Last year, the New York Times asked of LA’s Sqirl and its founder, Jessica Koslow, “Can you build an empire out of jam?” Sqirl is synonymous with a certain cool, aspirational, and white version of LA. It is the epicenter of “clean” comfort food, serving grain bowls with eggs and sorrel, avocado toast, turmeric drinks, and its iconic ricotta jam toast, which Eater’s Meghan McCarron described as like “eating a gigantic slice of cake, but a nourishing one, like a sweet and hearty childhood breakfast.”
Much of that enjoyment hinges on Koslow’s reputation as an expert jam maker. But over the weekend, allegations circulated painting a picture of a dirty, unhealthy kitchen filled with buckets of Sqirl’s signature product covered in mold.
The allegations have been compiled by Joe Rosenthal on Instagram, and many come from people who appear to be former Sqirl employees. Like many restaurants in recent weeks, the callout seems to have started after Sqirl posted about donating profits to anti-racism causes. Comments began piling regarding Sqirl’s hand in gentrifying its neighborhood, and the lack of diversity among Sqirl’s staff. Then, people who appeared to have worked at Sqirl accused the restaurant and growing jam giant of regularly serving jam that had grown mold. “We’re talking about some buckets having like 1⁄4 inch of mold covering the entire tops of gallon buckets,” one of the posts alleged. The former employees allege Koslow herself instructed them to just scrape the mold off before serving.
An employee from sqirl shared this photo of the moldy jam from their kitchen. The fact that were told to just scrape the mold off is pic.twitter.com/uPCsevWoBi— h (@hanaymoi) July 12, 2020
Aside from the confusion as to why jam, aka preserves, would develop mold so quickly, former employees also allege Koslow deliberately hid the moldy jam from health inspectors. At least one person alleges that it was because there was mold on a fan in the storage room, which would blow spores over the open buckets. But also, employees say they were repeatedly told it was okay to serve. “We were told that the health department gave us permission to scoop the mold off if it went two inches down,” said one former employee. Others say they were asked to hide the jam until inspectors were gone. Which all seems like a lot more work than making jam that doesn’t mold in the first place.
Sqirl has responded to the allegations on Instagram, saying that because it doesn’t use commercial pectin, stabilizers, or much sugar, “a low sugar jam is more susceptible to the growth of mold.” It also claims it did serve jam that had been in moldy batches, but that was done “with the guidance of preservation mentors and experts like Dr. Patrick Hickey,” a mycologist who previously told the BBC that it is perfectly safe to eat moldy jam if you scrape it off.
The morbid glee over the Sqirl takedown is familiar to anyone who enjoyed watching that perfect, untouchable girl in high school finally revealed to have a flaw: There is plenty of boasting on the internet over never having liked Sqirl in the first place, of thinking its proprietors were pretentious, fussy gentrifiers before hating them was cool. But what makes the story so viral (or spore-ful) is watching a place that has built its brand not just on jam, but on the goodness of “real” food get taken down for precisely what it supposedly does best. So far, no one has claimed to have gotten sick off Sqirl’s jam, but it’s shocking and disgusting and allows for everyone who never posted an artfully lit photo of the jam toast or the line down the block to feel incredibly smug.
Hey look! I fried an egg and put some avocado on toast — and I didn’t have to pay $20 to Sqirl and contribute to gentrification to do so. pic.twitter.com/GVwFCMs6wT— Kat Bee (@katbeee) July 13, 2020
the sqirl thing is great because anyone paying $2 extra for syrup on a single $14 piece of toast deserves to die of rat shit and mold poisoning pic.twitter.com/FIkPNi1WUa— Germaphobe Sean (@GermaphobeSean) July 13, 2020
i hate how heavily twitter weighs content from LA, why do i now hate a restaurant called Sqirl for selling moldy jam? i am in nashville, tn, we make our own jam here, who are you people— Marc G (@mac_gere) July 12, 2020
Haha I’ve been to Sqirl with so many people saying they always hated it now... it’s cool you can admit you once liked and paid for something that ended up being flawed!— Emily Yoshida (@emilyyoshida) July 13, 2020
While the jam is certainly the visual shocker, many of the other allegations against Sqirl and Koslow are about presenting an aura of progressiveness while treating employees of color unfairly. Javier Ramos, former chef de cuisine at Sqirl, posted to his Instagram stories a screenshot of a comment he left on a different Instagram account, claiming Koslow “took credit” for his work, and that he “didn’t get recognition or payment for the recipes that I contributed to the cookbook.” Ria Dolly Barbosa also commented that Koslow “took credit for the first two years I was her chef there,” and said the jam toast itself was the invention of chef Matt Wilson, not Koslow. (Neither Koslow nor Sqirl has commented on these allegations.)
Aside from the internet backlash, Sqirl appears to have suffered one tangible consequence of this expose. Diaspora Co, a sustainable spice company known for its single-origin turmeric, released a statement on its recent jam collaboration with Sqirl. “After hours of conversations with Sqirl employees (current and former), a mold expose, and some difficult convos with Sqirl leadership, we are here to say this collab was a mistake.” The company had hoped it could highlight BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) farmers, but decided “the collab gave Sqirl another trendy marketing boost.” The company has pulled the remaining jars from its site, and is offering refunds.
It’s quite possible the mold backlash will continue to dominate the food discourse for a while: For the majority of people who have not been to Sqirl, it’s pretty hilarious that the “coastal elites” have been caught fawning over moldy jam — but the problems may also go deeper than improper jam-cooling techniques. The restaurant has yet to acknowledge any allegations of mistreatment by former chefs.