On Jan. 31, 2012, Wesley Woolf, a lawyer in Savannah, Ga., wrote a letter to the attorney for Paula Deen, the city’s best-known restaurateur. In addition to her flagship, the Lady & Sons, Deen and her brother co-owned a sprawling seafood restaurant called Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House. The venue was located on the outskirts of town and on the periphery of Deen’s business empire—which over the last decade and a half has expanded into television, books, kitchenware, home furnishings, and pharmaceuticals. She rarely set foot in Uncle Bubba’s in recent years.
Woolf explained that he was writing on behalf of a client named Lisa Jackson. For five years, Jackson had worked as general manager at Uncle Bubba’s. During that time, she alleged, she had been subjected to a hostile work environment full of sexual impropriety, boorish behavior, and racist remarks. Woolf offered Deen a choice. She could pay Jackson $1.25 million or face a lawsuit. If Deen chose not to settle, Woolf explained, he would seek maximum news coverage. “Exposure of the racist and sexist culture of her corporate and personal life is going to permanently, and irreparably, damage the value of her brand,” Woolf wrote.