Firings, an employee walkout, and a row over homelessness at Capitol Hill’s Caffe Vita — UPDATE

(Image: Caffe Vita)

Two employees were fired — and another five reportedly quit in solidarity — after a disagreement over how homeless people should be treated at Caffe Vita’s flagship E Pike shop.

Liz McConnell confirmed the firings and walkout with CHS as social media efforts have spread calling out the Capitol Hill-headquartered coffee chain for firing a trans employee and criticizing a Vita manager’s message about homeless people receiving free coffee or food at its cafes.

McConnell, citing legal concerns, said she could not confirm details of the firings other than they were “with cause” and involved both a manager and en employee. She also confirmed that a Vita manager had sent the message about the free handouts being shared on social media.

CHS has been unable to reach the fired employees or any of the group that reportedly walked out in solidarity. McConnell says about 16 people work at the Capitol Hill Vita location.

An image of some of the protesters sent to CHS by an organizer of Wednesday’s demonstration

UPDATE 6:49 PM: The Stranger has information from the employee side of things:

In an interview, former Capitol Hill manager Hannah Delon, who worked for the company at multiple locations for five-and-a-half years before getting fired for “failure to enforce protocol,” said for “at least the last ten years” baristas have given “pastry waste” to a homeless man they believe distributes the confections to other people experiencing homelessness. Delon also said baristas sometimes give away drip coffee dregs to homeless people who offer to help bring in tables and chairs at the end of the night.

Meanwhile, a protest outside the cafe filled the sidewalk along E Pike early Wednesday evening.

The manager’s message — below with markups from one of the people who have posted it to social media accounts — appears to be an attempt to explain the situation to employees and to direct them away from handing out freebies.

“We recently learned that some employees have been giving away Vita gift cards, food, and coffee to homeless people in the neighborhoods we occupy,” it reads:

McConnell tells CHS that Vita did move to end the handouts but that she and husband and Vita founder Mike McConnell are not anti-homeless and aren’t doing things like the social media messages allege like changing hours to keep people from hanging out and sleeping in the cafes.

The E Pike cafe has reduced its hours and is no longer open late, McConnell says, but it was a business decision. “We were looking at sales,” she said. “There aren’t many other cafes open at those hours.”

“Homelessness is one issue Mike and I are hoping to address,” McConnell said, adding that the issue needs a “systemic approach.”

Vita, McConnell points out, has been an active supporter of many nonprofits dedicated to homelessness including Mary’s Place, Real Change, the West Seattle Food Bank, Juma VenturesFareStart, and the YWCA, while also supporting LGBTQ organizations and events. She provided a long roster of recent activity:

Gay City Garden Gala Auction; Presenting Sponsor of In and Out: Being LGBTQ on Vashon Island an interactive, collaborative exhibit and series of programs and films that examine and celebrate the long, quiet history of LGBTQ+ people on Vashon Island; Lifelong Aids Alliance; Broadway Bares; LGBTQ Bar Association of LA

“This is not a complete list of Caffe Vita’s community efforts,” McConnell writes. “It does not include contributions and support we provide to organizations focused on marginalized members of our community who are not included in the homeless population, or the dozens of environmental, arts and education programs supported by Caffe Vita.”

Caffe Vita has grown into a Pacific Northwest coffee powerhouse with more than 20 years of Pike/Pine-produced caffeine. It currently operates 10 locations including 6 in Seattle, another in Portland, a cafe in Los Angeles, and another two in New York and its signature beans are found in cafes and restaurants across the country.

Despite the ongoing criticism over the firings, McConnell said she wants the community to know that she and Mike McConnell are not anti-trans and have made sure their business has remained a welcoming place.

“Since the beginning, we have been open and accepting of all races, preferences, and orientations,” McConnell said, “both as employees and guests.”

UPDATE 10/4/2019 3:15 PM: In a social media post, Caffe Vita has apologized for the email message about the handout issue saying the words ” do not reflect the love and respect we have for our community.”

