With the sexual harassment suit against Jeremy Tooker and Four Barrel Coffee settled, plenty of questions remain.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
On January 5, the San Francisco Chronicle broke the news that eight women alleged sexual misconduct and assault experienced while they were employees at Four Barrel Coffee (FBC), a major roasting operation headquartered in San Francisco, at the hands of FBC’s founder Jeremy Tooker, co-owner with Jodi Geren and Tal Mor.
Two of the women were named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit, and other women gave witness statements, corroborating evidence, and firsthand testimonials about their experiences—both about Tooker and about the serial neglect by leadership to address Tooker’s actions.
Within a week, Tooker allegedly divested his 50 percent share of the company, Geren and Mor pledged to change the name of the company to The Tide and turn it into an employee-owned business, and the lawsuit was settled. (The conditions of the lawsuit remain undisclosed.)
Nothing like this has ever been reported as having happened in the specialty-coffee industry, though the hospitality industry has been in the spotlight of late for allegations of harassment and assault. In the weeks preceding the FBC lawsuit, chefs including Mario Batali, Charlie Hallowell, and Ken Friedman were accused by former employees of similar allegations.
While FBC and Tooker are the first company and proprietor accused in the specialty-coffee realm since the #metoo movement began in October 2017, given the similar cultures of the restaurant and coffee industries, it’s doubtful they will be the last.
What can we learn from this? The state of affairs surrounding FBC continues to change almost daily: Geren and Mor released a statement on January 22 detailing their decision to go back to FBC’s original name and abandon The Tide altogether. The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that the switch to the name The Tide lasted 11 days. FBC has retained the services of Sitrick and Company, the same PR firm Harvey Weinstein hired after he was accused of sexual harassment in October 2017. And our coffee community continues to wait for news regarding FBC’s proof of Tooker’s divestment and a timeline for the promised transition to an employee-owned business.
Even though the circumstances surrounding FBC remain in flux, there is still much that the specialty-coffee community—everyone from baristas to roasters to owners to production teams—can learn from the past few weeks. While we are not at all confident this will be the last we hear of sexual harassment in our industry, we can prepare and educate ourselves to be ready for what may have already happened, and protect ourselves and our staffs from this sort of thing happening in the future.
The development of the FBC lawsuit began long before the suit was filed. It started with the decision of eight women to step forward and go on the record about the alleged sexual abuse and emotional harm they experienced during their time at FBC.
“We all had seen and experienced the toxic work environment that existed there. We knew that our stories needed to be heard in order to create positive change, not just in our former workplace, but in the service industry as a whole,” Emily Haddad, one of the women who provided testimony, wrote in a statement on Facebook. “I had no idea that our stories could make such an impact.”
Since the lawsuit broke, conversations have been taking place across the world—the Chronicle continued to report on the story, along with Forbes, Grub Street, SF Eater, and Hoodline. Members of the coffee community have taken to Twitter and Instagram to express their concerns and engage in conversation. Others have hosted town halls and forums, such as the NYC Women in Coffee Town Hall on January 16 and the Bay Area Coffee Community Town Hall on January 23, asking questions about the future of the company and Geren and Mor’s promises to transition FBC into an employee-owned company. At the same time, more than 50 percent of FBC’s wholesale partners have canceled their contracts, with many others continuing to reevaluate their relationship with FBC.
The willingness of those eight women to step forward has propelled the conversation about sexual harassment and assault in the coffee industry into the spotlight, and many are eager to help and support causes that address these issues. The #coffeetoo project, a grassroots organization founded in the fall of 2017 that is dedicated to ending harassment in the coffee industry, started a GoFundMe to raise money for future events to educate coffee professionals on their rights and provide resources for victims of harassment. Over 100 people had donated $5,000 to the cause at the time of this writing.
“There’s [sic] a lot of things that we all carry in our hearts, some of which stay there and some of which we all have to get out,” former FBC employee Tayler Mehit wrote in a statement on Facebook last week. “Throughout this time, I’ve been motivated by the desire to make sure that no one else could be hurt [at FBC].”
