After Steve Rubenfaer, the former owner of Mission de Flores, quietly closed the company last year, Mission Local reported on his new venture advising entrepreneurs. Clients raved about his work.

But after that article appeared, former employees came forward, detailing incidents of sexual harassment, bounced checks, and discriminatory language.

Sally Sparks, a former florist at Mission de Flores, was the first to speak out after reading the article.

“He didn’t close his businesses, he ran them into the ground,” Sparks wrote in a Facebook message to Mission Local. “Withholding employees paychecks, giving no notice to his employees (including many of whom he sexually harassed), and owing vendors thousands of dollars.”

Mission Local spoke with five more employees. All made similar allegations.

Rubenfaer filed for bankruptcy on Feb. 25 — six days after the Mission Local article was published. According to those bankruptcy files, he owes more than $1 million to 49 parties, including banks, government agencies, and private companies like nurseries and farms that sold flowers to Mission de Flores.

“I went into debt to finance Mission de Flores, and when I closed it down, the debts were very large,” Rubenfaer said in a recent interview with Mission Local. “I had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.”

But former employees said that debt was only one of Rubenfaer’s failings.

Two former employees spoke to Mission Local about Rubenfaer rubbing their lower backs without their permission; one said he touched her inappropriately; and four heard him talk extensively about his sex life at work.

Emma Gilman, 30, a former florist at Mission de Flores, told Mission Local that after a work Christmas party in 2017, about five employees went to Hemlock, a bar on Polk Street that is now closed, where Rubenfaer “put his hand on my ass.”

She didn’t feel comfortable reporting her boss’ behavior to another manager, so she tried to avoid him at work. Gilman did tell Sparks and fellow employee Paige McKinley about Rubenfaer touching her — and McKinley, who was at the bar, saw Rubenfaer repeatedly touch Gilman’s lower back.

“He would point me out to other people, how I was having an attitude. And that’s what was wrong with me,” Gilman said.

McKinley, 27, a former florist and driver at Mission de Flores, also said she experienced Rubenfaer’s inappropriate behavior.

“I would be upset about something and he would rub my lower back, which is absolutely not okay,” McKinley said.

McKinley didn’t report anything to management either. After all, Rubenfaer was the owner of the flower shop and she didn’t believe his behavior would change.

“It’s not like we had an HR department,”McKinley said. “Coming to them with anything wouldn’t have really done anything.”

Rubenfaer told Mission Local that he was unaware that anyone felt uneasy at work. “Never once did I ever hear anyone complain about me or about feeling uncomfortable or anything. Ever,” he said.  “I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t do anything bad, I didn’t do anything unethical or illegal at Mission de Flores. I gave people the skills to turn their craft into careers.”

A 2014 Mission de Flores window display.

Rubenfaer would also make comments about his sex life and the people he was dating, according to Gilman and McKinley.

The 51-year-old owner told McKinley how “amazing he was on Tinder and how he is good at getting women in their twenties. Being like, ‘I got totally laid last night,’” she said.

Jesse Beltran, a former delivery driver and manager, was one of the few men who worked at Mission de Flores. He said he witnessed Rubenfaer’s boundary-crossing behavior with his colleagues. “During meetings sometimes he would talk about his dates,” Beltran said. Beltran also  “overheard and saw [Rubenfaer] ask girls to have dinner with him that worked there a couple of times.”

Rubenfaer denies this, and said he would never “date an employee that is working for me, as a rule.”

For Sparks, Rubenfaer’s troubling conduct was often awkward. “He always would say sexual things like how girls were so cute,” which made her and other women feel uncomfortable at work.

When hiring, Rubenfaer seemed to prefer working with attractive young women, according to Beltran.

“They were very inexperienced,” he said. “They all were attractive and had flower tattoos. It was kind of a funny thing.”

McKinley also noticed that most of her coworkers were young and conventionally good looking.

“He would tell me that certain employees were specifically attractive and say things along the lines of whether or not he would have had sex with them back in the day,” added McKinley.

“That’s completely ridiculous. I had nothing to do with hiring florists,” Rubenfaer countered in response to the allegation. He said he was friends with many of his employees and that it wouldn’t be unusual for him to talk about his dating life at work.

“I am just really open and honest about things,” Rubenfaer said. “I’m sorry if anyone felt that way, I just probably kind of say things without thinking anyone is going to care.”

