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.
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 Ventures, FareStart, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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