August 12, 2020. Ritual Roasters. Photo by Lydia Chávez

After a long campaign from staffers for changes in the company’s culture, Eileen Rinaldi, the owner and founder of Ritual Roasters, responded in a June letter acknowledging mistakes in how incidents involving customers of color were handled, Ritual’s lack of diversity and the need to “make a meaningful change within Ritual.” 

She pledged to do better: auditing Ritual’s hiring practices and working “to retain and promote a diverse and inclusive group of individuals.” Their leadership team, she wrote, failed to reflect the diversity of the staff, “and that is a problem.” 

“A lot of current criticism,” she acknowledged, stemmed from past incidents in which staff  “called the cops on people of color.” 

“I now recognize that, by using the police as a first line of defense, we have created a larger risk for those disproportionately affected by police brutality and violence in the process.”

In many ways, her response was an extraordinary admission from a woman not known for acquiescing to employees. First opening on Valencia Street in 2005 with partner Jeremy Tooker, who left in 2007 and later had problems of his own at Four Barrel, Ritual was an immediate success. Since then, it has grown to some 60 employees at six locations. All but one are open during the pandemic.

In the last couple of years, those employees have become increasingly vocal, said the five current employees and four former employees Mission Local spoke with. And it’s clear that Rinaldi’s response and follow-through will be watched closely by her employees.  

 The June letter, employees said, came after employees took it upon themselves to “email blast” Rinaldi and two others in upper management with demands.

While Rinaldi’s response took into account a May incident in which Talya Strader, the people operations manager at the time, called the police on a customer, it failed to address an incident in February 2019. That incident involved Rinaldi’s husband, John, known as “Chicken John,” a Mission cult figure who ran against Gavin Newsom for mayor in 2007 and was known for holding festive and loud events at his warehouse on Cesar Chavez Street.

Chicken John’s book in Feb. 2014.

It appeared, however, that Rinaldi had settled down somewhat, marrying the Ritual entrepreneur in 2012 and selling his warehouse in 2018 for $1.8 million. Since their marriage, he has been spending time at the different stores to do various forms of maintenance, according to Rinaldi.  

It’s not a presence that has worn well. Chyler Barraca, a former Ritual employee now working at Dandelion Chocolate, said that Rinaldi’s husband “didn’t bother to get to know the employees, and was “standoffish, kind of a jerk,” she said. “His reputation was known within the entire company.” 

In an interview with Mission Local, Rinaldi said that both she and her husband are in a “different place” now. Her husband still acts as an all-around “problem-solver,” but he’s not physically going into the cafes. Neither is she. COVID-19 protocols have changed this.

For a barista working at Valencia Street, who asked not to be identified, Rinaldi’s June letter offered just another instance where employees are, “having to constantly hold her (Rinaldi) accountable, and her making solutions and those solutions creating harm, and us having to hold her accountable to that harm.” 

A confrontation in May

In May, the police were called on a customer of color. 

Laine Barriga, who uses they/them pronouns, has been a barista with Ritual for the past four years, and opened up the Valencia Street location that morning.

The line ordering system back then was “a little bit of a shitshow,” Barriga said. Because of covid-19, they had two lines, one for in-person ordering and another for online pickups, but there wasn’t much signage indicating the distinctions. 

A customer of color arrived on his bicycle and didn’t understand the system. After a few minutes he grew agitated, and angrily demanded to be served, using expletives. Barriga asked him to wait in the correct line and told him that there was no need to yell.

Nevertheless, things escalated. Barriga made the decision to refuse him service after he became more heated. He began demanding that they serve him or call the police. Barriga told him that they would not call the police. After the two went back and forth a few times, two managers approached, one of whom was the people operations manager at the time, Talya Strader.

“I’m just frozen there, standing there,” said Barriga. “Wishing that he would just go away.” 

“But I hadn’t left the situation because I wanted to make sure the situation was handled properly,” they said, adding that the two managers were white. “I couldn’t in good faith walk away and expect two white people to talk to a man of color,” said Barriga, who is also a person of color.  

The second manager, Lindsey Amodei, de-escalated the situation, talking with the customer for a bit, giving him a coffee free of charge and asking him to leave the premises. “As soon as he receives his coffee, he is calm,” said Barriga. And he left. 

“He is clearly going through something,” said Barriga. “He is having a moment, this was something he was upset about, and he took it out on us.”

But during this exchange, Strader, the people operations manager, had called an emergency line. 

Even though the customer had left, the police still arrived. Learning this while taking a breather downstairs, Barriga was shocked. “I asked Talya, straight in the face, ‘Why did you call the cops?’” they said. “The whole time that I’m going back and forth with this guy, I’m telling him I’m not going to call the cops on him.”

