I am Annoyed and Disappointed

Café Gratitude espouses a raw food diet and a philosophy of self-transformation. But some current and former employees say it's left a bad taste in their mouths.

Even to a casual observer, Café Gratitude is clearly not your
typical restaurant. In addition to its raw-food menu and communal
tables, the Bay Area chain has its servers ask patrons a question of
the day and deliver affirmatively named dishes such as “I am thankful”
on bowls that ask, “What are you grateful for?” Yet for some of
Café Gratitude’s employees, the answer to that question isn’t
their management’s policies.

What outsiders may not know is that the culture at Café
Gratitude is closely interwoven with a self-help philosophy of personal
transformation called the Landmark Forum. Café Gratitude’s
founders say the classes and seminars, which employees are highly
encouraged to take, empower people, create a better work environment,
and help change lives. Yet some employees say the curriculum fosters an
uncomfortable environment in which their personal beliefs are
compromised. One former employee says she was fired for refusing to
attend a Landmark seminar, and it’s unclear whether the company’s
practice of requiring managers to attend and pay for half of the $500
seminar is legal.

“It is definitely a challenge for those people to stay comfortable
saying no,” admitted Paddy Smith, general manager of the Berkeley
Café Gratitude. Although Smith says she was initially “offended”
by the invitation to attend one of the seminars, she eventually signed
up and found it to be a “life-changing” experience. “I learned how to
be empowered and creative, get the results I want,” she said. At
Café Gratitude, she added, Landmark’s teachings manifest
themselves in the form of better communication, honesty, openness, and
a no-gossip policy, and are so ingrained into company culture that she
has a hard time differentiating between the two. In fact, Café
Gratitude wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Landmark.

Landmark Education grew out of Erhard Seminar Training, which was
founded in San Francisco by Werner Erhard. EST, as it was known, was
popular in the 1970s and 1980s and centered around the philosophy that
people can achieve rapid individual transformation through sixty hours
of intensive seminars that taught participants how to take
responsibility for their lives.

Yet EST was often criticized for its aggressive efforts to recruit
participants, and it dissolved in 1984. Seven years later, a group of
individuals bought the “body of intellectual ideas” from Erhard and
formed Landmark Education, which today shares a lot of those
philosophies. “Landmark Education is the best place to find some of
those ideas today — in a different form,” said Landmark
spokeswoman Deborah Beroset. She says EST’s fundamental belief that
individuals can achieve rapid transformation through empowerment
remains at the core of Landmark’s work.

Based in San Francisco, Landmark Education is a training and
development company that currently has more than one hundred locations
in twenty different countries. Like EST, its programs and seminars aim
to empower participants with tools to help them take charge of their
lives.

It was at one of these seminars in September 2000 that Matthew
Engelhart and Terces Lane met. In 2004, they decided to start
Café Gratitude as a way to support not only their love of raw
food but also their appreciation of Landmark’s philosophies. The
restaurant’s use of raw, organic ingredients — all vegan and
gluten-free — have earned it a devout following and allowed it to
expand to five locations in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and San
Rafael.

Yet it’s the philosophy, not the food, that appears to drive the
company. Managers and the owners often describe Café Gratitude
as “a school of transformation disguised as a cafe.” The Engelharts
created a board game for self-reflection, called “Abounding River,” and
the cafe is meant to be a place for people to play the game. Managers
lead daily “clearings,” during which employees answer a series of
questions before “re-creating” each other in a process aimed at freeing
the workers to be present and alive in the moment for the job. Hugging
among staff is frequent.

All employees are encouraged to take Landmark’s introductory course,
the weekend-intensive “Landmark Forum.” Matthew Engelhart estimates
that about 75 percent of his staff has completed the seminar. All
managers are required to attend.

Some employees, like those in the Oakland location, where 100
percent of the workers have graduated from Landmark, say these
teachings create a close-knit, healthy work community. Many workers say
it has changed their lives for the better. However, other employees say
Landmark’s philosophies have made them uncomfortable. And in some
instances, refusal to engage in those practices has resulted in
termination and demotion.

