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Baristas Spill the Beans on Upscale Coffee Shops

At some sleek Vancouver cafés, the cool image hides miserable working conditions, say employees.

Luke Ottenhof 20 Aug

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Ontario.

A week after Sophia Henry started a job at Matchstick in 2016, she excitedly told a barista at a competing Vancouver coffee shop the good news. But when she mentioned Matchstick, the barista’s tone dropped. Henry recalls his concerned response: “Oh no. Have you met the boss yet?”

Matchstick rose to local popularity along with a cohort of upscale independent coffee brands. The aesthetics of café businesses in this echelon — exposed light bulbs, pastel-white colours, communal tables, and influencer-baiting fixtures like record players and books — typically correspond with an expensive menu. For example, coffees at Matchstick start at $4.50.

Matchstick in particular has propped itself up as a project of community and connection rather than a business. Within these cafés, co-workers curate niche playlists, swap David Foster Wallace books, and share kombucha scobies. Young baristas come in search of a small-scale workplace that feels more aligned with their ethics and interests than international coffee conglomerates.

Former manager Katelyn Mantei said she thought Matchstick was different from previous café jobs. In hindsight, she said, her experience was all too common in the city’s lauded third-wave coffee industry. She and others say young workers usually are exploited for minimum wage or close to it. They are made to feel somehow fortunate to share in the cafés’ cool factor while too often they are expected to put up with harassment and worse by bosses.

They say that Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ+ workers endure the worst treatment. These complaints were shared via workers’ whisper networks for years, and then spilled out onto social media.

After former worker Leah Christ posted a note on Instagram on July 4 describing awful working conditions at a recent job presumed to be Matchstick, a like-minded Instagram account was created by a Matchstick employee. Originally titled @notourmatchstick, the account shared Christ’s experience, and began sharing both anonymous and attributed accounts from current and former Matchstick employees.

The posts covered a range of interactions with co-owners Spencer and Annie Viehweger as well as manager Ayla Harker. The account switched to the handle @notourcafes and hosted 40 individual stories about working at Matchstick before disappearing from Instagram. The person who started the page told me that the emotional toll of listening to the stories became too strenuous.

As a former worker at one of these cafés, I immediately recognized the descriptions of behaviour from management: gaslighting, manipulation and pseudo-philosophical takes on how selling overpriced coffee and pastries was about “community.” I reached out to workers, supervisors and managers — some of whom were my former colleagues — with experience at Matchstick and another high-end café, Elysian Coffee Roasters, which also had been the subject of employee complaints on social media. I wanted the view behind the counter in Vancouver’s coffee palaces. Most of the workers spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal.

To be clear, despite similar aesthetics, the coffee shops at this luxury level did not treat employees the same. At Matchstick I heard allegations of bullying, sudden firings, weeks with no days off, double shifts lasting 14 hours, unpaid overtime, and a host of other capricious management practices.

At Elysian, in addition to claims the work culture undervalued its employees, allegations involved sexual harassment by a former manager.

Still, there’s at least one similarity running through all the critiques. The uplifting values projected are paper-cup thin.

“If you look at the business structure of a lot of these coffee roasters in Vancouver, you will start to see a pattern of disingenuous lifestyle brands in which white-cis-hetero men infuse the perspective of their demographic into the culture of the brand,” says the former Elysian worker who created @notourelysian. They say this creates oppressive work conditions for anyone outside of that identity.

One former employee of Elysian remarked that the lifestyle brands focused on community and care were particularly upsetting. “You’re trying to use the rhetoric that some people use for liberation as a means to sell your shit,” they said.

A former manager who began with Matchstick around the time of their Fraser Street café’s 2012 opening said that the company’s formula for success soon became associated with a decline in care for staff well-being. “It was clear that the main concern was to beat out competing cafés,” the former manager said. Spencer Viehweger “broke down his employees” via manipulation that made them “feel worthless,” and they were regularly forced to work under conditions that included three weeks straight without a day off, back-to-back shifts that ran over 14 hours, and unpaid overtime.

In addition to the overly demanding scheduling and understaffing, a former manager said they weren’t able to take a sick day unless “actively throwing up and being able to prove it.”

“Feeling unsafe and belittled was normalized,” they said. “I felt like a failure for not working efficiently enough and being capable enough to solve the many workplace issues that ultimately came from being submissive to a boss with a deranged Steve Jobs fantasy of company leadership.”

At Elysian, multiple sources said that former manager Chris Rodgers maintained uncomfortable, flirtatious and invasive relationships with much younger women employees at the store. Former Elysian workers described his behaviour as sexual harassment. Rodgers remained on staff until allegations were shared publicly. He did not respond to a Tyee request to be interviewed.

Though Matchstick management presented themselves as progressive bosses interested in radical candour and forging relationships outside the workplace, employees say those personal relationships were turned against them.

Henry said she thought co-owner Annie Viehweger’s efforts to connect were “beautiful” at first. Then she was passed over for a promotion based on information shared in confidence. “[Annie] said because I had shared some of my personal experiences with her, she thought it would be too hard on me,” Henry said. “She was like, ‘Oh ya, I talked to Spencer about all of these super private things that you confided in me and that’s why we’re not going to give you a raise.'”

Former employees say this is part of a pattern of manipulation delivered with smiles and measured tones. “You can’t put your finger on it,” said the person who started the @notourcafes account. “It’s psychological manipulation. It’s quiet and subtle, and you don’t notice it until it’s really bad.”

Another former Matchstick worker shared an all-staff email from Spencer Viehweger from October 2016 that detailed this environment. Through the lengthy email, the co-owner noted that of Matchstick’s three brand pillars, community and quality were stable. Profitability, in his view, was not. He encouraged staff to “individually take responsibility” for profit and quoted “labour” as one of the company’s two most significant costs, leading to “overspending.”

“He basically made it sound like paying staff was a burden to him,” said the worker of Spencer Viehweger. Current and former workers say a company rewards system required staff to memorize portions of the Matchstick handbook on their own time in order to be eligible for a $1 per hour raise.

One former manager said “the last straw” came in the form of a discussion between managers about whether or not visible body hair was to be permitted at work, and whether or not employees were allowed to work without a bra. “The absolute control that [Spencer Viehweger] claims over employees’ time, bodies and mental/emotional capacities is deplorable.”

On July 8, a post was shared to Matchstick’s official Instagram page acknowledging the experiences shared via @notourcafes. The next day, a letter from Spencer Viehweger was shared saying that he was resigning, and he and Annie Viehweger would be divesting their shares in the company. Human resources firm Inspired HR was hired to speak with workers and assess the issues raised.

The Tyee reached out to owners and managers at both Matchstick and Elysian to discuss employee concerns and the companies’ response efforts. None of them replied.

“It’s hard to see how Matchstick, specifically, can meaningfully address their core issues when Spencer’s attitude, methods and beliefs seem to be the business’s fundamental operating principles,” said Mantei.

Henry said she’s optimistic about the conversations started by her former co-workers. “The coffee industry here is unfortunately really damaged,” she said. But with accountability and workplace organizing becoming more accessible and popular, she thinks conditions like the ones she experienced might be on their way out.

“I think change is happening.”  [Tyee]

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