According to Barriga, Strader responded by saying that the customer had wanted them to call the police. So she did. By the time the police arrived, the customer was gone.

In an interview with Mission Local, Strader explained that while working in the coffee industry for many years, she’s been in this sort of situation before. In her experience, she said, “a performance call usually solves this scenario.” Initially, she only pretended to call the police while standing at the order window, but it didn’t help, she said. 

So, she wound up actually calling the police, and when they arrived 30 minutes later, she explained to them what had happened, and that was it.

Looking back, Strader said she has reconsidered how she handled the situation. “I do believe I was doing it out of performance, and not trying to get anyone hurt,” she said, “but I do absolutely regret calling them.”

Rinaldi told Mission Local that Strader resigned on June 11. “I think that speaks volumes,” she said. “I think she knew calling the police in that situation was against the spirit of the work we’ve done over the past year and a half and that it violated our de-escalation policy.”

But according to Strader, her resignation and the May incident were not related. Strader said that internal conversations after the killing of George Floyd were focused on how, “We have White leadership at this mostly White company, where we only see diversity in the baristas.”

Strader said she decided to resign after learning more about privilege and white supremacy. Her resignation was intended to make space for a non-white person to take on an important leadership role within the company. “I, being the newest portion of leadership, owed it to them (Ritual) becoming better by resigning in my position,” she said.

In her June letter, Rinaldi said she was looking for a new people operations manager experienced with diverse teams and dedicated to seeing BIPOC employees succeed.

Chicken John intervenes in a February 2019 incident

Employees told Mission Local out that the May incident echoed an earlier confrontation at the Hayes Valley Ritual location.

In that incident, a now-former employee was behind the counter in February 2019 when a Black man reached into the tip jar by the register. 

The employee, who goes by they/them pronouns and asked not to be named for this article, estimated that the jar had maybe $40 in it. They guessed that he was unhoused or simply low-income.

They and their colleagues were unprepared for what happened next.

A white male customer immediately threw the Black man to the ground, and John Rinaldi joined the customer in pinning the man.

While the store’s general manager called an emergency line, the former employee remembered Rinaldi yelling at the Black man while he was pinned down: threats that he was going to jail, that he was going to die in jail. 

When police officers showed up, the customer and Rinaldi were let go. After a struggle, the Black man was arrested.

The former employee and other staff were horrified. “No one asked us what we wanted,” they said. “None of us asked for that to happen.”

Ritual’s founder, Rinaldi, had just had a baby around the same time as the tip jar incident. Out on maternity leave, she didn’t address the staff for two months.

“It did take a while for her to be able to reach out and actually address the issue,” said Christina Busler, a Ritual employee who heard about what had happened from friends at Hayes Valley. Busler added that she was sympathetic to Rinaldi having just had a baby, but, “there was a defensiveness at first, because everyone was attacking her husband.” 

“We all have degrees of not really liking him,” she said.

After some back and forth between Rinaldi and the Hayes Valley team, two mediated meetings were scheduled, the first in June, the second in August. At the second meeting, Rinaldi agreed to make some changes, including hiring Strader, who has since left, as the people operations manager. 

In an email to Mission Local, Rinaldi wrote that her employees made it clear at the time that they were unhappy with how the incident played out. 

“We are investing our time, our thought, as well as a financial commitment to create an environment that is safe, welcoming and inclusive for our Black, Indigenous, and employees of color, as well as for customers and the community,” she wrote.  “Working towards racial equity at Ritual means teaching every single employee strategies for how to de-escalate situations themselves, it means explaining why we don’t call the cops on someone who stole a handful of tips or is having a mental health crisis.” 

She added, “I have work to do. We will all be better for it when we envision a future through this lens.” 

Rinaldi said her June letter to the staff was indeed a response to the email campaign by former and current employees. Their emails “shared experiences at Ritual around race,” she said, as well as experiences with Strader, most of which Rinaldi was hearing for the first time. 

Rinaldi has a different perspective now than she had over a year ago. “I don’t think anybody would look back on that situation and not do something different,” she said. 

“The world has changed, I have changed,” said Rinaldi. “I am in a different place now than when I was having conversations with staff over eighteen months ago,” she said. When asked about her husband’s role in the February incident, she said she feels similarly. “Everyone is in a different place.” 

It’s unclear if Strader’s exit and Rinaldi’s promises to do more in hiring and changing the culture will be enough for employees.  “A lot of people want a seat at the table in decision-making,” said the Valencia barista. “And want the gatekeeping of information to stop.” 

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Join the Conversation

27 Comments

  1. Must be a slow day for news. This is just a classic story of two hardworking people running a good business in a difficult city. There’s nothing newsworthy about it.