Ash Ritter had never heard of Landmark until her interview at
Café Gratitude’s now-closed location in San Francisco’s Sunset
district. According to Ritter, the manager asked her if she was “up for
transformation” and “open to considering Landmark Forum.” Ritter, who
describes herself as open-minded, said she was.

At first, the daily process of “clearing” seemed interesting to
Ritter. She was asked cryptic questions such as “Where are you being
that it’s better over there?” She was also taught about Café
Gratitude’s business model, called “Sacred Commerce,” which integrates
spirituality into the goals of profit-making.

Managers often talked about Landmark, she added. They weren’t
necessarily pressuring anyone to attend, Ritter said, but it was
mentioned at every staff meeting, and they would invite employees to
the next seminar. Employees would often go through the class together
and then discuss it and invite others to try it. Ritter said she became
skeptical about the seminar and didn’t want to pay the $250 fee to
attend.

But when Ritter was promoted to management, she received a contract
that recommended she attend Landmark Forum. Because it was
“recommended,” Ritter didn’t think it was mandatory. In fact, part of
the reason she said she wanted to become a manager was to be a voice
for some of the employees who, like her, were not entirely enthusiastic
about Landmark.

After being promoted, Ritter says her first manager’s meeting
involved managers sharing their experiences at Landmark — often
emotionally explaining the ways in which it changed their lives. “It
was the theme,” she said. “‘Landmark saved my life.'”

According to Ritter, the leaders of the meeting then asked every
manager to enroll ten people to come to an introduction to Landmark.
They didn’t say it was a required part of the job, but Ritter felt
pressured to attend because they asked all managers to e-mail the
district manager every time they spoke to an employee who had not
attended Landmark about giving it a try. She said they encouraged
managers to keep track of the people they talked to, even if they
declined the invitation.

Ritter told her higher-ups that she didn’t want to attend Landmark.
According to her, they responded by saying, “We are not going to force
you, but what is your resistance to Landmark? … What do you have to
lose? Lean into that discomfort and see where you can grow.”

Finally, Ritter said, a manager told her that Landmark was required
for full-time managers. Ritter said she wouldn’t pay the $250 and that
she wasn’t sure it was even legal that they make her pay. Her district
manager responded that she would pay Ritter’s way. But Ritter still
declined. “I said, ‘That is not what I am interested in. Sorry, but it
is just not in my spiritual belief system to participate in
Landmark.'”

Shortly after that, Ritter was approached again by management with
an ultimatum: “You have ten days to decide whether you will do
Landmark. Otherwise, you will have to step down from management.”

Three days later, Ritter stepped down to a server position but began
speaking up in clearings, pointing out hypocrisies in the Landmark
philosophies and the company’s rules. According to Ritter, they
preached “abundance,” but servers were forced to work long, tiring
shifts. She criticized her manager’s lack of transparency during an
hour-long clearing. Four days later, she said she was fired for
“insubordination” and told that “your personal philosophy isn’t working
for us here.” They also told her that her clearings were taking too
long and costing the company money. “I was so surprised they would be
willing to say all of that,” Ritter recalled. “These are my spiritual
beliefs.”

According to Café Gratitude District Manager Chandra Gilbert,
Ritter was fired for a number of reasons — her refusal to do
Landmark being only one of many. Gilbert said Ritter had a
“long-standing resistance to the culture” and was too often challenging
authority. Encouraging employees to attend Landmark, she said, comes
from a genuine desire to share something that has been so profound for
the people who experienced it. Gilbert said that their weekly meetings
do often involve discussing Landmark, simply because the meetings are
opportunities to share recent experiences — including, but not
limited to, experiences at Landmark. Gilbert also contested Ritter’s
assertion that management keeps track of who attends seminars and who
doesn’t. “There is no monitoring of registration,” she said.

