Coffee chain starts conversation about giving to needy

An email sent to Caffé Vita employees about homeless people in their stores set off a controversy.

Protesters at a demonstration in Seattle after the news of the Caffe Vita email broke (Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff Photo).

Protesters at a demonstration in Seattle after the news of the Caffe Vita email broke (Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff Photo).

A message that was sent to employees of Caffé Vita in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood inspired protests and the ire of many last week.

After a manager wrote an email to all employees on behalf of owners Mike and Liz McConnell stating their belief that giving away unsold products to homeless people enables their homelessness, many vocalized their criticism of the couple, who also own the new O Sole Mio Pizza House in town.

Manager Geran Webb said that the island business was not involved in the controversy and that the email was not sent to O Sole Mio employees. He added that the pizza house does not have a formal policy in place about giving away unsold products. After it first opened, he said, staff would give away extra pizza slices at the end of the night to patrons at the bar, but they have since discontinued that practice.

“We’re getting better with our product to refrain from that just because it’s good practice to make sure you’re selling everything you have,” he said, adding that reducing waste is a reliable cost-cutting measure. “We don’t want to put any expectations out there that we’re just handing out stuff for free.”

The restaurant marked its opening last summer by giving away thousands of slices of pizza to hungry customers who have continued to return — Webb said that traffic in the store has remained high and that feedback has been generally positive as they piece together a complete menu.

“It’s getting there. We’ve had a lot of bumps in the road getting the right pizza in place … But now I think the community is getting the best product that we’ve ever made,” he said.

Webb noted that he wants the store to be a welcoming place and does not want to deny service to anyone. He added that the restaurant is open to partnering in any future organized effort to help fundraise or contribute to agencies such as the Vashon Community Food Bank.

The email sent to Caffé Vita employees by former General Manager Isaiah Washington allegedly followed a slew of firings and resignations over the handling of old pastries and coffee, according to The Stranger. The message said that while the McConnells support several organizations “that work with homeless youth and adults,” employees who apparently purchased gift cards and gave away food and coffee to homeless people at several stores would be immediately terminated.

“Although these were well-placed intentions, please understand, it is our belief, that feeding homeless people without comprehensive services actually enables, increases and promotes homelessness,” the email read. “In order for us to do good things in the neighborhood, we must first have a successful business — giving away products is theft and grounds for immediate termination.”

The email further stated that the presence of homeless people in Caffé Vita coffee shops deters patrons from going there.

“If our business is filled with homeless people, many of our customers will likely choose alternatives, negatively impacting our livelihoods,” it said, encouraging employees to reach out to “discuss opportunities to volunteer or donate in order to make a meaningful impact.”

Jim Marsh, executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce, said that each year he sends a notice to members reiterating what their rights are when serving people or in what instances they can trespass patrons from the premises if there is a problem.

“Every business sets its own policy. What we do is try to educate business owners on what they can do,” he said. “As far as policy on serving people who may not be able to afford their bill, that’s really up to every business.”

Marsh said he believes that a dollar spent at the food bank goes a lot further than dollars loaded onto a gift card — he cited a report from the nonprofit Feeding America that said it is able to keep the cost of wholesale groceries it provides to those in need to $1.67 per pound due in large part to the support it receives and partnerships it maintains with other agencies and providers.

Moreover, he added, expecting an employee of a business to decide who is worthy of receiving free items poses a significant strain on their ability to do their job — giving away product undercuts their earnings and undermines the ability of a business to contribute to organizations that can make a bigger difference, he said.

“Technically, they were stealing,” he said of the Caffé Vita employees, adding that he believes the response was misdirected. “I think people are being shortsighted in that, ‘Don’t go there because they fired people who are caring,’ well, if people really cared, they’d find ways to maximize their impact, and giving gift cards and things like that doesn’t really do that.”

A statement posted on Instagram signed by the McConnells said that the original message failed to “reflect the love and respect we have for our community.”

“We can do better. We are assessing our policies and communications to ensure they reflect our company’s values and our community’s needs,” the post continued, inviting input from the public by email at info@caffevita.com.⁣

Emily Scott, executive director of the Vashon food bank, said that many are accustomed to donating in time for the holidays but that they still need all of the help they can get to purchase Thanksgiving turkeys and support continued operations.

“We can’t give people food if the power’s out,” she said, noting that the food bank employs six people.

She added that it is their mission to provide assistance to those who need it most.

“We always try to make [help] as reliable and abundant as possible,” Scott said

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