As the #metoo movement continues to open space for women to speak out about assault and harassment, a tidal wave of men from various industries have found themselves suddenly accountable for unprofessional and often illegal behavior. In the months since #metoo went viral, the specialty coffee community has waited for its own first allegations to break, and in the first week of 2018, due to the courage of several women in the Bay Area, they did. On January 5, two former employees of Four Barrel Coffee filed suit against the company itself, as well as one of its three owners, Jeremy Tooker. The response has been astonishing: within a week, multiple wholesale accounts ended their relationship with Four Barrel, the company itself declared intent to change its name and move to an employee-owned model, and the specialty coffee community spoke a loud, clear #timesup, widely condemning sexual assault and harassment. The lawsuit itself, which settled after just a week, and the dramatic response from the specialty coffee community stand as a powerful example of the cultural shift taking place nationwide, in coffee and in other industries, and the change that comes next.
The lawsuit against Tooker and Four Barrel went live on January 5th, the first Friday of 2018. The 19-page suit—which details allegations from eight former employees—runs the full spectrum from casual sexism in the workplace to silencing complaints to attempted rape. Reporter Justin Phillips of the SF Chronicle coordinated reportage as part of a wider Chronicle investigation into harassment in the Bay Area's food, beverage, and tech industries. According to the allegations in the suit, the acts of sexual assault were not actions in a vacuum by a single person, but rather one element of a company culture where baristas were placed in a setting that encouraged sexual humor and objectification—a “toxic workplace” is referenced in the suit, as per CBS Bay Area. The suit also alleges that employees who brought up their discomfort with the environment at Four Barrel, and with specific incidents, were told not to “start drama” and “talk shit.” According to the suit, several employees who defied those mores were fired.
Four Barrel's Initial Response
After the lawsuit, Four Barrel closed its doors for the weekend of January 6th and 7th. Following a short silence, co-owners Jodi Geren and Tal Mor issued a statement in response to the suit. While the owners expressed sadness and concern over the contents of the suit, they also “took issue” with certain claims, specifically “the mischaracterization of our current culture.” They announced that Tooker had stepped down as CEO in November and was divesting his remaining ownership in the company; they also stated that they had retained an outside HR firm to investigate and allow extant employees to report concerns. “We will continue to take prompt action to address any and all employee concerns, as we have done in the past,” wrote Geren and Mor, who did not directly address the allegations that they had discouraged previous employee complaints.
The Specialty Coffee Community Reacts
In the wake of the lawsuit and Four Barrel’s initial response statement, multiple wholesale clients made the decision to sever their partnerships with the company, including Socola Chocolatier and Barista, Red Rock Coffee, Le Marais Bakery, Spiller Park Coffee, Strange Matter Coffee Co., Boba Guys, and several more.
Social media presented a central hub for the specialty coffee community to voice their anger, frustration, and disgust with the allegations laid out in the lawsuit, as well as with sexual assault and harassment in the larger industry in general. Prominent activist voices in coffee spoke out against the company and called for broader change and real accountability, including Jasper Wilde of Ritual Coffee Roasters and Boss Barista Podcast, Liz Dean of The Wing, and WINCC founder Becky Reeves.
Three days after the suit was filed, Four Barrel put out a second statement declaring intentions toward several next steps. First, they said, they intend to allocate Tooker’s 50% shares to Four Barrel employees; second, they changed their name to The Tide and retire the Four Barrel brand; third, Mor & Geren intend to make available increasing shares of their remaining ownership, until they’ve completely divested and the new business is 100% employee-owned. At the end of the statement, they asked customers, both retail and wholesale, to keep purchasing coffee from them so they can have a chance to execute that change.
As reported in Eater SF, while some responses gave the company credit for their accountability and positive intentions, others felt that the statements’ emphasis on Tooker’s actions were a deflection from the fact that Four Barrel itself was being sued as well, and that specific allegations detailed harassment and silencing from Geren and Mor, not just Tooker. Some also criticized the lack of a direct action plan, and pointed out that if the same people were involved in The Tide as Four Barrel, then a name change felt more like a PR move, as per Eater.
We reached out to Geren and Mor for comment on a variety of questions pertaining to this article, including the point of divestment. At what point would Geren and Mor turn over their shares in the company? “All of our time and energy right now is going into our customers, employees and stabilizing our business,” they told Sprudge in a joint email. “We’ve lost 50-60% of our wholesale business in the last week and for us to have a viable business to offer employee ownership, we need to first stabilize and then figure out the best model for our new structure.”