Several of Ritter’s co-workers said the situation was unjust. “It
didn’t seem like she really did anything else. It was just a slippery
slope once she got demoted,” said server Heidi Fridriksson. Another
server, Rory Austin, said, “I think it was because she continued to
challenge the system that Café Gratitude had and was very
outspoken.”

And Ritter isn’t alone in her discomfort with Landmark. One former
employee who worked in Berkeley, and requested anonymity, said that she
was not into the forced openness and sharing of the Landmark-influenced
clearings. “Just as a personal thing for me, it felt very probing,” she
said. “I sort of felt like it was therapy from people who weren’t
really qualified to be therapists.”

Another current employee, who wished to keep her name and store
location anonymous in order to protect her job, said that she has never
wanted to do Landmark and sometimes feels judged for not doing it. She
was interested in a manager position but cannot receive a promotion
because she doesn’t want to attend the Landmark Forum. “Once you do get
up to the management position, you really have to fulfill all the
Café Gratitude philosophies, and Landmark becomes way, way more
important,” she said.

Carina Lomeli, who worked for a year in the Sunset location, said
she quit because she found the work environment superficial and in
violation of her religious beliefs. Lomeli said that she felt judged
for not doing the Landmark Forum because, according to her, she was
forced to note in a staff book when she had missed the Forum and why
she had not participated.

She also felt pressured to take part in a staff event called the
“Big Breathout,” during which employees from all locations got together
in a San Francisco warehouse for hours of holotropic breathing.
Employees say the event involves intense breathing until psychedelic
states are reached, with the intention of cleansing and rebirth.

Lomeli said there were rumors that employees would be fired if they
did not attend. Fridriksson said she was approached by three different
managers after she decided not to participate. Lomeli said the pressure
made her so uncomfortable that she decided to quit. But Gilbert said it
was not required: “It was a gift.”

San Francisco labor rights attorney Kelly Armstrong said in an
interview that the legality of some management actions appeared
questionable. An employee’s religious freedom is protected by the Fair
Employment and Housing Act and, according to Armstrong, if an employee
says Landmark conflicts with their personal religious beliefs and
management responds by demoting, laying off, or denying promotion, the
employee has grounds to retaliate. Armstrong also questioned the
legality of requiring employees to pay for the Landmark seminar. She
pointed to a recent case in which Ralph Lauren was forced to pay back
employees who were required to buy its products out of their own
pockets to wear while at work.

Yet for all those who criticize Landmark, many staff members profess
deep gratitude for it and its influence on the company. Oakland manager
Erika Winn, who has completed Landmark’s advanced course, said that
Landmark has truly freed her. “If you do take an objective view of
where you are, you can go anywhere,” she said. “You have the freedom to
create.”

All managers interviewed agreed that they want all employees to
attend Landmark. At the same time, most said they didn’t want to
uncomfortably apply pressure, though they admitted the internal peer
pressure can sometimes be a source of tension in the workplace.

Ryland Engelhart, a manager at the San Rafael location and son of
the founder, said that he tries to strike a balance when inviting his
employees, despite his strong desire to share his experience. Engelhart
said that although the “sales pitch” aspect of encouraging Landmark can
be really cumbersome for some, “I see the value of what people are
getting as a much stronger force than the discomfort of someone being
pushy.”

In fact, founder Matthew Engelhart calls himself “the champion
resistant to Landmark.” Though his son Ryland took the seminar and kept
encouraging his father to attend, it took eighteen years before Matthew
finally did. “I understood that it was valuable, and I just resisted.
Egos resist change,” said the elder Engelhart. But after attending the
seminar, Matthew said, “It completely blew my mind.”

Co-owner Terces Engelhart said that the Landmark teachings have been
extremely helpful in developing a managerial style for the company
because they emphasize integrity in every aspect of the work
environment. The philosophies of Landmark, she said, help people rid
themselves of personal wounds and frustrations so that they can be
truly open, honest, and present at work.

Unless, however, you’re not open to that.

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