Mission de Flores in 2014.

Kelly Armstrong, an attorney for the Armstrong Law Firm in San Francisco, has been litigating sexual harassment cases for nearly 20 years. After reviewing the allegations made by Rubenfaer’s former employees at Mission Local’s behest, she says that the behavior they describe could be considered sexual harassment under the law.

Armstrong said in an interview that Rubenfaer’s alleged behavior comprises typical sexual harassment, which includes “grabbing different body parts such as breasts or someone’s behind, sending someone sexually tinged jokes, talking about your sex life, rating women in the office on a scale of 1 to 10 and telling somebody that you want to do sexual things to them.”

McKinley and Gilman also said they heard Rubenfaer use racist terms at work. Both said Rubenfaer used the N word.

“He referred to all of us as his little [n-words] because he was really into Straight Outta Compton at the moment,” McKinley said, referring to the rap album by NWA. “I was not comfortable with the way he spoke.”

McKinley, Sparks and Gilman additionally recalled Rubenfaer saying “dykes don’t buy flowers,” when gearing up for Valentines Day.

Rubenfaer declined to comment on this.

In addition to alleged inappropriate behavior in the workplace, former employees also say they received bounced checks from Rubenfaer — and he admits this happened.

Dylan Hadley, 21, worked at Mission de Flores for five months and quit after her bank wouldn’t accept her paycheck, she said. It was her first floral job and she was paid $17 an hour.

“I had negative $300 in my account and I had all these overdraft fees on top of it,” Hadley said. “It was such a mess and I’m a kid and I just want to pay my rent.” She quit the next day.

Rubenfaer believed Hadley’s bank was at fault and wrote her another check that she successfully cashed. When the initial check also cashed a few weeks later, Rubenfaer was angry that he had paid Hadley twice and the two had a heated text exchange acquired by Mission Local before Hadley returned the extra payment to Rubenfaer. He wrote to the then-18-year-old, “You have 0% integrity and 100% entitlement.”

“There were times when money was very tight,” said Rubenfaer, but he argued that he “always made sure employees got paid over everybody.”

Nonetheless, Beltran routinely received checks that bounced in his first few months with the company. Rubenfaer ended up paying him in cash for the majority of the year and a half he worked for him, Beltran said.

“It got to the point where he couldn’t pay me for the full amount. And he would ask me to go get an amount from the register,” Beltran said. “There was tons of post-it notes, you know, $20 taken out here or $100 here.”

But Beltran did appreciate that Rubenfaer went out of his way to pay him, even when cash was really low. “He did try,” Beltran said.

Rubenfaer acknowledged that paychecks did bounce when money was scarce and payments were sometimes a couple of days late — but that he tried to pay employees “extra for the hassle.” He also explained that his employees were paid well, “way over minimum wage.”

And that’s so. Many employees stayed working at Mission de Flores because of the competitive hourly wage. McKinley was making up to $22 an hour at the flower shop and, although she often received her paycheck five days late, she was grateful for how much money she made and the paid vacation time she received. “I took a vacation, and got paid for the whole time I was gone. I got paid for eight days.”

But others haven’t been paid back at all. Darrell Torchio, the owner of Torchio Nursery, is one of the flower vendors that Rubenfaer left hanging. The owner tried to run Rubenfaer’s credit card and it was repeatedly declined.

“He’s a guy that would go down and burn everybody in the market and walk away, and then try and make an excuse,” Torchio said.

The bankruptcy filing states that Rubenfaer owes the nursery $3,325. 

A woman takes a selfie in front of Mission de Flores’s wall of flowers display in 2016. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

In addition to owning Mission de Flores, Rubenfaer was also in the process of buying Floramor, a high-end event and floral company in San Francisco.

A few days before Mission de Flores shut down in May 2018, Rubenfaer backed out.

“For our last month worth of checks, he tried to not pay us,” said Bradley Jackson, a former manager at Floramor. “A month’s pay for me is my existence in San Francisco.”

Rubenfaer eventually wrote Jackson a check in May 2018 for two weeks’s’ pay, and the prior owners of Floramor — who subsequently took back the business —  paid him the remaining sum, according to Jackson. Floramor’s owners declined to comment for this story.

“He was in it for that quick cash,” said Jackson. “Now he doesn’t even have an entrepreneurial thing, he’s just teaching other people how to. It’s terrible. He should not get any type of credit for that.”