were expected to dedicate themselves to the bakery.  

“It was an overarching theme of Cannelle that when you’re there, you are living, eating, breathing Cannelle, and when you’re not here, you’re still living, eating, breathing Cannelle,” Riley said. “I can honestly say I’ve heard those words almost verbatim from ownership.” 

Cannelle is considered one of the best patisseries in the Midwest. But the employees interviewed for this article revealed concerns previously unknown to the public about the business’s practices.  

Camila sees potential for sustainability within the bakery, especially within the eco-friendly environment of Ann Arbor. 

“I think Ann Arbor is a fantastic community for being eco-conscious and sustainable,” Camila said. “(Cannelle) could have such a better company if they realized that, and they would be so loved and appreciated here if they were to … embrace (sustainability) and run with it.”

One former employee, who spoke with The Daily under the condition of anonymity, shared their desire for patrons of Cannelle to be aware of employees’ concerns.

“It’s essential that the public know what’s behind what they consume, and, in this case, what’s behind their beautifully wrapped box of pastries,” the source said. “I hope (customers) are well equipped with the knowledge of what their money is actually supporting.”

Riley echoed these desires for community accountability, specifically within Ann Arbor. 

“I really hope that the Ann Arbor community and folks in general … realize that the business that they’re supporting does not support them,” Riley said. 

Focal Point Reporters Sophia Lehrbaum and Noah Lusk can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]


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