Milk SF, a queer-owned community cafe in the Mission, closed its doors last month due to financial difficulties, the cafe’s co-owner Kathryn “Scoots” McKee said.
But, just ahead of the Oct. 8 closure, seven former employees of the cafe accused its owner of sexual harassment, racism and poor management.
Mission Local spoke to five former Milk SF workers who alleged that McKee, the cafe’s co-owner, sexually harassed them during their time there. Two others said they witnessed harassment of others.
Several workers additionally alleged that McKee and co-owner Sharon Ratton — both white — discriminated against workers of color, offering them less pay for the same work and subjecting them to more severe penalties when they made mistakes.
“It’s sickening to me that queer and trans people were lured to Milk, having been told by Sharon and Scoots that it was a close-knit, accepting and supportive safe space,’” said Soraya Lane, who worked at Milk SF for almost two years.
Lane is in a group chat with 18 other former employees in which the group described sexual harassment, racial discrimination, lack of training, food sanitation violations and financial and operational mismanagement by the owners. As a result, turnover was high, even for a restaurant, former managers and workers said.
The workers had been speaking about the alleged abuse and mismanagement for weeks. Mission Local reviewed messages from the group.
Desi Quinzel, who worked at Milk SF for a year and was an assistant manager for eight months, said she was not surprised about the closure, given the cavalcade of allegations.
“As much as I want a queer space like that to exist, I’m glad that specific place is shut down now, because it’s abusive,” she said.
Milk SF, which opened at 302 Valencia St. in the summer of 2021, boasted that it was “your queer community cafe” and “a safe space.” It marketed itself as one of the few lesbian-owned establishments in San Francisco.
McKee, who also owns the neighboring hair salon, Glama-Rama, declined to comment on the allegations.
“For my personal, work and physical safety, I’ve decided to withhold a response at this time,” said McKee. Ratton, the co-owner of Milk SF, did not respond to requests for comment. Former employees made no sexual abuse allegations against Ratton, but alleged that she, too, discriminated against employees of color.
A legal action between McKee and an employee came in late September, when McKee filed a restraining order against one of the former workers, citing that an employee physically assaulted her.
This employee, Francesca Sulaimani, who worked at Milk SF from June to September, denied McKee’s accusation and said she never hurt McKee.
Before she quit the job at Milk SF, Sulaimani burned her forearm at work when she was cleaning a non-traditional coffee machine, which she said no one had trained her how to do. She filed a worker’s compensation claim in early October.
Sulaimani also filed a restraining order against McKee, which was partly granted. A hearing is slated for Nov. 16.
When Sara Caplan lived in Los Angeles, Cuties, a queer-owned cafe, was her safe place.
A newly out transgender woman then, Caplan could wear dresses at the cafe without worrying about becoming a target of hate. She felt safe and welcomed, she said.
So when she moved to San Francisco and saw Milk SF, she immediately wanted to work there.
“I could be around other queer people. I’ll be safe, I’ll be treated well. Hopefully I also have this community-oriented mission I could be a part of,” Caplan thought at the time.
She was disappointed.
Caplan, who worked at Milk SF from May to September last year, said she was called in one night for training on “an old, big, scary deli slicer.”
As Caplan leaned over to see more clearly into the machine, McKee walked by and smacked her bottom, Caplan said.
It was not the first time McKee had done this to an employee, another worker said.
Heidy Espinoza, who worked at Milk SF for 10 months from November 2021 to August 2022, said McKee also harassed her, physically and verbally.
Apart from grabbing her rear end, Espinoza said McKee paused in a meeting and said to her, “you have a great ass” as she walked past the door, in front of other employees. Once, when Espinoza was at the cash register, she said she heard McKee talking to someone else in the upstairs storage space, calling Espinoza “her subordinate crush” repeatedly.
Other employees alleged that McKee brought up sexually explicit topics at work, and sent messages to workers about sex products such as sex toys, sometimes from Milk SF’s company account, according to screenshots Mission Local reviewed.
