Since launching Tatte Bakery out of her kitchen in 2007, founder Tzurit Or has built a chain of 14 local storefronts with an aesthetic that makes Instagrammers swoon: black-and-white floor tiles with cheeky inspirational quotes, woven Parisian bistro chairs, piles of flaky pastries, and shakshuka skillets studded with silky poached eggs.
But the social unrest in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s death has revealed simmering frustrations among the cafe chain’s workforce that have disrupted its otherwise placid facade. Over the past several weeks, current, former, and furloughed Tatte staff have begun speaking out against Or’s leadership, saying she created a culture at the cafes that has enabled “discriminatory hiring practices and maltreatment of Black and Brown employees in entry-level positions,” according to an open letter published by the group last week.
On Friday, Or confirmed publicly what she said has been in the works for some time: She will be stepping down from her role as CEO of the company that employees over 700 people.
The news comes as complaints have emerged about the management of the cafes, including allegations that Or or her managers have made discriminatory comments about the race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or physical attributes of staffers, and that Or made hiring and promotion decisions based in part on how well workers fit in with the “Tatte aesthetic.”
The group of former workers and their industry allies, which is now organized under the name Employees for Change, has launched a petition pushing for more diversity among the company’s executive team and has raised funds in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On July 17 they issued an open letter, which has garnered over 200 signatures, urging Or to step down from her leadership role and raise wages for staff; they have planned a protest outside the Brookline storefront on Sunday.
Or — who sat down with the Globe for a video interview, in addition to submitting written responses to questions — said she was completely unaware of any concerns about discrimination among her staff until the petition began circulating. She denied having made racist or discriminatory statements, and said that in the past few weeks she has taken steps to address staff concerns, working closely with her investors, led by Ron Shaich, the founder and former chief executive of Panera; meeting and exceeding the demands of the petition; hiring diversity consultants and a crisis management team; and launching a formal investigation into three allegations of discrimination. She said she’s also in the midst of establishing a formal HR department and is working to launch an anonymous hot line for workers to report discrimination.
“My personal goal is to make sure that our policies, processes, and training programs all match my hope for what Tatte is and can become — an organization that respects all people,” Or said.
But she also acknowledged that management mistakes have been made. The decision to step down from her role as CEO, she said, predated the petition, and new leadership will be announced soon. Her plan is to remain on as an adviser, executing her vision for its pastries, branding, and storefronts. But day-to-day management of Tatte will no longer be under her purview.
The reckoning has been “devastating” to her personally, she said.
“I took it really hard because I felt that all I did is give up on my personal life and everything I’ve ever had to make Tatte into a home that people feel good in,” she said. “I felt massive responsibility to really do some serious listening and learning, and go back to my team and see how are we addressing this and making that change, because clearly something is not right.”
The recent trouble started several weeks ago, after Or decided to board up her storefronts as protests around the George Floyd killing surged throughout the city. The decision rankled many people of color on her staff, who felt she was doing more to protect her stores than support the movement.
Frustrations mounted when Or posted on Tatte’s Instagram page in support of Black Lives Matter. Many workers expressed skepticism about Or’s outwardly supportive stance and said it didn’t match her own internal corporate practices.
Hodan Hashi, who worked on Tatte’s counter staff until February of this year, said that as a Black woman, she didn’t experience racism firsthand on the part of the company but she grew frustrated upon seeing Or post about Black Lives Matter on the company’s social media accounts.
“Seeing Tzurit post the black square or anything Black Lives Matter-related without seeing the tangible steps she was taking to make sure these things weren’t happening in her own company annoyed me,” she said.
Hashi helped draft a petition asking the company to commit to diversifying its executive team, match the employee donations to organizations supporting Black Lives Matter, and donate excess food and beverages to protesters and others who support the cause. It was envisioned to push Tatte to take a more active role in challenging systemic racism, Hashi said.
But then several past and current workers began posting their experiences on social media and tagging Tatte in their posts. Or waded into the comments and direct messages to respond to the complaints, but that served only to fuel the fire. She ultimately turned off commenting and tagging on Tatte’s posts after tensions boiled over. It pushed the activists to continue the conversation through their own channels.
“The stories were just as shocking to me as they were to everybody else,” Hashi said. “It felt like we had some form of a responsibility to make sure that the voices of the people of the company who experienced this but couldn’t speak out were heard.”
In the open letter, the writers said “it is more apparent than ever that the CEO has been using the optics of her successful business to overshadow the injustices of the company against its staff.‘‘ The letter goes on to note that “workers have made numerous complaints about mistreatment and microaggressions under the company’s name and have failed to be recognized by Tzurit herself or the corporate team she manages.‘‘
Elle Marston, a former Tatte employee and organizer for Employees for Change who is a white woman, said she feels it’s important to offer a space for people to share their experiences, and began posting them to the group’s Instagram account.