As for the name change, Four Barrel's remaining owners have re-evaluated this decision since announcing The Tide on January 8th. “We realized that in the emotion and shock of this past week that changing our name was a mistake,” Geren and Mor tell Sprudge. “Our customers have been vocal about us keeping the name Four Barrel and we want to own it and make it right, rather than walking away. This is a company that we and all of our employees built ourselves and although this past week has been heartbreaking, we have put everything into Four Barrel and stand by not only our coffees, but our ability to change and make things right.”
The Coffee Community Responds
From the announcement of the lawsuit through its swift settlement, several groups within the specialty coffee community have come together to show their support.
Bay Area Coffee Community compiled a list of companies that were hiring, with Jasper Wilde leading the charge to get workers placed in new companies if they wanted to leave Four Barrel. Molly Flynn, creator of anti-harassment and discrimination group Coffee Too, joined the effort and is working with Wilde and others to cover all vulnerable parties’ needs through this difficult time. Several businesses stepped up to voice support, both for the ex-employees who filed the lawsuit, and for current Four Barrel employees who wish to leave the company and wish to continue working in the Bay Area specialty coffee industry.
“I was so relieved to see the community reaching out to support folks who needed or were looking for other work,” Umeko Motoyoshi, one of the former employees involved in the lawsuit, told Sprudge. “We all had a lot of concern for Four Barrel’s current employees, and it was good to see people step up.” While the offers of material support were crucial, what Motoyoshi appreciated even more deeply was just being believed.
Back To Work
As of press time all three Four Barrel Coffee locations in San Francisco are open for business, and the company currently employs some sixty-one total employees, as per Geren and Mor. Numerous wholesale accounts have severed ties with the brand, and Mor and Geren have yet to divest, though they stress that this is the goal they're working towards now. “It’s an ongoing conversation,” they told Sprudge. “We first need to stabilize and will then work out a new structure that benefits everyone. Our employees will then be able to decide on an individual basis if the new structure is the right fit for them.”
We asked Mor and Geren if they could comment on the outcome of the settlement. They did not discuss specifics, but did offer comment on the current state of the company. “We're glad to have resolved the lawsuit quickly but none of this has been easy for any of the parties involved,” Geren and Mor tell Sprudge. “Tal [Mor] has met with the women involved in the lawsuit and some very helpful dialogue has come from it. A few have even expressed their support and belief in our ability to change, which means everything to us. Above all, we commend them for coming forward.”
We also asked Mor and Geren about charges, outlined in the original lawsuit and elsewhere, that the ownership and management at Four Barrel were complicit in silencing victims. “We can see now how the systems that we had in place failed to create an environment where women were heard or felt that they could talk to us directly and we take full responsibility for that,” they said, adding: “The most important thing for us moving forward is ensuring that nothing like this will ever happen again.”
Coffee Too and Coffee’s Future
On January 8th, Coffee Too teamed up with Boss Barista to launch a GoFundMe to fight sexual harassment and discrimination in the coffee industry, pointing to the tremendous power found in speaking up and collectively organizing. “Faced with evidence and multiple witnesses, Tooker immediately divested his shares and left the company. Geren and Mor…publicly apologized, and announced that they too would leave the company…[and] they announced a plan to relinquish their shares in the business to their employees,” wrote Ashley Rodriguez of Boss Barista, who created the GoFundMe page. “This is the power of talking shit. This is the power of starting drama. In support of these eight women, #coffeetoo is fundraising to continue this work.”
The fund is nearing its original $5000 goal as of press time. “I’m moved to tears by the generosity of our community,” says Flynn, founder of Coffee Too, who has been quoted widely in ongoing press coverage of the lawsuit. Originally conceived with the idea of supporting current and past Four Barrel employees affected by the suit, Flynn found from talking to them that their greatest desire was to raise money not for themselves, but to create support systems and educational resources for fighting harassment and discrimination in the coffee industry. Going forward, Coffee Too wants to create a legal fund for workers who need to file suit against employers.
If the rapid saga of Four Barrel/The Tide has shown anything, it’s that many in the coffee community are no longer willing to overlook harassment. In the wake of these events, coffee companies will need to look with fresh eyes at their company culture and policy structures, and the greater coffee community will need to look at itself and root out complicity to bring real, structural change. “I know as a community we can continue this work,” says Umeko Motoyoshi. “Continue to grow, to look at ourselves and lend our voices where they have the most impact. Continue to do better.”
Top image by Bruce Damonte via We Interview Boor Bridges Architecture, San Francisco’s Cafe Design Masters by Noah Sanders.