In the post, Vita says it is also assessing its policies and communications “to ensure they reflect our company’s values and our community’s need.”

The message does not address the two fired employees or those who reportedly quit in solidarity. Tuesday before the situation was reported widely by Seattle media, Liz McConnell told CHS that there were no discussions about bringing any of the employees back.

The full message is below:

We sent out an email to Caffe Vita staff which was intended to clarify our policy around coffee and food giveaways. Regretfully, it also stated that giving away free food and drink without comprehensive services enables homelessness. We want to apologize to our employees, partners, supporters, and neighbors for these words as they do not reflect the love and respect we have for our community.⁣

We can do better. We are assessing our policies and communications to ensure they reflect our company’s values and our community’s needs. We are actively reading feedback and input sent to info@caffevita.com.⁣

Please know that we remain committed to diversity and inclusion and are dedicated to proactively lifting up underrepresented community members, including our neighbors experiencing homelessness.⁣

Thank you for your patience and support and for being part of the Vita community.⁣

Liz & Mike⁣
Caffe Vita

View this post on Instagram

Dear Caffe Vita Community,⁣ ⁣ We sent out an email to Caffe Vita staff which was intended to clarify our policy around coffee and food giveaways. Regretfully, it also stated that giving away free food and drink without comprehensive services enables homelessness. We want to apologize to our employees, partners, supporters, and neighbors for these words as they do not reflect the love and respect we have for our community.⁣ ⁣ We can do better. We are assessing our policies and communications to ensure they reflect our company’s values and our community’s needs. We are actively reading feedback and input sent to info@caffevita.com.⁣ ⁣ Please know that we remain committed to diversity and inclusion and are dedicated to proactively lifting up underrepresented community members, including our neighbors experiencing homelessness.⁣ ⁣ Thank you for your patience and support and for being part of the Vita community.⁣ ⁣ Liz & Mike⁣ Caffe Vita⁣ ⁣⁣

A post shared by Caffé Vita Coffee Roasting (@caffevita) on


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89 thoughts on “Firings, an employee walkout, and a row over homelessness at Capitol Hill’s Caffe Vita — UPDATE

  1. This isn’t the end for them, but it’s definitely going to be something of a meteor strike for their bottom line. There are so many good and better coffee places in Seattle, and I know I’ll be taking my business elsewhere.

  2. You know, we don’t know all the details of this, but if employees are handing out freebies unbeknownst to the owners, that doesn’t seem right, either. Let’s not be soooo quick to judge before we know everything.

  3. All of who are judging the owners: if you built up a family-run business – one in a very competitive market with small margins – and you found out a few of your employees were repeatedly giving away products to folks without telling you, what would you do? Be honest with yourself here.

      • dan, we don’t know for sure if the food was marked for disposal or that gift cards were loaded at the employee’s expense. margins are thin in this business and cutting into them could ironically lead to the workers losing hours or their jobs outright. I feel like the employees could’ve given out of their own pockets instead.

    • Steve, agreed it’s a business. I get that a family run business wants to keep food in their own mouths and the lights turned on at home. It’s spreading this condescending belief about “enabling” that I find repulsive and self-righteous.

      • Kelliegh – the thing is that the folks I know who’ve dedicate their lives to working in homeless services — three different people — say the same basic message as the owners did here. They may put it a bit more eloquently, but then again it’s their life’s work and they have practice.

    • Well if we’re going anecdotal here, I’ve worked in housing and shelter for 13 years, all here in Seattle, and absolutely do not back up what the owners say here.

      A bit of free coffee is a bit of free coffee. Same with day old pastries. Giving these things as available is absolutely something we as a community should foster and encourage- it does nothing but help individuals experiencing homelessness feel a bit more seen, a bit more human. Good lord.

