Gratitude questioned: Owner, workers clash at longtime Santa Cruz vegan cafe rooted in mindfulness
Café Gratitude is known for its plant-based organic fare that guests order via affirmations like “I am Daring,” “I am Fulfilled” or “I am Abundant.” But ex-employees have started a social media campaign calling for the public to boycott the restaurant.
A power struggle between workers and ownership at one of Santa Cruz’s most health-conscious and philosophically high-minded restaurants spilled over onto social media last weekend, leaving five workers without jobs and a longtime local owner resolute over his decision to move on without them.
Café Gratitude is known for its plant-based organic fare that guests order via affirmations like “I am Daring,” “I am Fulfilled” or “I am Abundant.” But now, ex-employees of the downtown restaurant have started a social media campaign calling for the public to boycott the restaurant over unfair firings of five longtime employees.
A group identified as Cafe Gratitude Workers posted to Instagram and Facebook in response to a cluster of sudden job losses at the restaurant. The employees say that after a longtime worker was abruptly let go, four other managers sought clarity from owner Matthew Manzo about the circumstances of the firing. When the owner did not respond, they decided to boycott work for a day.
Roughly half of the remaining employees refused to come into work on Tuesday, Nov. 2. That led Manzo to send four managers, with an estimated 25 years of combined experience at the restaurant, a group text saying that he accepted their resignations.
After repeated calls to Manzo, the owner replied to Lookout via email Tuesday, characterizing the departures as a power struggle between co-workers: “A group of employees were upset with current management and threatened to quit if I didn’t demote one of the managers. This manager has been an extreme help during all the shutdowns and pandemic and I wasn’t willing to do what they wanted. I then accepted their resignations.”
John Mondor, one of the participants in the strike and a server and part-time manager at Café Gratitude for five years, confirmed that strife between some longtime managers and a general manager hired at the beginning of the pandemic precipitated events.
The longtime workers accused the general manager of taking prime shifts and were surprised when their co-worker was told he had been fired because he wasn’t taking on enough shifts. They say when they asked for clarity from the general manager, he “wasn’t receptive at all.”
According to Mondor, “Café Gratitude has always been a really team-oriented place. The general manager never just assigned themselves the best shifts. It had a very teamwork atmosphere. It’s a stark contrast to how the current general manager has been running things.”
Along with a work boycott on Nov. 2, emphasizing their insistence on better communication and transparency, they asked Manzo to demote the general manager so he would no longer be assigning shifts. They say Manzo stopped responding to their text messages, and then, that Friday, “We all got a text message saying that our resignations have been accepted and that our final checks are at the café,” Mondor said.
Mondor and other ex-employees who spoke to Lookout on the condition they remain anonymous said there was some confusion over this point. The employees did not want to leave their positions, but believed they were instead leveraging them in order to create change in the workplace.
Mondor said he’s frustrated at the fact the group’s attempt to band together and push for change instead led to a rash decision to dismiss them en masse.
“I know that the owner is kind of stubborn — I think that he didn’t want to respond to an ultimatum,” he said. “I think that just made him more frustrated rather than making him desire to come to the table. It’s just we had so many numbers on our side that we didn’t see how he could just rehire all new staff, but it seems like that’s his aim at the moment.”
In an interview with the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 2011, Manzo explained that Café Gratitude is built upon key concepts, from abundance and gratitude to food that’s vegan, organic, local and sustainable. “Healthy mindset, healthy food, healthy body,” Manzo said.