Numerous employees of Seattle-based chain Caffé Vita have reportedly been fired for giving leftover food and coffee to homeless people.
According to a lengthy story from the Stranger, the roastery and coffee company’s management started pushing a new policy in early September. The Stranger obtained an email sent to staff, informing them that the donation of any products to the homeless would be considered “theft” and would be “ground for immediate termination”. The email came from Caffé Vita general manager Isaiah Washington, who has since resigned due to discomfort with the situation.
The initial email that prompted the controversy suggested that staff who gave products away were tacitly encouraging homeless people to hang around the cafe, invoking imagery of “our business [being] filled with homeless people”. It also makes the unsubstantiated claim that giving food “enables, increases, and promotes” homelessness, apparently suggesting that people might choose to be homeless in order to obtain free coffee or pastries. (Chain owner Liz McConnell later told the Stranger that this claim that freebies promoted homelessness was a “belief” rather than something “factual”.)
While the email claimed that staff had also been giving away Caffé Vita gift cards, the Stranger reports that multiple employees said they had never seen that occur.
Update (Oct 4): Caffé Vita issued a statement on social media Thursday afternoon, apologizing for the suggestion that free food enables homelessness. It went on to state that “We can do better. We are assessing our policies and communications to ensure they reflect our company’s values and our community’s needs.”
View this post on Instagram
Dear Caffe Vita Community, 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 Caffe Vita
An Instagram post alleges that the Capitol Hill location of Caffé Vita was heavily impacted, with a quarter of its baristas being fired, including multiple from marginalized backgrounds. The post from a newly-created account named Coffee Riot Seattle also accused chain owner Mike McConnell of using intimidation tactics to create a “toxic” work environment.
The Stranger reported that 10 full-time employees were fired or quit for reasons connected to the policy (although an exact number of firings is not given). One of those included a manager at the Capitol Hill location, who told reporter Rich Smith that staff had been giving away pastries that were destined for the trash for years without problems. Another former employee said staff had even been trained to give food away rather than putting it in the trash; some staff also reportedly gave leftover filter coffee to homeless people who offered to help them lift outdoor furniture at the end of the day.
The situation isn’t blowing over quickly for Caffé Vita — on Wednesday, a crowd of protesters gathered outside the Capitol Hill location, encouraging Seattleites to boycott the chain.