Monday, December 5, 2011

A Tribute to Cafe Gratitude

Terces Engelhart, owner of Café Gratitude, just posted the following announcement on her Facebook page announcing the closure/sale of all Northern California Café Gratitudes locations. According to Englehart, some "aggressive lawsuits" from former employees brought her to the decision to shutter her vegan/cult restaurants.
Engelhart writes:
With great sadness we are announcing the upcoming closing/sale of all Northern California Café Gratitudes. A series of aggressive lawsuits has brought us to this unfortunate choice. Although we believe that we have done nothing wrong and our policies are completely legal, it will cost us too much money to defend them in court. Despite telling the attorneys that brought the lawsuits that the current structure and resources of Café Gratitude are insufficient to sustain and defend our community, they have refused to give up and are forcing us to close.
We appreciate the loyalty of our employees and customers over these past 8 years and are grateful for having had the opportunity to serve each of you. We were happy to tolerate low margins and sustain ourselves on the transformation and personal growth of our people, while providing local organic vegan food to our community in an atmosphere of unconditional love. That commitment is under attack and we are not able to weather this storm.
This process will take a few months so please keep coming in and let's celebrate our 8 years of success together, we are grateful for you!
We have come to realize that it isn’t how we serve that is most important but rather that we serve.
Our mission will survive this, as love cannot be threatened.
Thank you and love to you all,
Matthew and Terces Engelhart on behalf of Café Gratitude, LLC
The lawsuits in question stem from former Gratitude employees who left the restaurant with a bad taste in their mouths, so to speak. East Bay Express published a 2009 article that claimed, among other things, employees were fired for not attending Landmark Forum classes.
What outsiders may not know is that the culture at Café Gratitude is closely interwoven with a self-help philosophy of personal transformation called the Landmark Forum. Café Gratitude's founders say the classes and seminars, which employees are highly encouraged to take, empower people, create a better work environment, and help change lives. Yet some employees say the curriculum fosters an uncomfortable environment in which their personal beliefs are compromised. One former employee says she was fired for refusing to attend a Landmark seminar, and it's unclear whether the company's practice of requiring managers to attend and pay for half of the $500 seminar is legal. "It is definitely a challenge for those people to stay comfortable saying no," admitted Paddy Smith, general manager of the Berkeley Café Gratitude. Although Smith says she was initially "offended" by the invitation to attend one of the seminars, she eventually signed up and found it to be a "life-changing" experience. "I learned how to be empowered and creative, get the results I want," she said. At Café Gratitude, she added, Landmark's teachings manifest themselves in the form of better communication, honesty, openness, and a no-gossip policy, and are so ingrained into company culture that she has a hard time differentiating between the two. In fact, Café Gratitude wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Landmark.
In 2011, former employee Sarah Stevens filed suit claiming "that in her time working at various CafGraf locations, she was deprived of legally-mandated breaks, and received only a fraction of the tips she rightfully earned." Via a statement from her legal team, Kumin Sommers LLP:
In addition to not receiving her rest and meal periods, Stevens alleges that she is required to participate in an unreasonable and uncustomary tip pooling scheme that leaves her with a very small percentage of the tips she earns as a server. Specifically, Stevens alleges that after tipping out 20% of her daily tips to the “central kitchen” — an offsite kitchen on 14th street — Stevens must then split the remaining 80% of her tips equally with all of the Café Gratitude staff, including the “shift leaders” and retail employees.

"For every illegal or disreputable thing you hear there are half a dozen or more former employees who learned to follow their dreams (and still are rocking it). As well for every one 'bad' [comment] there are HUNDREDS of happy customers whose lives were changed for the better and some profoundly!! I know this personally as I have been told this and thanked hundreds of times by the people I was serving." — Former Café Gratitude server Zachar Sollars regarding yesterday's post about the possible closure of the raw/vegan chain, and the labor lawsuits dogging them. He calls the restaurant a "school of transformation for its servers."

Terces Engelhart made a new plea to supporters today, via Facebook, that anyone who'd like to help the company in their hour of need should purchase some of their retail items, or sign up for one of these workshops.
The holidays are coming and many of our retail items are wonderful holiday presents. Our Abounding River board game is a meaningful gift for family and friends, and it is the beginning of the Gratitude Movement. ... If you have participated in any of our workshops, please take what you learned, that had value to you, and give it away! If not, come join one of our upcoming workshops, they are still offered on a pay it forward basis.
As for when Café Gratitude will close, Engelhart encourages fans to keep coming in for the next few months as they figure things out. Sommers speculates that several locations haven't been profitable at all, including their Healdsburg location, and that these will be let go while others may go to friendly buyers who will continue to do business with the Gratitude farm and food-prep operations. As for the Los Angeles location, which is somewhat of a celebrity hot-spot, that was sold to family members several years ago and remains a separate entity.

There's bound to be more bad press stemming from all this, if not more lawsuits, so in the spirit of generosity we'll leave off with Terces's own words. "Be kind, offer forgiveness, acknowledge one another, take responsibility, be generous, know you will always be provided for and restore trust in all of your relationships. We continue to keep our hearts open and to be filled with gratitude for everything."
Update: Matthew Engelhart responds to the lawsuits calling them "legalized extortion." Also, this NYT piece from July bears noting — the Los Angeles location is said to bring in about $4 million a year in revenue, and is owned by the children of the Engelharts.

Café Gratitude owners Matthew and Terces Engelhart will say only "we believe that we have done nothing wrong and our policies are completely legal, it will cost us too much money to defend them in court." So, that kind of points to the labor lawsuits. In any event, in signing off after eight years in business, they say, "Our mission will survive this, as love cannot be threatened."

I am completely in awe of this. It saddens me that such beautiful people have to go through this. My friend Natalie is a Cafe Gratitude junkie and has brought Mathew and Terces to Kansas City several summers in a row to teach their seminars. The first was the Abounding River Workshop, which they have a workbook you can purchase. It's a 42 day program, that my Mom and I did together. I found it extremely inspiring. The Kindred Spirits really got to me, and when I purchased the amazing book, I cried reading it. In fact, I posted about it here. They also had a workshop on Sacred Commerce, which is their business philosophy. We don't yet have a restaurant, and yet over the last few years I've made so many friends from the Cafe Gratitude experience. An entire community has developed, in fact, enough money was raised that we will have our own restaurant branch in February. I find the timing to be a bit ironic, and hope that the closures do not go through. However, we will be an official affiliate. My intention is to apply for something part time. I really want to start doing a little something to support myself this coming year, and I think its a job I would love and could handle. Plus, I know all the owners. I just want to say that no matter what happens, I believe the community they created will still hold strong. Their message of love and gratitude is too strong to be crushed by a lawsuit. I fully intend to continue to support this amazing company.  

Jason Mraz Singing at Cafe Gratitude

The Raw Food World's Matt Monarch and Angela Stokes Go to Cafe Gratitude




1 comment:

  1. It is such a shame that this is happening to such wonderful kind people!


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