      “When you have wealth, build a longer table not a higher fence”

  4. NO one can’t give away GIFT CARDS. ONE must pay for them. So the baristas were buying the gift cards to give to the homeless? Awesome. No grounds for letting them go then, drip has a shelf life. These are all PR excuses. THINK.

  5. It’s so trendy for small business owners to pose as “progressive” for press releases, but to covert back into rabid right wingers the moment they are asked to do their share.

    • Hmmm. Do their share? They employ 20 people or so. The list of the organizations they support is significant. What would “their share” be in your eyes? You think these people are Rabid Right Wingers? You need to travel a bit.

      • caffe vita employs over 400 people. they have several cafes in seattle as well as cafes in new york, portland and LA. they also supply coffee to a large number of other local businesses.

      • the workers do the work.
        Look at this guy pretending like coffee production would ground (hah) to a halt if the owners were to disappear all of a sudden

  6. So basically what this article is saying is that the nice people left, and that punishment for good gestures is termination without some kind of warning or reprimand first (though employees of vita have been giving out stuff since god knows when, it’s kinda the unspoken rule of love there). Closing early makes sense from a business point of view though, but I was really hoping the owners would just keep it open anyways as a bastion of good hope!

    I feel if all 7 employees aren’t offered their job back everyone reading this should just buy a bunch of gift cards and give it to homeless people around the area who would like one

    • Let’s be clear. The employees weren’t giving something of theirs to the homeless people. They were giving away something that didn’t belong to them. That’s like if I stole your bike and gave it to a homeless person. That doesn’t make me virtuous. That makes me a thief.

      You can be liberal without being fucking stupid. Try it.

      • ver8tas, Caffe Vita should understand PR and can try protecting their bottom line without acting like fucking douchebags and driving away their customers who are liberals.

      • That’s not what it’s like at all. We’re talking about food that was going to be thrown away, the potential sale is already gone. What is being lost by the business if they were going to put it in a dumpster?

      • @bobby: It wasn’t just end-of-day food that was being thrown away, though. I personally saw employees giving out freshly made coffee to mentally ill people experiencing homelessness, basically in exchange to get them to go somewhere else.

    • Agreed!
      Homeless is a big problem here, what services do we have available for them … I called the firemen about one passed out in a wheelchair they came down and pushed him down the street … no services offered … did he have a mental Illness, lost in the crowd because he was homeless … who are we to judge … I personally know several people that have been down on their luck and ended up homeless, sleeping in their cars, until they could get back on their feet. Money isn’t always the solution … giving away stale coffee, day old pastries … give me a break!

  7. So I don’t see how a company could countenance employees distributing gift cards willy nilly.

    So the idea that doing so, without the express permission of management, is somehow okay is…insane. This is a business after all.

    Also, we know nothing of the circumstances surrounding the firing of a trans employee…and do I need to point out that trans employees can be terrible employees too?

  8. Volunteering at various other nonprofit organizations is a noble act, but it does not cancel out the directive they’ve given their employees to not give out free coffee to the houseless. It sure as hell doesn’t justify the explicit belief they’ve communicated to their employees-capitalists should be in control of the impoverished at all times. Cafe Vita, you’re not important enough for a houseless person to base their life decisions upon. You’re missing the point that while yes, it is a systemic issue AND the houseless are human beings who NEED food DAILY to survive. I didn’t see in your response a listing of the efforts you’ve made to encourage the city council or the state of WA to do something about the issue. I don’t care how much you donate to food banks or how much time you spend volunteering. If you believe that giving food to the houseless is “enabling” then that suggests you believe to have some power over the issue. Don’t pretend to care when your energy is spent spreading a self-centered message to your employees instead of doing the right thing.

  9. HEY THERE!

    The gift cards mentioned were loaded with EMPLOYEES MONEY! The physical gift cards are worthless unless loaded with money. It’s not like you can just hand out 5-10 dollar gift cards without the money being loaded onto them on a POS. Please do some research before all this slander of these baristas who were donating their money to their unhoused neighbors.

