Oct 01, 2009

The Secret Ingredient at Cafe Gratitude

Those of us who live in the Bay Area are familiar with Cafe Gratitude, a small chain of raw food restaurants. These restaurants have a particular atmosphere and culture, one that feels very familiar to me as a local child of the 60s and 70s. I think of it as "control-freak hippie," an apparently easy-going presentation with a very strident center. (As in, "Hey people, I think it would be really cool if we could all DO THIS EXACTLY THE WAY I WANT RIGHT NOW!") 

A game created by the founders, called Abounding River, is available to play at the many shared tables, so diners can explore "Being Abundance" and discover a "Spiritual Foundation that opens up to a whole new way of looking at money and resources" (quotes from the Cafe's website). Everything on the menu is called "I am [positive adjective]", such as "I am worthy," "I am present," or "I am dazzling." And that's what you have to call it when you order: If you try to get away with, "I'd like the pesto pizza," you will be gently encouraged to call it by its true name ("you mean, 'I am sensational'?"). And when your pizza arrives, the server smiles, looks you in the eyes, sets it in front of you, and says, "you are so sensational!" The staff is friendly, the atmosphere is warm, and there are rules.  

As the East Bay Express recently reported, the Cafe's philosophy and culture stem from the Landmark Forum (which grew out of est (Erhardt Seminar Training)), a "transformative learning" program whose graduates sometimes recruit others in ways so insistent that it can feel like proselytizing.

As some Cafe employees have discovered: According to the Express article, all employees are "encouraged" to attend the Landmark Forum, a weekend-long introductory course, and all managers are required to go -- and pay for it. Managers hold daily "clearings," "during which employees answer a series of questions before 're-creating' each other in a process aimed at freeing the workers to be present and alive in the moment for the job" (quote from the Express article). 

Would you like a side of "I am litigious" with that? Because there could be some employment law problems here, as the article also points out. First of all, employers that require employees to attend training sessions have to pay for it -- twice. The employer has to pay the cost of the training, and then has to pay employees for the hours they spend doing it. Then there's the potential religious discrimination problem: Whether or not the Landmark Forum or the owners of Cafe Gratitude would describe their philosophies as "religious," the belief in human potential -- that we create our own reality -- may itself conflict with a religious view that a higher power does the creating. And, if an employer fires or disciplines those who don't share the company's official belief system or complain about feeling pressure to adopt it, an experience one employee described in the Express article, a retaliation claim may not be far behind.