A small group of former employees and supporters gathered outside Tatte’s flagship cafe in Brookline Sunday morning, holding hand-written signs with messages against workplace discrimination and racism, in an effort to maintain public pressure on the company.
Founder Tzurit Or stepped down as the company’s CEO last Wednesday after calls for her resignation from current and former employees, who claim she created a toxic workplace culture, made derogatory comments and made employees of color feel unsafe.
Meanwhile, as they sipped coffees at outdoor patio tables or popped in to pick up to-go orders from the white tile and marble shop, customers mostly avoided eye contact with protesters.
Side-stepping the protest, Brookline resident David Haarmeyer waited for his cappuccino and egg sandwich, deciding to return to this favorite breakfast spot despite the recent allegations.
“It's bizarre that I've been here all these years, going to this place,” the 61-year-old said. “And I've never seen somebody, like, crying on the side or some outbreaks of anger or something suggesting things weren't hunky-dory here. I don't know if they're faking it, but they're like, really happy here.”
Protest organizer and former employee Elle Marston would argue that yes, they’re faking it.
“There’s this overwhelming aesthetic whiteness of Tatte, even the logo is all white,” Marston said. “There’s all these comments about the way people look on the job, but ... you shouldn’t be basing anything on anyone’s looks, it should be their skill and character.”
Tatte’s sparkling clean public image, with Or at the helm, is part of a facade covering up more sinister cultural problems, Marston said. “She’s one of the golden girls of hospitality in Boston,” she said. “Everyone loves her restaurants and no one hears this part of what's going on behind closed doors.”
Sunday's protest was an acknowledgement of current cultural problems and a call for the company to make "tangible actions," according to a petition affiliated with the protest, which included demands that the company match all employee donations to Black Lives Matter, diversify the executive team and donate leftover food and beverages to BLM-affiliated shelters.
Employees launched a separate petition in early June demanding that Tatte donate money to Black Lives Matter and related civil rights nonprofits and address the lack of diversity on its nine-person executive team, which currently only has one person of color, an Asian-American man.
Or acknowledged that she experienced “challenges” as a manager, according to a statement to WGBH News.
“My strength lies in creating the bakery, food and design that makes Tatte what it is, not in day-to-day management,” Or said. “Before now, I have not fully appreciated how impactful, and at times hurtful, my management style has been to some of the people around me and for that I apologize.”
Yet, for former employee Sam Fadrigalan, the bakery chain has been slow to recognize the problems.
“I feel like the changes they're making are only because of the pressure we're putting on them,” said Fadrigalan, who worked at Tatte locations in Kendall Square and Brookline for five years. At Sunday’s protest they held up a sign reading “Tatte show you CARE!”
Fadrigalan, who is Filipinx, says management discrimated against them — store managers repeatedly misidentified them as Vietnamese or other Asian ethnicities and did not apologize for microaggressions. Fadrigalan says a regular customer also repeatedly made comments about their race and nothing was done to protect their safety.
“I asked him what pastries he would like, and he said, ‘I bet you have the smallest, cutest feet,’” they said. “I dealt with his verbal harassment a few times, and it’s sad to think that he has this reputation but Tatte wasn’t doing anything to ban him from the location.”
In a June 13 petition, employees called on Or to step down, alleging a culture of racism including “crude, sexual remarks made about customers, performative alignment with LGBTQ+ organizations, promoting 'inclusive' optics on social media, queerphobic and ableist comments by management, and firing employees who do not fit the 'Tatte aesthetic.'”
The petition reads, “We believe that Tzurit’s ego has had a trickle-down effect on her staff that promotes unjust treatment of nearly everyone who comes through Tatte’s doors.”
Tatte spokesperson Diana Pisciotta says Or will be transitioning to a “more creative role” within in the company and the CEO position will be filled within the next few months.
“We're going to take [diversity] into consideration, but with that said, the CEO hire is one we probably can't wait forever on,” Pisciotta said in an interview with WGBH News on Sunday. “That's a must-move quickly because we do need somebody with really strong management skills.”
Or had already been planning to leave her position as CEO, Pisciotta said, as management is “not her passion” and she was looking to get back into the creative aspect of the business.
Marston pushed back on that narrative, arguing that without public pressure, Tatte would not have taken the actions it has taken in the past week.
“I know that [Or] says that this was in the works, and she's going to basically deny all day that we were a big part of the reason why this is happening, because she doesn't want to be accountable,” Marston said, “but we've made big strides just this week. So especially in 2020, especially for Black Lives Matter and especially for equity, people need to actually speak out and realize that this stuff does make a difference.”
Pisciotta acknowledged that the employee’s opposition influenced recent steps the company has taken, including donating $25,000 to Black Lives Matter Boston, the ACLU and the Boston Mutual Aid fund. The company also hired diversity and inclusion consultants and plans to make more donations to Violence in Boston Social Impact Center, Sojourner House and the Middlesex Human Services Agency in Roxbury, according to Pisciotta.
“There is no doubt that the attention that the protest movement has brought to this issue has motivated some of our recent actions, and in particular encouraged us to move quickly on a number of steps that we had already planned to take as it related to greater focus on diversity and inclusion,” Pisciotta said. “We are 100% committed to doing that work.”
Pisciotta said that she hopes protesters who continue to put pressure on the company can “be patient” with its ongoing process of transformation.
“This may not all happen tomorrow, and it may not all happen in a way that completely aligns with an approach that outsiders are advocating for,” she said. “But I can tell you that today we'll do everything possible to live our values and assure that our company, our cafes and every aspect of our operations embrace all of the principles that we share.”
At the protest, Marston said she’ll keep organizing and petitioning publicly until she sees actionable change.
“Their public apologies were not apologies, and they don't actually understand the depth of what happened,” she said. “If all of these things have not actually been actioned out yet, it's just lip service.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Pisciotta had suggested that Or’s resignation was influenced by the recent petitions and protest movement. Pisciotta was referring to other recent actions taken by the company, but not the resignation of Or, which she says was an independent decision.