    Anyone who has worked a modern cash register/pos will realize that you can’t “steal gift cards” like this.

    These are the same boomer business owners who protected Dave Meinart for years and years or predatory behavior, why are ya’ll giving them the benefit of the doubt now?

    Thanks.

    A non-barista neighbhor.

    • Loaded gift cards are common with bigger businesses. I haven’t seen these, but most coffee shops use the punch card gift cards. They can be purchased, but some owners will give a punch card for a donation for a nonprofit raffle or as part of an auction. Before discussing the coffee gift cards, this needs clarification.

  10. It’s as if the owners drew a line in the sand and didn’t have enough faith in their own baristas or mangers good judgement, the people who actually work the joint and meet the people and can weigh things based on the situation

    • The McConnells have no confidence whatsoever in their baristas, or employees at any of their other businesses. These baristas need to deal with the homeless every day, and sometimes the best policy is to give away a pastry that was going to end up in the compost anyway. Composting costs money by the pound, giving end of day pastries away will actually save the company money.

      • I doubt your assertion that businesses pay for solid waste services by the pound. Unless the system is different than residential services, they pay by the container and by how often it is serviced.

  11. What about Big Mario’s & CHBP? Both McConnell businesses. Transphobic, anti-queer, anti-homeless… sounds like Jason LaJuenesse and Mike are at it again.

  12. @ZR

    I’m not saying it’s impossible for the baristas to have used their own money to load the gift cards, but in my experience a business can load store credit. And if free store credit is given out and used to redeem live inventory, I can see why an owner would balk at that.

    I don’t know if Vita’s point-of-sale system has the capability to load using store credit. If it doesn’t, the case made by the employees is indeed strong (at least in regards to gift cards, I still cannot comment on the food part).

      • Just FYI with Square, you can sell a gift card, immediately refund it.and yet it keeps it’s stored value unless you go into Square and manually deplete it. In other words, business gets no cash but customer has a valid gift card.

        I use it all the time for promo cards so I don’t have to pay any credit card fees. Not saying that’s what they did, but it’s pretty easy.

  13. You cant win for losing these days. I used to live next to the first Vita on queen ann, Mcconnell was a stand up guy and I would imagine is trying to do the right thing for his business, his customers and his employees by ensuring they stay in business.
    Some people in Seattle has gone so far to left they can no longer see the reality of the impact that homelessness has on local businesses.
    What are the comments going to be if Vita closes down because no paying customers want to go there anymore?
    If you care so much about the homeless volunteer some of your time to help in meaningful ways, not by giving them someone else’s product.
    How about buying them a coffee with your tips? oh that’s right, you don’t have enough tips because you are shitty at your job and think being polite to customers isn’t cool.
    Boring.

  14. I had a roommate in college used to invite a homeless guy named whiskey up to the apartment once in a while. Maybe a better idea than giving away someone else’s shit.

  15. Really ashamed to see this Coffee Empire target Trans* community members under the guise of correcting the path out of homelessness. It is clear where their priorities lie. Be smart with your hard earned Trans* ally dollars!!!!

    • You actually have no idea why they fired the trans person. You weren’t there and all you have to go on is the meager info in this recounting. What makes you sure you know enough to pronounce the firing unjustified? If X people were fired for the same thing and one of them is trans, is it somehow worse they fired that one because that person is trans? Why are they “targeting” trans people if the person was fired for the same thing? Oh, but you don’t really know if they were fired for the same reason, do you? Exactly.

      • Thanks Bob. Lost in the usual histrionics and squawking.
        To be clear, I’m not even taking the side of the business owners, because I don’t know either if they were justified or being d*ckheads. I just continually marvel at the conclusions people so often jump to when there is no evidence one way or the other to come to those conclusions. I shudder to think of them getting called to jury duty.

      • Allow me to paraphrase: “White cis privilege SPLAT.” You do not have agency to speak for this Community. You need to understand this.

