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After a bitter 2019, Caffe Vita’s new owner wants to give employees voice

By Ragini Gupta, UW News Lab/Special to CHS

Caffe Vita began 2020 with a new start but its new owner wants to make sure the E Pike-headquartered company addresses the issues that arose in 2019.

A few months after protests against Caffe Vita for firing two employees who gave away food to homeless people, restaurateur Deming Maclise took ownership of the 25-year-old company from founder Mike McConnell on January 1st.

Maclise began his career in 1991 as a barista when the term wasn’t as popular — it was just called “making coffee,” he said.

Maclise opened Caffè Fiore after 10 years of working as a barista and managing coffeehouses and then progressed to opening several of the most popular restaurants in Seattle, including Bastille, Poquitos, and Rhein Haus, between 2009 and 2018. At some point he started missing the coffee world and wanted to incorporate more of it into his business.

“You show up in a neighborhood with a coffeehouse, you can really create a hub of the community and the neighborhood around that cafe pretty powerfully if you have the right environment, the right people, the right interaction going on,” Maclise said.

In response to the firings and walkouts that took place last year, Maclise said he doesn’t know if there will be changes in customer policy and that there’s no policy for specific communities apart from the general rules of being in a public place, which apply to all customers in a business.

Social media efforts and protests called out the Capitol Hill-headquartered coffee chain for firing a trans employee and criticized a Vita manager’s message about homeless people receiving free coffee or food at its cafes.

“As long as people, you know, can come in and buy a coffee, then they’re welcome,” Maclise said.

The company is donating leftover products to Northwest Harvest, a statewide hunger relief agency, and incorporating de-escalation training, which can be used to reduce the intensity of conflicts, for workers.

Hannah Delon, who was the manager at Caffe Vita’s Capitol Hill location, said that she was laid off from her job in September 2019, shortly after two employees under her were fired for giving coffee refills to members of the unhoused community.

Delon said she hopes that Maclise takes into account everything that happened over the last five months by utilizing tools such as de-escalation training, and by including sharps containers, which are used for the safe disposal of needles in bathrooms, because of the drug use in the area.

“We all know that the houseless situation and the drug problems are kind of more concentrated in certain areas. … What to do when someone’s in there, asking for money, or taking all the cream, you know, just really common things that happen at coffee shops, they happen and it’s a part of the gig,” Delon said.

Delon added that she’s still trying to figure out how to move on from last year’s incidents, and that what really gets her is that the company will still keep running however it needs to in order to be successful, with nothing to hold it accountable.

“Capitol Hill just doesn’t feel the same to me and to a lot of my community members,” Delon said. “And that’s okay, change is necessary, but holding people accountable, I think, is literally the only thing that we can do as community members — my voice is all I have.”

Maclise (Image: Poquitos)

According to Maclise, job satisfaction has a lot to do with feeling that one has a voice, is being listened to, and is trusted.

“I know what it felt like to work for someone or for people who gave me that, and then I know what it felt like not to be listened,” Maclise said. “I’ve just spent the last six weeks trying to speak to and listen to as many people as I can, and I want their feedback to translate into the cafés as best as I can.”

Lorena Rodriguez, who currently works at Caffe Vita’s Capitol Hill location, said that the newly hired staff is working well together and that she’s started noticing a steady increase of regular customers.

“With this new ownership, we’re finding that we’re all meshing really well together,” Rodriguez said. “I’m hoping that the environment will thus help customer service in an extent to the point where everyone feels comfortable around each other and they’re all welcoming and people come in and they could really enjoy the coffee.”

Maclise met his wife, his business partner, and a bunch of his friends by making their coffee every day in the 10 years he spent working as a barista and managing coffeehouses.

For Maclise, the beauty of coffeehouses dates to the concept of ‘Penny Universities,’ from England’s coffee culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. The reason they called it that is because the price of admission was just a pence or penny, he explained.

“So you could have a teacher next to a lawyer next to a doctor next to a janitor, all sitting in the same room based on just the price of admission being a penny,” Maclise said. “You have all these different people in different classes in different parts of the community, who are all gathering in a place in a unique situation. … The full community is represented.”

Maclise hopes that the interaction and coffee exchange with the baristas at his cafés can be the best part of the day for his customers.

“I’m hoping that on a barista level that people end up loving their job even more and that comes through to the customers and customers want to be at Fiore and Vitta even more because of that interaction,” Maclise said. “I think listening and adjusting, listening, and adjusting constantly helps create the best situation for that to happen.”

Delon said she’s excited to see where Maclise takes Caffe Vita, and that he’s always felt approachable in the interactions she’s had with him from her time working there.

“I expect and I assume that Deming’s going to be way more communicative with his employees, he’s going to be listening, listening actively to how to make improvements,” Delon said. “But I think what will be most important is to actually be seeing some changes and hearing conversations happening, being a part of conversations with these businesses.”

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2 thoughts on “After a bitter 2019, Caffe Vita’s new owner wants to give employees voice

    • Walk the talk. That would actually would show real listening and understanding instead of the usual shuffling of chairs. But I doubt they’ll rehire the ex employees. They are hoping to sweep it all under the rug and continue on as before. It’ll work too.

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