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.