John Gorham, the figurehead of the sprawling Portland restaurant group Toro Bravo Inc, is planning to sell his restaurants after he posted a set of now-deleted Facebook posts that threatened and misgendered a trans woman of color. Gorham is stepping away from his business and planning to divest from seven locations in his portfolio — Mediterranean Exploration Company, Israeli street food spots Shalom Y’all, the new falafel spot Mama Sesame, burger joints Bless Your Heart, and the yet-to-open Y’alla. Toro Bravo co-owner, Renee Gorham, will take over Toro Bravo, Tasty n Alder, and Tasty n Daughters, the three restaurants most associated with his name, as well as the event space Plaza del Toro; she says he intends to transfer his shares to her.
Over the last month, screenshots of Gorham’s original posts calling for vigilante justice against the woman began circulating on social media, and according to a statement from the Toro Bravo Group, “John’s followers began harassing the individual and their Facebook friends.” The posts led some employees to leave their jobs, John Gorham writes in an email. Speaking with Eater PDX, Renee Gorham says she and her husband, John, were “incredibly remorseful” for the posts, and his intent was not to incite violence, despite their impact and message. “I wish we could take it back, but it’s out there, and I want to protect our employees and represent them in a way they deserve as well. We certainly don’t condone his behavior.”
John Gorham says that this “downsizing” will allow him to focus more on his health after his bout of brain cancer in 2017. In a statement sent to media, John Gorham said, “I apologize to anyone that was negatively affected by my actions. My rage that day was unprofessional and inexcusable. I want to and should be held accountable.”
In a Facebook post made in late May, John Gorham announced that someone had vandalized some of his company’s catering vans with spray paint and offered a $5,000 reward for any information about the vandal. A trans woman who asked to remain nameless out of concern for professional retribution saw Gorham’s reward post and, as a joke, posted a response of sorts to a local Buy Nothing Facebook group, a gift and bartering exchange. She commented offering the group a “ton of free spray paint” that she had supposedly found, and then posted a photo of the tagged van and a caption “praising the youth for their artistic ability.” She says the Buy Nothing post “was a really transparent and obvious post to mock [Gorham].”
“I felt disgust that this incredibly privileged and influential individual was using his social media platform to put out a $5,000 bounty on a more-than-likely bored teenager,” she says. “Especially when those funds could’ve been used to repair his vehicle and still have funds left over to help support his staff in the middle of a pandemic.”
Gorham believed she was admitting to the vandalism, and publicly accused her of it on his own Facebook page. He posted photos of her vehicle with the license plate displayed, adding the caption, “maybe something should accidentally happen to it” and misgendering her. In direct Facebook Messenger messages to her, the restaurateur threatened violence using a transphobic slur. He then posted a link on his public Facebook page to a website advertising pepper spray guns, writing, “I would love to talk with other business owners about getting out and patrolling our property,” suggesting “vigilante” justice would be a fair response to vandalism.
After images of Gorham’s posts circulated online, the couple reached out to the Buy Nothing poster with an apology, and offered to make a donation to a charity of her choosing. While she originally requested $5,000 from Gorham directly, with a promise to donate $2,500 of it to the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) and offer screenshots of the donation for proof, the Gorhams declined, and instead donated the $5,000 to the organization — John Gorham says this was an attempt to avoid being seen as just bribing his way out of the situation, and that this would better help the community.
In the statement sent to media, the Toro Bravo team did not address specifically how accountability would be implemented at the restaurants where he’s still affiliated. However, speaking with Eater PDX, John Gorham said that the restaurants were already in the process of updating their training programs to implement a greater emphasis on racial equity, and that he personally wanted to do a better job creating an equitable space. “I need to learn how to better coexist with the black and Asian communities in Portland,” he says.
John Gorham has loomed large in the Portland restaurant world as a champion of small-plate dining combining Spanish and Mediterranean cuisines, with multiple cookbooks and national recognition. He opened the Spanish-inspired Toro Bravo in 2007, which immediately garnered long wait times and heaps of press, jump-starting the development of his restaurant group of the same name; Toro Bravo Inc includes the now-closed Tasty N Sons, a brunch-y take on share plates, downtown’s steakhouse-like Tasty N Alder, and Southeast Tasty outpost Tasty n Daughters. In 2014, the restaurateur started Team Ron Inc with partner Ron Avni and chef Kasey Mills. That “Team Ron” group of restaurants is what Gorham will walk away from in light of the posts.
John and Renee Gorham attribute much of his cognitive and emotional difficulties, including his rage and lack of impulse control, to his 2017 bout with brain cancer and the recovery that followed. In 2018, Gorham temporarily stepped away from his restaurant group’s operations as he underwent brain surgery. During that time, he placed day-to-day operations under the control of a Toro Bravo Inc. board, including his business partner and wife Renee Gorham. He returned to the company in early 2018. Gorham told the Oregonian that he has checked into the hospital.
However, Renee emphasizes that the couple does not want the explanation of his emotional issues to act as an excuse for his behavior. “There’s no excuse,” she adds. “Whether it’s depression or mental states, there’s no excuse. We don’t want to hide behind that in any way.”
Despite the Gorhams’ claim to the contrary, the subject of the original posts said she still suspects this is all mere “damage control,” especially given the amount of time between Gorham’s initial posts and messages to her, and his recent apologies. “This dude must have caught wind of what’s going on and is just trying to save face.” she says. “Dude has issues, I’m sure, but I doubt he actually understands the damage he could have caused.”
• Toro Bravo [Official]
• Toro Bravo statement [Official]
• Renee Gorham takes over Toro Bravo restaurants after husband John’s Facebook meltdown [O]
Updated June 24, 2020, 2:17 p.m.
This story has been updated to include the announcement of Renee Gorham’s takeover of Toro Bravo.