The owners of San Francisco-based company Four Barrel Coffee won’t be handing over the business to their employees as they had previously pledged. The roaster was the subject of a lawsuit earlier this year accusing the business of creating a toxic work environment that included allegations of sexual harassment and assault and led to the departure and divestment of its founder Jeremy Tooker. At the time, co-owners Tal Mor and Jodi Geren said they planned to eventually transfer full ownership to the company’s employees, turning it into a fully employee-owned cooperative. Seven months later, that still hasn’t happened.
Mor and Geren have decided not to transition Four Barrel “for the foreseeable future,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In January, Mor and Geren told Eater’s Meghan McCarron that they were holding off on transferring their shares until they “stabiliz[ed] the company financially so these shares are meaningful.” Now, Mor tells the Chronicle that the roster lost enough business after the scandal to make it “unfair to hand off the substantial debt liability we’ve incurred since January to our employees.”
The decline in business led Four Barrel to lay off seven employees, but the partners say the business is beginning to recover. Mor and Geren say that if the business becomes profitable again by the end of 2018, they will begin profit-sharing with employees who have been part of the company for a full year — a notably weaker gesture of goodwill to their staff.
In the interim, the owners of Four Barrel say employees have undergone harassment, bias, and inclusivity training. The company says it has also increased the number of leadership positions; 50 percent of those positions are now held by women.
Co-ops can be a tool for balancing power in a workplace, as Melissa Hoover, executive director for the non-profit cooperative advocacy group Democracy at Work Institute told Eater earlier this year. But in the case of Four Barrel, announcing a transition to a cooperative may have been more of a wise PR stunt than an achievable goal. “I think what’s unfortunate, and what could play out really poorly there, is that business lost a lot of market share through the actions of their previous owners,” Hoover said. “So, it’s not necessarily in a position to be successful when the employees take it over, because they have a damaged brand and they lost customers.”
Hoover added, “You don’t want to strip it of its assets and market power and then share ownership because that doesn’t benefit anyone.”
Four Barrel is among a wave of businesses in the food and beverage industry that have been swept up by allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment. But its story arc feels unsatisfyingly familiar. After being accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, chef Mario Batali has been in the process of divesting from his restaurants. However, there have been rumors that the chef is planning an unwelcome comeback. Many also scratched their heads at the decision of chef Gabrielle Hamilton to step in as a partner in the Spotted Pig with restaurateur Ken Friedman, who has been accused of sexual misconduct and has not divested from the Pig.
• Four Barrel Has Not Yet Shifted Ownership to Employees as Promised [SF Chronicle]
• Dear Bad Men: Divest From Your Restaurants Already [E]
• Want Better Working Conditions in Restaurants? Build a Co-op [E]
• Four Barrel Coffee Founder Leaves Company Amidst Sexual Harassment Allegations [ESF]
• Former Four Barrel Coffee Employees Sue Founder, Allege Sexual Harassment and Assault [ESF]