Espinoza said she tried to brush off the uncomfortable feeling, and forced herself to focus on work, telling herself she was serving queer people of color — a portion of the cafe’s clientele.
“I really wanted to prioritize having my brown identity and my gay identity interact,” Espinoza said through tears. “I kind of just set aside” the sexual harassment.
Milk SF’s owners, both white, were also accused of subjecting employees of color to unequal pay and unfair treatment.
Lane and Espinoza, for instance, were, at one point, the only people of color working at the cafe, but were paid less than their white co-workers, Lane told Mission Local.
When Desi Quinzel, a white employee, was promoted to assistant manager at Milk SF last November, she was offered an hourly pay of 50 cents more than what the other manager, Lane, was making, even though Lane had been working at the cafe longer and had the same title, Quinzel said.
Espinoza said she was paid only $17 an hour for both working regular shifts and organizing monthly events for the cafe, the latter of which was entirely uncompensated.
Employees of color faced more severe discipline, and were given fewer chances to make mistakes, too, said four former employees.
During Lane’s first month working at Milk SF, for instance, Lane accidentally broke an immersion blender while cleaning it, which they had not been trained to do. As a result, Lane was told by McKee that “further damage to equipment would result in termination,” even though it was a rare mistake.
Such discipline was not the case for white employees, former workers said.
“It was specifically our co-workers of color who got hammers thrown down on them constantly,” said a former employee, who is white.
Espinoza, who organized events for Milk SF, also brought about racial discrimination accusations against McKee for banning a Latinx vendor from the event due to interpersonal conflicts.
Bruna Palmeiro, the vendor whose drag name is Bruxa, confirmed the incident. They said they reached out to McKee to have a conversation about the ban, but McKee declined, according to a screenshot Mission Local reviewed.
To Espinoza, it felt especially hurtful to see someone who is a Latinx immigrant being shut out from an event that she organized, at a white-owned business in a Latinx neighborhood, without being given any opportunity to have a conversation about it, she said.
“As a white-owned business in the Mission, the onus is on you to make it feel like anybody’s welcome here,” Espinoza said.
Lane said when they and other employees complained to the owners about racist practices, Ratton’s response was that people were “framing her as the oppressor,” while McKee suggested diversity training for employees, but not the owners, and never mentioned it again.
An ideal queer space?
Before working at Milk SF, Lane has worked in other food service jobs where racism, homophobia and transphobia felt like the norm.
“I thought I had finally found a job free of those things,” they said.
It was no secret that Milk SF had been facing financial difficulties and low employee retention rate.
Sensing its decline, in August, several community members started to meet regularly to discuss plans to help the cafe survive, according to an interview with an anonymous community member who is familiar with Milk SF.
It was a major whiplash, the community member said, to learn about the allegations. “We go from loving the place and wanting to help to, all of a sudden, realizing this is not what we thought it was.”
“It’s closing not because the community didn’t care. We had a plan,” they said. “But we want to stand up for victims of harassment and hold so-called community spaces to a higher standard.”
In the cafe’s two-year stint, the owners have made promises to create a safe space for the queer community.
Before the cafe’s opening in 2021, McKee told KQED that she wanted to “make things right” and make Milk SF “a healthier place to work.”
In the interview, McKee also said that what happened in Four Barrels, a coffee company across the street that faced allegations of sexual harassment and workplace toxicity, was wrong.
All former employees interviewed said they had tried to raise concerns with the cafe owners, by having text, Instagram-message and in-person conversations. Although most communications happened in person, Mission Local reviewed screenshots of some of those conversations.
“It was a constant storm, which I was trying to shield my coworkers from, but never could,” wrote Lane, who took a manager’s role at the cafe. “I was in distress every day, and I became severely depressed.”
Like Lane, Espinoza went through a lot of self-doubt when she decided to part ways with Milk SF, wondering if she was sabotaging the queer community by leaving and telling the public what happened.
But she finally came to realize, “a queer space, for the sake of this queer space, is not as good as a queer space that is held accountable and wants a better itself.”