Last fall, fantastical, art-lined cafe Wonderwood Springs opened in St. Johns alongside a gallery space from Portland-based artist Mike Bennett. The cafe was decked out in work by Bennett, perhaps best known for his family-friendly art installations and cartoon animal “slow down” signs. The space was announced as his cafe, and as a partnership with the coffee consulting company Coffee Business (owned by Sortis Holdings). However, Bennett is only now officially taking ownership of the business, and as it transitions, the cafe’s former employees are speaking out about their frustrations with the change in ownership and their pre-existing management.
Bennett designed the cafe in October 2022 and sells his artwork there, but over the last year, the artist’s day-to-day relationship with the coffee shop was more limited, according to former employees. Last week, Coffee Business transferred ownership of the St. Johns cafe to Bennett and Teddy Albertson, who previously worked for Sortis, but co-owns Wonderwood independently. As the business shifts, Bennett and Albertson have closed the cafe for anywhere from two to six weeks for renovations. Wonderwood staff was given two weeks notice of the closure, and not guaranteed jobs once the coffee shop reopens. In response, former employees picketed outside the cafe Friday afternoon, and are frequently updating a group Instagram dedicated to sharing their side of the story.
Former staff say they created the culture at the cafe, and to not be guaranteed their jobs back feels like a betrayal. The staff was invited to re-apply, but according to Adrianne Rosenhause, a barista at Wonderwood, there would be no hiring preference granted for seniority. The staff is self-described as majority disabled and neurodivergent, and entirely queer, which informs their particular desire to work at a coffee shop in which they feel comfortable and safe.
In an interview with Eater, Bennett clarifies that he regrets using the word “re-apply,” and says that a big part of the decision to rehire the staff has to do with a shrinking budget. “I wish I could offer everything they had previously in this business,” he says. “It was a different situation with corporate backing, and now it’s owned by two human beings starting at square one.” Bennett hoped to rehire as many employees as he could, but wanted to consider everyone’s needs, priorities, and feelings about the cafe before committing to rehire. He also claims he wasn’t initially sure if everyone wanted to return.
Former staff asked for a follow-up meeting with Bennett, Albertson, and Coffee Business after hearing the news of the closure, to discuss negotiations and moving forward, but were willing to do so only if all three parties were present. Bennett claims he and Albertson were willing to meet, but he hadn’t heard from Coffee Business. Rosenhause says that all ownership parties ignored their messages, and that according to their manager, Coffee Business said the staff’s concerns “weren’t their problem.”
In a statement to Eater Portland, a Coffee Business spokesperson indicated that the cafe offered employees positions at the other cafes, and committed to paying out employees’ paid time off and covering health insurance through the end of the month. The company also says that it was willing to meet with employees, but not in the way they requested. “We believe what they’re referring to here is a demand for contract negotiation, which isn’t something Coffee Business could do as we would no longer be the employers and there were no employment contracts in place at the time of the transition,” the statement reads.
Bennett shared a statement on Instagram Friday afternoon, claiming that Coffee Business “provided a variety of employment and transitional support to the staff,” which employees at the picket on Friday say included offers to work at other Sortis Holdings-owned businesses, like Sizzle Pie. “We wanted to work here,” says Bethany O’Neil, a former Wonderwood employee. “We built the reputation here. We don’t want to work at Sizzle Pie.”
Upon news of the closure, the staff started a GoFundMe, created a group Venmo, and advertised a specialty coffee drink to raise money for their rent, bills, and food in the time they will be unemployed. They hung up posters in the shop to spread the word about the closure and their financial concerns, with phrases like “Please support your local baristas.”
Rosenhause says Coffee Business asked them to take down the posters and to keep the closure and ownership transition private, and pulled their employee-run craft market from display. Coffee Business did not directly respond to the claim, but says, “During the final weeks of service at Wonderwood Springs we did what we could to support our previous employees, while also maintaining a professional atmosphere and experience for our customers.”
Rosenhause and the former staff also believe that Coffee Business sent a representative to continually check in on staff during the last two weeks of service, and brought in “secret shoppers” to surveil staff as well; Coffee Business denies deploying secret shoppers. Additionally, Rosenhause says there were negative comments made by Coffee Business about staff’s work ethic, and about disabled staff needing extra days off. “It’s paramount to state that we have never made any derogatory remarks about our staff’s work ethic, nor would we ever discriminate against or make unsupportive comments regarding any employee living with a disability,” Coffee Business’s statement reads. “Such behavior goes against our company values and standards.”
In the text of the GoFundMe, employees write, “Many of our crew have been here from the beginning. We know, as well as you, that our hardworking baristas are the true magic of Wonderwood Springs.”
Correction: Monday, September 18, 2023 at 2:58 p.m.: This story has been corrected to show that Albertson is no longer an employee of Sortis, and that the transition of the business was not a formal sale.