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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.

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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.

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