Toward the end of 2022, my coffeeshop allegiance shifted to a place that appeared from the mists of the former See See Motor Coffee in downtown St. Johns: Wonderwood Springs, brainchild of local whimsy-artist Mike Bennett.
The long and the short of it for me was that it had a bar-style counter and in the late afternoon or early evening tended to be reasonably quiet. It was perfect for someone who likes being recognized as a regular who nonetheless also will be left alone to just sit and read.
Over the course of 2023, evenings there became taken over by a series of weekly events, seemingly one for each day, pushing me and my particular autistic feature set out of the picture because I do very poorly in loud and/or crowded venues. Or, at least, I can’t suffer that on a regular, routine basis.
Since it’s the only coffeeshop in downtown St. Johns that’s open in the evenings at all, I switched my coffee time back to the afternoon and returned to sitting on the south side of North Lombard outside Affogato.
(Short version: Bennett maintains an immersive experience next door, while a restaurant business operated the coffeeshop that was adorned, festooned really, with Bennett’s artwork.)
I’ve linked the primary press reports, and you should go browse both the coffeeshop’s Instagram and that of its baristas for a sense of what each of them has said in their own words beyond those press reports.
The latter also launched a GoFundMe (as you do), and I did drop a $10 donation on them, and took the opportunity to leave a comment.
This is rough. Somehow I missed all of this. I’d stopped coming in months ago, but only because I like coming in the evenings and then all evenings became events—ironically my own neurodivergence means I do poorly in loud or crowded environments. The more I read up, the more I feel like whatever the case with Coffee Business the situation with Mike Bennett seems more like a series of miscues and miscommunications than malice? I hope that’s not just an aspirational reading, and that the artist-laborer who’s now an artist-employer and the workers who put so much into the business he now directly owns can overcome that hurdle.
So, I want to expand upon this a bit.
Going from being a self-employed artist to an artist owning a business that employs other people is tricky. It’s easy for me to see things happening quickly, and for Bennett to have gotten in a bit over his head. That’s not to excuse any missteps on his part, and if indeed they are missteps rather than malice, they are addressable between himself and the former staff.
I don’t know what Bennett’s business partner in the coffeeshop is like, but having come from the same company that originally owned the thing it’s easy for me to think that he could have been more focused on the details of the transition on the part of himself and Bennett. In that situation, it’s generally left to the workers to fend and advocate for themselves.
It does seem to be the case that the new business could not simply promise employment continuity to employees—although it’s not entirely clear to me that this is what the baristas even demanded—but it also seems to be the case that Bennett and his partner perhaps did not think through the all the ways to involved those employees in planning their own transition.
I want to believe that this is where Bennett’s heart actually lies, but obviously I’ve no way to tell.
Certainly, it seems to me like it was incumbent upon him to maybe know that staff was told to be quiet about the transition and not publicly ask at the coffeeshop for support. I’d like to think he’s someone who would get the backs of the workers at a business that he might not have owned but literally is an emanation from his own head. I’m not sure what happened on this count, but it was a failure and a failing.
It’s frustrating that a space that had such tremendous community buy-in, and whose employees worked to hard and so tirelessly to create a place that made them and others feel safe and welcome, could manage to give itself such a terrific shiner. Especially because it’s rare for a staff of neurodivergent, disabled, and queer workers to be able to make a place to decidedly safe for themselves.
I don’t know the answers here. It just seems like Portland projects are really good at tripping themselves up so needlessly.
It’s clear to me that while Coffee Business might have done what’s normatively common (setting aside the opinion expressed by someone in one of the press reports that they actually did more than that, because how would I know either way), the people who did all the work on the ground—much of it, when it comes to event-planning, for example, uncompensated—deserved some measure more than the normatively common.
I’m not entirely sure I understand all of the barista’s concerns and complaints. For example, that original demand to meet with all involved parties at a stage where there apparently was literally nothing more Coffee Business could do—let’s just say I’m stuck not quite sure what to think.
Nonetheless, I do think at this point that it is incumbent upon Bennett to try to bridge the gap. What that looks like, I don’t know. A business with an owner-operator is different from a business with a corporate master. Given the efforts of staff, I won’t say that I’m surprised that apparently no one thought of going the worker cooperative route, but I will say that I’m at least a bit disappointed.
The battle for Wonderwood Springs does not need to remain a battle. There are ways to repair and restore the sense of commonly-held community centered in and around the sense of place that Bennett’s artwork and the coffeeshop’s staff created over the course of the past year.
To my mind, this means that former staff need to take stock of where things are and not how they wish they’d gone when there might have been a chance for Bennett et al. to do things differently.
It also means that Bennett himself needs to make a some kind of move toward real solidarity with humility and patience. That should start with an accounting of where he fell down on the job of being an ally to staff.
Somehow, if nothing else, this needs to be more than a duel of Instagrams.
In the end, all of this is another example of presumptive allies finding themselves pitted against each other when there are paths of openness, transparency, and accountability available to them instead.
It’s impossible for me to believe that either Mike Bennett or the Wonderwood Springs baristas is the real enemy here.
One thing I wanted to get to is that even if Coffee Business did what was legally required (which isn’t in dispute), and even if they did a bit more than was legally required (for my purposes here let’s say they did), all this does is reveal that the legally required minimums are an insufficient way to treat workers.
In particular here, I’m thinking about having a neurodivergent and disabled staff, for whom transitions can be more difficult and who likely need more time both to come to terms with and to plan for a transition of this magnitude than the traditional two weeks.
This is a good example of where Bennett himself fell down on the job.
Presuming he had some degree of familiarity with his staff—and I’m going to call them his staff because while he hasn’t their legal employer he certainly was their spiritual employer, for lack of a better term—he’d have thought to go to bat for them and provide more transitional leeway here.
There is a difference between what’s legally required and who’s the legal employer, and the fact that there really ought to be a sense of social obligation to do more than the normative minimum in order to have each other’s backs.
That said, I do also want to reiterate something else: this idea that it’s unfair that staff could not simply all keep their jobs across the ownership transition is bizarre and untenable. I don’t know why this is the focus of so much of what I’m seeing on their Instagram.
Bennett is right that “re-apply” might have been the wrong, or at least an alienating, word to use, but he’s not wrong if he thinks it’s simply unrealistic to believe that it should be a given that anyone and everyone simply would be able to carry over.
That might, or rather does, suck, and tremendously so. It’s not, however, an altogether valid criticism.
When a business changes hands, they need to take stock. Promising everyone their old jobs back would have been unrealistic and irresponsible, and in fact when it turned out not to be possible, former staff would have complained about the falsehood of it.