  2. “it means explaining why we don’t call the cops on someone who stole a handful of tips”

    I’ll admit I’m ignorant on this one. What should be the protocal when someone steals tips from the employees tip jar?

    To me, tackling and restraining them until the cops arrive is what we were always taught as kids. It is now wrong to apprehend a person committing a crime?

    What if the person tries to steal tips twice, three times, or once a week for a year? I know I’ve been a condescending jerk on this website, but this time, I’m really asking what they expect employees to do if this happens again. What will my daughters be learning when they get a job in a coffee shop in the future. How are employees being taught to deal with thieves?

  3. If a white person is treated badly in a store they usually write it off to rudeness, someone having a bad day or some other non-contentious reason.

    When a non-white person gets the same bad treatment, they invariably treat as being because of their race.

    Whites are more likely to see such incidents as individual aberrations. Non-whites are more likely to deem it due to their membership of a class of people.

    1. you probably do well enough for yourself to not, but try working with these people. you’d instantly regret it, I’m sure.

    2. Eileen allowed a white male manager to dismantle a hard working team in Napa and never stepped in. Instead she let that white male demote himself when shit got tough. She let more than enough amazing female baristas for in order to make the manager more comfortable. Baristas that we’re putting in YEARS of effort. YEARS of dedication.

  4. This piece was forwarded to me by a SF friend because I parted ways from employment through Ritual years ago. Sadly, after reading this article and looking back, I am SO glad I left because I am reminded of my time there and of how verbally abusive “Chicken John” Rinaldi was. What floored me the most was just how complicit Eileen was in his behavior by way of never simply saying “I’m sorry” or “I’ll talk to him about it” or “We’re working on it” or even recognizing it was unacceptable! Seemingly she just never addressed it and his offensive behavior carried on. I remember asking co-workers at the time, “Is THIS just how the guy is all the time to Ritual employees? AND we just have to take it?” Disturbingly, the most common reply was, “Yes, that’s just how he is, don’t take it personally…” But COME ON! How and WHY was that “normal” and above all, acceptable behavior from any person let alone whose partner is the owner of the company you work for?! I am so relieved I parted ways when I did. What a noxious environment and I feel for any of my co-workers at the time that had to endure his degrading behavior up to and after I left. Moreover Eileen’s failure to remedy the issue(s) back then makes her leadership presently appear all the more disingenuous. The guy is an ogre and I never met anyone that thought otherwise during my time in SF and Eileen is just as much so for turning a blind eye and deaf ear to his actions. While I never met Talya Strader, this person seems to be more of a scapegoat to the real issue here and that is Eileen’s terrible decision-making. What a huge disappointment in the ownership of a SF small business while communities that care try to to support them. Do better! Most of all: SF, spend your millions on coffee elsewhere … from what I remember, you have loads of options! 

  5. I find it in poor taste that an unnamed Batista’s response to a letter addressing these issues was published in lieu of the actual letter.

    “For a barista working at Valencia Street, who asked not to be identified, Rinaldi’s June letter For a barista working at Valencia Street, who asked not to be identified, Rinaldi’s June letter offered just another instance where employees are, “having to constantly hold her (Rinaldi) accountable, and her making solutions and those solutions creating harm, and us having to hold her accountable to that harm.” just another instance where employees are, “having to constantly hold her (Rinaldi) accountable, and her making solutions and those solutions creating harm, and us having to hold her accountable to that harm.” “

  6. …”The former employee and other staff were horrified. “No one asked us what we wanted,” they said. “None of us asked for that to happen.”…

    It’s as if the employees want all of the decision making responsibilities in how to run someone else’s business, but I bet none want any of the owner’s debt or to own the financial consequences.

  7. I’m a local who stopped going to Ritual a long time ago, when they changed from the local coffee house look and feel, with baristas that were known to the regulars and a comfortable, neighborhood vibe. The roasts were better tasting and the preparations more hand-crafted. Then they became just another sterile office-like environment geared towards replication. Quantity over quality. The great staff disappeared and less experienced, stressed out, irritable younger folks replaced them in a steady stream of disgruntled employees. After I experienced the pattern, paying the high price just became not worth it. This article sets a context for what I saw happening. So many more good choices, well-managed in our neighborhood.

  8. I feel like San Francisco has been duped into thinking the Rinaldi’s are caring, compassionate people, where in reality they just have their own personal gain at heart. I’ve heard they talk a good talk in acting like they are down for the greater good of San Francisco but in person they are both insufferable to be around and lack the basic social skills to convince anybody that they really do care.