  16. Oh the insanity. If you want to give free stuff the to drug addicted homeless freeloaders, open your own business. While you are at it, please ask them to only take dumps in your business’ bathrooms instead of the sidewalks. Oh, also please also ask them to stop stealing from other people and threatening them with knives. Thank you.

    • That socialist experiment was actually tried on The Hill a few years back when some anarchists opened Black Coffee in an attempt to actually practice what they preach (for once)

      Not surprisingly it failed in spectacular fashion because – as it turns out – punks, anarchists and homeless addicts are only good at one thing: destroying stuff, then whining about it afterwards.

      Oh, and also blaming capitalism for why they can’t have nice things.

      • Alex, you can say worse things about the military industrial complex — good at taking trillions of dollars and destroying stuff. But I am guessing you don’t have a problem with that, or corporate socialism that benefits yourself.

  17. Having been a barista elsewhere I’ve been told not to provide drinks even if I paid for them.

    But this had two narratives. One employoees where fired for giving away gift cards, drinks ect. This is theft which disables our collective ability to maintain our livelihoods and community impact.

    But then there’s opening a letter with, you know we contribute to people whom help the homeless and we applaud those that wish to help them. If need be we can show you how to do so that doesn’t drag us into the front line of it. Not because we don’t care but because we must not come off as associated because our customers wouldn’t abide dirrect association.

    Defending your shot before you take it makes it hard to claim you’re not aiming there.
    But I’m not there so

  18. “If our business is filled with homeless people many of our customers will likely choose alternatives . . . ”

    Well, here’s a regular that will now choose alternatives on the basis of this statement alone. I don’t care about their side of the story. My wife owns an actual small business so I sympathize with that access, but please, spare me the “small business” nonsense here — last time I went to Philly I wound up drinking Vita. It’s everywhere, this isn’t a local business anymore. It felt like it in the cafe itself, the quality of the coffee, and the community, but a statement like this reflects no interest in any of that.

    Had they taken a different approach, maybe I’d sympathize, but I hope that boycott lasts forever, or at least until they re-hire the folks who give a shit about the neighborhood. Bye.

  19. I wonder if these people listen to themselves:

    “Feeding homeless people […] actually enables, increases and promotes homelessness.”

    Well gee golly whiz, I have a home and earn a living and have a lot of privilege but I’m gonna just like, throw that away so I can get some free croissants! What a great deal homelessness seems like!

    Do these people have any idea what causes homelessness? It’s not a choice.

  20. The gift card thing seems like something the owners threw in there to mislead people. The baristas deny that claim and the gift cards are not pre-paid which makes it unlikely they were filling and handing them out. Also multiple ex-employees have said the owner has repeatedly refused to used gender correct nomenclature for transworkers and trans customers. Doesn’t sound very inclusive to me. Actually sounds pretty hateful.

  21. I have had friends that work as baristas (not Vita, but other places in Seattle). I always got free coffee when someone I knew was working.

    A cup of drip costs what, 15¢ worth of raw materials to make? Sorry, but the owner’s issue here is not the negligible cost of lost goods, but who it went to.

  22. It’s not necessary for homeless people to rely on free food/coffee from businesses. In Seattle, there are free meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) available every day of the week, and they are alot more nutritious that coffee and pastry.

  23. Feeding homeless people nutrition-free chocolate croissants is just about as compassionate as handing a drug addict cash.

    Yet again, it appears Seattle’s activist class acts on emotion & ideology, ignoring basic common sense.

    Helping people kill themselves might be edgy and self-gratifying. But it sure doesn’t help the dying or the dead.

