Rao’s closes in wake of management controversy

Photo by Izzy Burgess ’19  Rao’s Coffee Shop, located in the Williston Library Atrium, closed indefinitely following an incident on Sept. 5.

Photo by Izzy Burgess ’19

Rao’s Coffee Shop, located in the Williston Library Atrium, closed indefinitely following an incident on Sept. 5.

BY ANNA SHORTRIDGE ’19 AND ALLYSON HUNTOON ’19

The Rao’s Coffee Shop located inside Williston Library closed their doors indefinitely on Monday, Sept. 17. The disruption of service is due to an alleged incident in which the cafe’s manager used racially insensitive language when speaking to cafe employees. Student employees were concerned with the manager’s conduct in the cafe and reported their experiences to Mount Holyoke’s Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, Kijua Sanders-McMurtry. Soon after, Rao’s Coffee Roasting Company closed the cafe, leaving student employees unsure whether they would be returning to work.

The incident in question, according to multiple Rao’s student employees, took place on Sept. 6 and involved an employee playing music in the cafe which included profane language. This was against the established rules which the manager had expressed to the employees, and the manager reminded them of this rule. While reminding the employees, the manager reportedly said that music including then-word was not allowed. According to student employees, while the manager explained this, she used the n-word aloud in its entirety. Later recounting the incident, the manager used this language again, according to several employees.

Eight of Rao’s student employees sent an email to Sanders-McMurtry, bringing the situation to her attention. On Sept. 14, Sanders-McMurtry mediated a conversation between the student workers and the manager, although for some students, the meeting was not satisfactory.

Then, on Sunday, Sept. 16, the student employees received a text message from their manager saying that she would be coming into the coffee shop the next day. This message surprised the students and some reported feeling uncomfortable with the manager returning to campus. They reached back out to Sanders-McMurtry who then relayed these concerns to the manager and to Rao’s upper management.

According to students, after Sanders-McMurtry contacted Rao’s Coffee Roasting Company, the manager was banned from campus and fired by Rao’s. Sanders-McMurtry said in a statement to the Mount Holyoke News: “We believe strongly in the values of restoration in the work of diversity, equity and inclusion thus the situation had a different outcome than we wanted for everyone involved. But, ultimately our focus on diversity means that we have a responsibility to every member of our community but especially our students to live the ideals we tout on paper in the daily implementation of policies and practices.”

On Monday, Sept. 17, students said they were notified by Gail Flood, the vice president of Rao’s Coffee Roasting Company, that the cafe would be “shut down” as of 2:30 p.m. Student employees were shocked by this, because they had expected Rao’s to fill the open management position.

“We reported it, hoping it would be possible to replace [the manager], not thinking it would result in the termination of our positions,” said Violet Gehr ’19, who worked at Rao’s for three years.

That same day, in a campus-wide email, Chief Information Officer and Executive Director of LITS Alex Wirth-Cauchon, wrote, “In our ongoing efforts to implement the practice of restorative justice — which focuses on education with the goal of reconciliation between all parties — we recommended bias training for the manager, who was receptive. Nonetheless, the mediation revealed prior incidents of longstanding concern and was ultimately unsuccessful.”

Rao’s elaborated on the status of the cafe in an email sent to employees on Sept. 18, which said, “The unexpected closing came after the realization that we were no longer going to have a management team to help oversee and assist with the daily operations. We are diligently searching for a new Cafe Manager with the hope of getting the case reopened as soon as reasonably possible.”

One of the students who contacted Sanders-McMurtry was Sophie Desnoyers ’19, who had worked at Rao’s since her junior year. Desnoyers commented on the difficulty Rao’s employees had in navigating the process of filing a complaint about Rao’s management, which was partly because the business operated independently within a Mount Holyoke space. “The Rao’s management had always given us the impression that Rao’s and Mount Holyoke were totally separate on an administrative level,” said Desnoyers. “There’s a lot of responsibility to be shared.” She liked that Sanders-McMurtry believed the College had a responsibility in the situation and took action.

“Rao’s doesn’t really have a system of complaint contacting,” said Gehr. “If we had a problem with [the manager] the only person we could talk to was [the manager].”

Emily Stewart ’19, who worked at Rao’s for about two years, echoed her co-workers’ concerns about having access to upper management. “We didn’t have the owner’s contact information. Only on that last day were we put in touch with anyone higher up in Rao’s,” added Stewart. “Had there been something that we could have been supported by that we knew about before, then maybe it could’ve been avoided.”

Desnoyers also mentioned that, as one of the few students of color on the cafe’s staff, she tried to distance her feelings from the situation right after it happened. “I was pushing down a lot of feelings of anger,” she said. But knowing that her co-workers took action and felt strongly about the situation comforted her. “I couldn’t ask for better co-workers,” she said.

Isabel Crane ’19, another Rao’s employee, wrote on Facebook Monday night, “Instead of developing a new management system, Rao’s employees were notified about 45 minutes ago of our immediate (perhaps permanent) dismissal of our positions. So if you’re wondering why there’s no London Fog for you tonight, this is the reason. Regardless if Rao’s reopens, I will no longer be working here.”

The closing of the cafe has been difficult for some of the employees. “It was a hard hit,” said Gehr. “[The] staff is kind of struggling, lots of staff relied on Rao’s income for tuition and other areas of our lives.”

Since Rao’s employees did not work for the College, they were able to work more hours at the cafe than other on-campus jobs. Gehr explained that on-campus jobs have a recommended 10-hour cap, but some Mount Holyoke students who were Rao’s employees were working over 20 hours per week at Rao’s.

In a statement sent to the Mount Holyoke News, Rao’s Coffee Roasting Company wrote, “Rao’s Coffee Roasting Company has had a long and collaborative relationship with Mount Holyoke College and its students. We are committed to resolve any issue with the Mount Holyoke College community in a mutually cooperative fashion. A vital Company goal is that the Company and its employees respect and reflect the inclusive and diverse values of all of its customers.”

Mount Holyoke News reached out to the manager for comment, but received no reply.