  9. Worst (white) upper management I ever dealt with. I wouldn’t recommend my worst enemy to work for this place.

    1. White people working for a specialty coffee company!? Say it ain’t so! This could be said of any coffee company. It’s a longstanding, systemically enforced representation-in-management issue that Ritual hardly invented and has been working tirelessly to improve. So why are they being singled out? EVERY WHITE-OWNED BUSINESS IS DEALING WITH THIS IMPORTANT PROBLEM. But since some people don’t care for the owner’s husband, oh yeah BTW, he’s a racist and they should be executed in the court of public opinion. Nothing of fact whatsoever to back that up, just the suggestion is enough to glue that scarlet letter on. You were probably a shitty white employee, “Pete.”

      1. Actually, a Trans, BIPOC ex-employee and you’re welcome for my dedicated customer service! Love, “Pete”.

      2. Interesting, “Tito”. If so be it Ritual “has been working tirelessly to improve” you must have some serious insider information in order to be able to proclaim that here. And from what I’ve gathered from this article, responses to it, from what I’ve been informed of after living in San Francisco and having friends work for you (I mean, Ritual) in the last 2 years, it doesn’t seem like it’s that “people don’t care for your, (I mean, the owner’s) husband”, it seems like people straight up, DON’T LIKE him. “Racist”? I totally get there is “nothing of fact whatsoever to back that up”. But a loathsome person? Looks like there’s plenty of fact to back that up. But hey, you are known by the company you keep.

  10. Sounds like we’ve got two camps here, those who don’t (for whatever reason) like Chicken John or his wife, and those who couldn’t care less. What we haven’t seen is one tiny bit of actual evidence that this is a racist organization or why the word race should even be attached to this rambling bullshit clickbait “article” – oh that’s why, so other people can pick up the story and twist it even further for maximum clicks, putting the jobs of a diverse group of 60+ people (who aren’t Chicken John) on the line during 10% unemployment pandemic time. This is sloppy, gratuitous reporting based on the grudges of a few people and Mission Local should be ashamed of themselves for stooping to the level of gossip and heresay. How’s the coffee? Most people I’ve talked to think it’s some of the best they’ve ever had. But this really isn’t about the business, now is it?

  11. Ha, wow. What I meant by “personal gain” also means you being a testimonial to someone “We all have degrees of not really liking…”, said a current employee. You just vouched for a guy I never even met but heard personal accounts about by current and ex-employees = Personal Gain. My “research” is actual accounts folx have endured and confided in me about while working for this company, ALSO quoted in this “lazy journalism”. How do you know “a guy who personally delivers clothes to the kids in the Hunter’s Point housing projects”? Because he or his wife probably told you all about it and now you (he) has a public forum to let everyone know this grand gesture = Personal Gain! You just fed it!

  12. I’ll be invoicing Mission Local for my time after regrettably making it to the of that tiresome mediocre smear piece of a small business trying to figure out how to be equitable. I remember back when this site had decent content. RIP

    1. In reply to Missionary Local.
      Looking forward.

      Send your invoice to:

      1060 W Addison St, Chicago, IL 60613

      Be sure to wait by the mail for your return.

      JE

  13. So let me get this straight.

    If a white woman comes in and demands that they serve her coffee quicker, she is labeled a *Karen* and ridiculed, and memes are made of her to make more fun of her.

    If a black patron comes in and starts shouting and cursing at the staff to get his coffee quicker, he is given a free cup of coffee, and staff wonder how they could have done things better to serve him quicker.

    If a black patron comes in and steals from a tip jar the employees should be more compassionate and probably give him a free cup of coffee too, right? Because police brutality and blah blah blah that didn’t even concern nor involve him, he is only related to that incident because of the color of his skin.

    This is the definition of racism. Treating someone better than you would treat someone else because of the color of their skin alone.

    People like this are only tipping the scales the other way, they’re not working for racial equality, which is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Complete lack of empathy here by “woke” SJW crusaders that get empowerment putting other people down instead of striving for equality for all.

  14. Some of the owner’s answers sound like she’s taken them straight off crafted letters PR pros have been writing for CEOs of major corporations to read out to their employees and press these last few months. “I have work to do. We will all be better for it when we envision a future through this lens.” – WTF?

    “Their leadership team, she wrote, failed to reflect the diversity of the staff, “and that is a problem.” – Does Ritual have a board of directors? She’s the owner, right? Can’t she just say, “I take the blame.” Can’t people take ownership. It’s like all those apologies where people lie after they’ve been caught doing something horrible and say, “That is not who I am” or “This doesn’t reflect my true values.”

    And this sounds like Karen: “I now recognize that, by using the police as a first line of defense, we have created a larger risk for those disproportionately affected by police brutality and violence in the process.”

    I’m tired of all this disingenuous BS from people who got themselves in the mess in the first place because they have their head so far up their privileged behind.

    She says that she’s “in a different place now, and so are we, and that’s in a coffee shop not called Ritual from now on.

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