A San Francisco Bay area restaurant Café Gratitude has been embroiled in controversy regarding its management polices and treatment of employees. Specifically Café Gratitude has been encouraging employees to take seminar training from a controversial privately owned company called Landmark Education. The founders of the eatery have pushed the Landmark philosophy as a basis for management.
Landmark Education and its philosophy was first put together by the 1970s self-help guru Werner Erhard (aka Jack Rosenberg). Landmark Education, formerly known as Erhard Seminar Training (EST) has a long history of bad press, complaints, contentious litigation and labor violations. Its founder Erhard was exposed in a rather negative light by CBS News "60 Minutes" and arguably remained in hiding for many years. The introductory course presented by Landmark is called the Forum. Today his brother, sister and former lawyer apparently run the company. Today Landmark Education is known as Landmark Worldwide and has offices in countries around the world. The company runs what has been called "mass marathon training" or large group awareness training, based upon Erhard's "body of intellectual ideas."
But some of employees at Café Gratitude didn't exactly appreciate Erhard's philosophy or the workplace environment it created. Despite ongoing pressure to take the training some employees refused to take training from Landmark, which they said was inconsistent with their personal beliefs.
Café Gratitude reportedly expected managers to attend Landmark and pay for half of its $500 price tag.
Paddy Smith, general manager at Café Gratitude told the East Bay Express, "It is definitely a challenge for those people to stay comfortable saying no." Smith claimed that Café Gratitude wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Landmark.
The owners of Café Gratitude , Matthew Engelhart and Terces Lane actually first met at a Landmark training seminar in 2000. They later decided to open an eatery together, which developed a kind of California cult following reportedly due to its all vegan and gluten-free menu, in places like Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Rafael. However, managers complained that the restaurant seemed to be run like "a school of transformation disguised as a cafe." The Engelhart reportedly created various games to promote the Landmark philosophy amongst employees and expected managers to become involved and actively promote Landmark to the restaurant staff.
Every employee of Café Gratitude was encouraged to take Landmark's introductory course called the Forum. Matthew Engelhart said about 75 percent of the staff completed the controversial training. In Oakland 100 percent participated.
Some employees said that Landmark's philosophy made them uncomfortable. And when they refused to take the course training they were terminated or demoted.
Ash Ritter, a former manager at Café Gratitude, told the East Bay Express that Landmark was mentioned at every staff meeting. Ritter claims that the training was constantly touted through personal testimonials at meetings. According to Ritter every manager was expected to enroll ten people. When Ritter refused to attend Landmark her superiors reportedly responded, "We are not going to force you, but what is your resistance to Landmark?" Ritter says she was told that completion of Landmark training was required for full-time managers. After Ritter said, "That is not what I am interested in. Sorry, but it is just not in my spiritual belief system to participate in Landmark," she received an ultimatum. Ritter was reportedly told, "You have ten days to decide whether you will do Landmark. Otherwise, you will have to step down from management." In the end she was demoted and ultimately fired for "insubordination."
Café Gratitude District Manager Chandra Gilbert admitted that one of the reasons Ritter was fired was her refusal to do Landmark, but claimed Ritter was also guilty of a "long-standing resistance to the culture."
Other employees at Café Gratitude claimed that Ritter's firing was unjust. One told the East Bay Express, "I think it was because she continued to challenge the system that Café Gratitude had and was very outspoken."
Another former employee at Berkeley was also critical of Landmark sessions. She said, "It felt very probing. I sort of felt like it was therapy from people who weren't really qualified to be therapists."
A French medical doctor hired by Landmark to review its training nevertheless was quite critical of the company. On a national television program broadcast in France Jean-Marie Abgrall explained, "My critique is of techniques that haven't been mastered at all. There is no control of a psychologist. They just put anyone in there, which means that if this guy takes a blow, he leaves alone in a daze, there's no one to take control for him. They don't exchange information - there's no real inspection of the technique. These guys aren't trained, as if tomorrow you set up shop as a psychotherapist. I mean, that's what's shocking."
An employee of Café Gratitude told the East Bay Express that she felt "judged" for not doing Landmark and that promotion was unlikely because of her refusal to take the training. She said, "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."
Former Café Gratitude employee Carina Lomeli told the East Bay Express that she quit because the workplace environment violated her religious beliefs. Lomeli saidshe also felt judged for not taking Landmark training. She told the East Bay Express that she felt pressured by Café Gratitude to do various things such as an event called the "Big Breathout," and holotropic breathing, which employees say involves intense breathing until "psychedelic states are reached' to bring about "cleansing and rebirth." Lomeli said there were rumors within Café Gratitude that employees would be fired if they did not attend. Lomeli claimed the pressure to participate was too intense so she decided to quit.
San Francisco labor rights attorney Kelly Armstrong reportedly had concerns about Café Gratitude. Armstrong told the East Bay Express that employees had the right to refuse Landmark training. And that Café Gratitude should not demote, deny promotion or lay off anyone over their unwillingness to attend Landmark. Armstrong also raised questions about the legality of Café Gratitude pressuring its employees to pay for Landmark.
Café Gratitude founder Matthew Engelhart told the East Bay Express that his son Ryland first persuaded to him attend Landmark. "I understood that it was valuable, and I just resisted. Egos resist change," After completing the training Engelhart reportedly concluded, "It completely blew my mind."
Co-owner of Café Gratitude Terces Engelhart also reportedly told the East Bay Express that Landmark teachings were helpful in developing the managerial style of the company. She claimed that Landmark helped people to rid themselves of personal wounds and frustrations so that they can be truly open, honest, and present at work.
Note: This news summary is based upon an article previously published August 5, 2009 by the East Bay Express in California titled "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" by Sam Levin.