The Globe spoke with several of the people who shared their testimonials, some of whom did so anonymously for fear of reprisal.
In those experiences, several themes emerged. Employees described a workplace that was driven largely by Or’s vision — and her ego. There were exacting standards — every cashew or pecan had to be placed by hand on a pastry. Several said that video cameras installed in the shops made them feel as though they were under surveillance.
“People are afraid of Tzurit,” said Marston, who was hired as a baker at the cafe in 2013, and says she was promised a $14-an-hour salary, which she never received. “There is one view of Tzurit in the media, and there is everyone who is being quieted to not tell the true story.”
Michael Geldart, who is white and worked at Tatte from 2013 to 2016, where he held the role of head of bakery operations, said the management of the shops was unprofessional compared with other places he’d worked. “There was nobody to go to to guide you on disciplinary action or clear policies,” he said. “We saw the favoritism. There were employees who would get a huge jump in pay based on if they were in [Or’s] good graces or not.”
And he said there were numerous occasions when Or said things about employees that made him cringe: In one instance, he recalled, she asked if a particular worker was Arab or Muslim, and then asked that the person be laid off a few days later. She would become uncomfortable around workers who were transitioning genders, he recalled. In another instance, he said, she grew suspicious knowing that an overnight shift of workers were all Black and wanted to install cameras in the shop. “She said, ‘They’re from the projects, who knows what they’re going to steal,‘” Geldart recalled.
Or said she does not recall making such a comment about Arab or Muslim workers, and pointed out that she currently employs people with those backgrounds. She said she’s developed good relationships with several members of her staff who have transitioned genders. And she denies having said anything about her Black staff, or that she wanted to install cameras for any such reason.
And she added that her own heritage — Or was born in Israel and lived on a kibbutz for most of her childhood, moving to the US at age 32 — means that she wasn’t brought up with an understanding of the racial dynamics that exist in the US that would result in such stereotyping.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but I don’t know enough about the difference between Black people and white people to have those opinions — I didn’t grow up here,” she said. “To me it’s all human beings, you know?”
Nick Wilson, who worked as the executive chef at the company from 2015 to 2016 and is biracial, mentioned several conversations with Or in which she cited racial stereotypes that made him feel uncomfortable. He recalled returning from a vacation and Or asking him about whether Black people swim. Or also asked about the lightness of his daughter’s skin, he said.
Or said she did not recall either situation that Wilson described.
Wilson said despite his best efforts to promote people of color from within the store’s ranks, Or always seemed more willing to hire workers from outside the company. “It was always, let’s hire someone else, and it was usually somebody white,” he said.
He said his own concerns about losing his job led him to not do more to react to her comments, something that he now regrets. “Shame on us for not necessarily speaking up,” he said. “But when you’re caught in that situation, are you going to believe the random line cook or Tzurit, who’s busy opening new shops and getting write-ups in Oprah magazine?”
Several former workers say that they appreciate all that they were able to take away from their time at Tatte — an appreciation for attention to detail and working with such high-quality products. And many also mentioned that Or would take actions that were remarkably kind — Geldart said she bought his family six months of diapers after his daughter was born — but felt those acts of kindness were held out in exchange for expectations of loyalty or long hours.
Or’s executive team and investors have come out against the group’s claims, and say that many of the instances now being shared are from years ago, by employees whose own personal history with Or may be influencing their statements.
“As a black person I have received nothing but support from Tatte in the trajectory of my career development at the company,” Jason Arias, a current general manager at the Summer Street store, wrote in a letter of support for Or.
“Tzurit loves Tatte and the environment she creates for her staff and customers,” he continued. “Conflating workplace difficulties or grievances with the BLM movement is not only irresponsible but dangerous. Racism has never been part of my experience at Tatte, nor is it something that I have witnessed among staff.”
And Shaich, who is a friend and adviser to Or as well as an investor, said he has been working closely with her to identify and investigate instances of discrimination among employees. He said three instances of discrimination have been investigated by the law firm Foley Hoag, and two have been substantiated.
He said the law firm also investigated the claim that Or made statements about installing security cameras for her all-Black baking crew, but no witnesses came forward and the bakery does not have any cameras installed.
“Any allegation of racism ... we will not accept that, period, end of sentence,” he said. “This company today is bigger than one person, and we are very focused on building formal process and a real organization. There are adults in the room and the board is taking an active role to ensure we’re living up to our values. We want to make sure we’re not living in a world of unsubstantiated allegations that are happening on social media.
“It’s clearly time for a new CEO experienced in management to help us with the process of growing and running Tatte as we become a larger company,” Or said.
“I want to be able to go back in and be proud of this journey,” she said. “I look back and I’m extremely proud and I know that any mistakes that I made, those mistakes never had any bad intent. I was always the one trying to bring people together.”