UnderCover Waitress: Cafe Gratitude

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Cafe Gratitude

First, I must thank the Fun Tour Guru for her confidence in me. I promise to try to be deserving of it.

The Fun Tour Guru posted on her blog:

"This restaurant has been on my list of things to do for awhile. It is unfortunate to receive the information that Cafe Gratitude in the south bay, along with other locations in the Bay Area, have been closed. 

After a quick search, I found several articles of the recent closure.  Please plan ahead and call to see if your location has closed yet. I will not comment as to what happened because I do not know details.  Perhaps the Undercover Waitress will dig a little deeper into the why of the closure and what happened as this is a favorite place for many to eat." 

Fun Tour Guru is referring to the Cafe Gratitude chain of restaurants owned by Matthew and Terces Engelhart. Most of the locations, including the one in which Fun Tour Guru had hoped to eat, feature organic, raw, vegan food. One of the locations features vegan Mexican. 

Reading the description of the healthy chain, I want to go back to Berkeley. It sounds very "Berkeley-esque" and, except for the "Starbucks-esque" language required when ordering, it does sound like a place I would enjoy. I doubt I could say, "May I please have an I am a Goddess" with a straight face, however. 

There are 8 or 9 locations in all. According to the New York Times, "All but the Los Angeles restaurant, which has become a magnet for Hollywood celebrities, will be shut upon each location’s sale.

The Engelharts blame disgruntled employees for filing frivolous lawsuits that are too expensive to defend. Numerous news sources have quoted the couple claiming "a series of aggressive lawsuits" have been brought against them, although they claim to have done nothing wrong. Rather, they would have people believe they are being victimized by the big, bad, labor relations board. They are so sad because they can't afford to pay lawyers to defend them in their innocence. 


Actually, "a series of aggressive lawsuits" is, at best, an exaggeration. In all, two lawsuits have been filed recently against the Engelharts with a grand total of three plaintiffs. I guess the strict dictionary definition of "a series" could be only two. "Aggressive" seems to come into play because the Engelharts appealed to the plaintiffs to drop the suits because they claim to be unable to afford to defend themselves. The suits have not been dropped. 

One of these supposedly bone-crushing lawsuits alleges illegal tip-pooling practices. It seems the waitresses and waiters were somehow supporting kitchen operations and even covering any daily losses for the restaurant. Tipped employees were allegedly told to "either share your tips with managers, or lose your health insurance," according to Grub Street San Francisco. 

The other lawsuit is brought by a bookkeeper who alleges he was denied overtime pay for which he has a right. Under labor law, bookkeepers must be classified as hourly employees. This bookkeeper was put on salary, which is illegal, then denied all of his rightfully earned overtime pay. 

The Huffington Post quotes one of the plaintiff attorneys, Stephen Sommers, as saying, "These are not huge cases... There's no reason, financially, for [the Engelharts] to close eight locations. They are not closing because of these lawsuits. There's something else."

While Mr. Sommers' definition of "small" is under $200,000, everything is relative. The Engelhart's are far from poor. After hearing about the two current lawsuits, the Engelharts treated their entire managerial team to a three-week retreat on a vacation compound in Hawaii that the Engelhart's own

Also, by closing their restaurants, the Engelharts are not really going out of business. According to Grub Street San Francisco, Sommers noted that

[The Engelharts] don't plan to close their farm in Vacaville... or the central kitchen operation, near Rainbow Grocery on 14th Street, which supplies the restaurants with their vegan pizzas and "live" mac and cheese. With those two operations still running, [Sommers] asserts they will likely just look to sell their foodstuffs to a new operator, in order to skirt further litigation or investigation into their other businesses.

Further litigation about what is the obvious question, but the Engelhart's are trying to make it difficult to find out. After both current lawsuits had been filed, the bookkeeper claims to have witnessed them purchase three industrial size paper shredders, and covertly shred documents in their offices. 

We have only scraped the surface on the question of why Cafe Gratitude is closing.  


  1. Thanks for digging deeper, you have uncovered information, I didn't see and this is definitely a story to watch as it unfolds. Sometimes it is not a good bet to cut corners ... and is good to reward front line workers.

  2. There is a whole 'nuther aspect to the story. They ran a philosophy school/ mind control cult (take your pic) and required managerial employees to take expensive workshops and pay half of the $500 fee. It seems that the food business was secondary, but digging into that will take much more time.

    It is easy to guess, and it is only a guess at this juncture, that issues with the philosophy group are the real reason they are shutting down. It seems as if they could have settled both lawsuits easily.

  3. Kind of says a lot that they blame everyone else and play the victim game while still coming across as, well, prats of the first order.


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