After the lawsuit was settled, some of the women involved expressed excitement about and belief in the new plan that Geren and Mor outlined in public statements, i.e., Tooker would step down and divest (although they stated previously that Tooker had abandoned day-to-day operations in November 2017), and Geren and Mor would eventually follow suit so that the company would become 100 percent employee-owned (though no timeline has been issued as to how long Geren and Mor plan to take before they exit).
“The decision made by Four Barrel/The Tide/My former coworkers to move forward as a worker-owned company is, in my personal opinion, the best possible outcome. The workers have always been the best part of that company,” Haddad wrote. “Allowing them to truly have a say in their workplace by giving them the ability to make decisions and hold each other accountable will allow the company to move forward with integrity.”
While there is still plenty of time and space for the dream of an employee-owned FBC to be realized, many in the coffee community have asked for more transparency about what divesting and switching to an employee-owned model looks like.
“The settlement of the law suit [sic] has been challenging for me because although I am incredibly happy with the major changes that we were able to accomplish, I still do not feel like enough has been done to ensure the safety of the company’s current employees,” Britta Leijonflycht wrote in an email to Barista Magazine. Leijonflycht, a former FBC employee and one of the women who provided testimony, is reluctant to believe the promises set forth by Geren and Mor. “So, sure, Jodi and Tal have said that they will turn the company into a co-op, but there is nothing legally binding them to that promise.”
Leijonflycht continues that she’s unsure whether Geren or Mor will ever leave the company. “They never provided a timeline or financial records of any kind. I am extremely skeptical [as] to whether or not Tal and Jodi ever intend on divesting from the company,” she writes.
Since the lawsuit, leaked internal emails revealed that seven employees were terminated from the company because “circumstances surrounding the loss of business in wholesale left us no choice but to make these difficult changes,” as Mor explained in an email issued to the staff about the terminations. On Twitter, coffee professionals continue to ask Geren and Mor for a timeline of when they’ll divest, tagging FBC and retweeting the names of companies that continue to use FBC.
Geren and Mor declined to comment when approached for an interview or statement by Barista Magazine.
In the same internal email, Mor wrote, “… now that the media starts to die down, and the podcasters start to talk about other things, people are starting to remember all the wonderful things we have going here.”
“I hope Jodi and Tal will share their divestment timeline, and the specific changes they’re implementing to create a safe workspace,” Umeko Motoyoshi, a former FBC employee who provided testimony, said in an email to Barista Magazine. “When they do that, I’ll feel more confident in their path forward.” Both Motoyoshi and Leijonflycht urged people to stay vigilant and hold Geren and Mor accountable.
If you’re wondering what “divest” means, don’t worry—you’re not the only one. To divest means to rid oneself of a business interest or share in a company, but the circumstances surrounding one choosing to divest are still unclear. However, it seems news of Tooker’s divestment, and Geren and Mor’s eventual divestment, has inspired employees of Charlie Hallowell’s Boot and Shoe Service restaurant in Oakland, Calif., to push for his divestment. “As part of the #MeToo movement, which encouraged many of Hallowell’s alleged victims to speak out, many current and former Hallowell employees have taken note of the way similar allegations of sexual harassment were handled at the San Francisco coffee company Four Barrel,” the article reads. Since the publication of that article on January 18, three employees of Boot and Shoe Service have resigned after he made no commitment to divest from his company.
Further, Eater NY used the word “divest” in its headline on recent coverage of the latest news about Mario Batali (the article states he won’t be divesting). The language and the expectation are starting to change, and although we have yet to see others accused of harassment such as Batali divest, people like Motoyoshi—who sent the link to the Batali story while commenting for this story—are feeling the sea change.
The lawsuit has reached baristas all across the world. “A friend called from Bangalore [India] and said a local café just had a meeting to talk about 4B [FBC], and are rolling out new sexual harassment policies there,” Motoyoshi told Barista Magazine. At the same time, the lawsuit has inspired others to simply take a moment and listen. “If anything, I hope this provides an understanding that speaking up, listening to others, and caring for each other is important and yields change,” Mehit writes. “To be empathetic requires strength, and it is one I’m learning and building every day.”