  24. I think Bob and Alex are missing the whole point of the gift card, like bob said they are eating elsewhere of course. These people are not eating chocolate croissants. And the pastrys go to that old guy that always comes towards closing and has been coming for at least 6 years to pick them up towards closing. Might as well stop giving him those too its theft! Point was to give them a little security of not being hassled to just have a civil place to stay warm and mellow out with minimal weird. I suppose you guys would know that if u actually went to vita at night…or ever

  25. Why didn’t the owners who were concerned about the homeless population in and around their business and staff potentially giving product away try to call a staff round-table to come up with a logical and workable solution together? It sounds like it was a small enough business that between the owners/managers/staff that they could all come up with a plan to satisfy the staffs desire to help the homeless and communicate the business’s desire for ensuring their bottom line and make the whole of them feel valued and heard before firing started happening. Call me a pollyanna or a cockeyed optimist but it seemed like this could have been solved waaaay before it came to this conclusion.

  26. I’ve been a regular at vita for morning coffee for a few years now. The shit the baristas dealt with from the homeless was absurd. Often times a screaming homeless person was most quickly satiated by being given free stuff. Saw it more than once.

    While Vita is not what I’d consider a “small business” with thin profit margins they are a business and are in the business of maximizing profits.

    Profits mind you, that are HEAVILY taxed in Seattle so that the city can distribute that wealth (generated by the business) to roads and parks and a large part to the homeless programs.

    The cafe owners are 100% in the right here. They can run their business as they see fit.

    The firing of the “trans” employee has nothing to do with any of this. I know the “manager” they are talking about and from my experience they were not a good manager and if the higher ups thought they weren’t doing a good job who am I to argue, trans for otherwise.

  27. lol this city has lost its mind. so much hand wringing and weepy narrative around the “homeless” issue – who are mostly thieving junkies. some are mentally ill of course…

    that photo of the super totes brave protesters is pretty funny as well.

    • HA!
      I just saw the picture of the “protesters” sitting in a booth inside of Bimbo’s, so dedicated to the cause that they aren’t even brave enough to stand in front of Vita’s.
      Love it, you guys are fuckin hardcore!
      They probably put as much thought into their jobs as they did their protest.
      The real mystery is not why they got fired, its why anyone would hire them in the first place.
      And remember you crazy rebels, be nice to your parents or they may just kick you out too.

      • reft, what’s out of their minds is writing that email and thinking it won’t get leaked and it would go over well with many of their customers.

        cd resident, the real “hardcore” protesters can simply not go to the cafe anymore. If they lose just 100 of their regular customers at their locations combined, that will cost a lot more money than the drip coffee and old pastries they give out. HA!

  28. CD unfortunately u are talking again about something u weren’t even there for, they were in front of vita, maybe they just wanted to have a drink at bimbos and say hi to their friends who work there also…?the ex employees are all friends with the capital hill working crew on pike such horriblly open minded ppl too grosss;(

  29. I was told that I was interrupting their business … basically leave … you and your money isn’t the type of clientele we cater too. Amanda told me to call corporate if I needed that many GC … I guess they have a policy on how many you can buy … basically get out .. we don’t want your money. Having a disability they must be above the ADA law. Amanda should be ashamed of herself, I was buying gift cards for the homeless, mentally ill, and trans community, which we all know is not the clients they want. I don’t go there and after the way treated me in front of their “Normal” clients … I’ll make sure everyone knows, if they don’t already know. Amanda told me because I run a small business and non profit I should know better … I welcome anyone to spend money at my business. I guess the line out the door was unacceptable.
    When asked to see their policy on how many gift cards you can buy I was told to leave “they have a right to refuse service. For spending $ Thanks Vita

  30. First, we are a small business, is a laugh, they own so many restaurant and ventures on the hill and throughout Seattle. Also, Liz has that Stone Temple Pilots, baby daddy money, so she ain’t hurting. Cafes have always given out day olds and drip coffee to homeless people. Sorry, you can’t give out gift cards, someone has to put money on it for it to work, Just another lie from Liz. Besides Vita’s coffee has gone from okay to shit in the last couple of years. They should just leave and take all of their other shitty businesses with them.

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