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."