Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cafe Gratitude's PR Battlefield

By Jesse Hirsch
Thu, Dec 1, 2011 at 5:21 PM

Within an hour of writing this post on Cafe Gratitude's closing, I got an email from Stephen Sommers, the plaintiffs' attorney in two of the cafe's employment lawsuits. Since the initial Facebook announcement, Sommers has been popping up in every news outlet that will give him a couple of column inches. His basic two cents: there's no way these piddling lawsuits could put such a large enterprise out of business.

Cafe Gratitude's owners, Matthew and Terces Engelhart, have also been making the PR rounds, pleading poverty on their Facebook page, website, and all over print and TV news. Supportive employees have been hitting the Web, leaving near-identical eruptions of praise (check out the comments on my post and this one from SF Weekly).

No matter whether you love or hate Cafe Gratitude (it seems there's little middle ground), there are clearly theatrics at play here. The Engelharts are portraying the lawyers as cash-hungry wolves, with the lawyers retorting that Cafe Gratitude is a disingenuous corporate monolith.

With both sides scrambling to control the public dialogue, the cynics among us seem more compelled by the lawyers' argument. Plaintiffs Sarah Stevens and Ravi Shankar have brought two civil cases against Cafe Gratitude, one regarding illegal tip pooling, the other about employee misclassification. Combined, they are asking for an amount in the $200,000 range. While not insignificant, this should be manageable for a company of Cafe Gratitude's scope. And besides, that's just the starting price (like the sticker on a used car). Everyone knows you can dicker that figure down.

So for Cafe Gratitude to close up shop in defeat, long before sitting down at the negotiation table, smells a bit off. They seem too intent on playing their own violins, providing sanctimony and self-pity in lieu of real, hard numbers. Shortly after the closure announcement, this suggestion to go Gratitude shopping also appears pretty calculated.

But there is no shortage of earnest Northern Californians who will take Cafe Gratitude's sob story at face value. For every snarky commenter on SFist calling bullshit, there's an earth mother on CG's Facebook page sending infinite blessings and support.

Hallie Albert, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, told me "This is a PR war," though the stakes are a bit unclear at this point. It seems unlikely that all this back-and-forth will have a real effect on the ongoing litigation. The Engelharts can persuade the public they are unfairly persecuted, but that isn't going to do much for them in the courtroom. They still have to convince a judge they weren't in violation of state employment statutes.

Could this all be a ploy to get supporters to buy more board games? Is Cafe Gratitude's announcement, like Albert suggests, just a precursor to a massive corporate restructuring? The next few months should be very revealing.

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