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"Aggressive Lawsuits" Forcing Café Gratitude to Close All NorCal Locations, L.A. Restaurant Not Affected [UPDATED]

Photo of Café Gratitude grub by wrestlingentropy via Flickr
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Diners who frequent Café Gratitude on Larchmont may have no idea that the parent company who runs several locations of the vegan eatery in the Bay Area has been mired for years in legal challenges, including controversial allegations the business owners require employees to participate in an alleged cult.

Today, Café Gratitude co-owner Terces Engelhart announced the pending closure or sale of all Northern California locations in face of what are being called "aggressive lawsuits," according to SFist.

The lawsuits in question stem from former Gratitude employees who left the restaurant with a bad taste in their mouths. East Bay Express published a 2009 article that claimed, among other things, employees were fired for not attending Landmark Forum classes.

Landmark Forum, a personal betterment program, has long been accused of engendering cult-like behavior.

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When Café Gratitude announced in June 2010 they were opening up in Los Angeles, one aspect of how Landmark factors into the operation of the restaurants was described as follows: "Managers are basically forced to take seminars and pay for half of them (legal? Probably not), and the manager at the Berkeley branch says that "Café Gratitude wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Landmark."

Is it so wrong that Café Gratitude subscribes to the teachings and principles of Landmark? Lawsuits filed against the business in NorCal say, well, yeah. However, it's not just the Landmark issue that have precipitated lawsuits. Other allegations included in legal claims against the eatery include that employees are denied proper breaks and are forced into a questionable tip pooling system that benefits off-site employees.

And those lawsuits are what Englehart says is forcing them to pack it up:

Although we believe that we have done nothing wrong and our policies are completely legal, it will cost us too much money to defend them in court. Despite telling the attorneys that brought the lawsuits that the current structure and resources of Café Gratitude are insufficient to sustain and defend our community, they have refused to give up and are forcing us to close.

For their LA operation, which opened in March of this year, Café Gratitude's NorCal owners Matthew and Terces Engelhart have teamed up with Christopher and Lisa Bonbright under a separate LLC to run the only SoCal outpost of the eatery that serves raw and vegan eats to plebes and celebs. The menu items are named as affirmations, forcing diners to assert things like "I am extraordinary" in order to get a meat-free BLT on their plate. In the closure announcement today, the Los Angeles Café Gratitude was not mentioned, for which many may well be grateful.

UPDATE 12/18/11
Landmark has provided us with the following response to this article:

Landmark Education is a mainstream, globally recognized personal and professional growth, training and development company whose programs, conducted in a traditional business conference setting, are offered in 19 countries around the world. While LAist says we may have at times been characterized as engendering cult-like behavior, there is overwhelming, highly credible evidence from numerous top independent cult experts from around the world who clearly state that this is absolutely not the case. For example, Dr. Raymond D. Fowler, Ph.D., retired CEO of the American Psychological Association, stated his personal opinion and not the opinion of the American Psychological Association, based on his participation in The Landmark Forum and his more than 40 years as a psychologist: “In my opinion, The Landmark Forum is not a cult or anything like a cult, and I do not see how any reasonable, responsible person could say that it is.” While there has been a small number of legitimate journalists and publications that have erroneously said otherwise, after research they have immediately corrected their statements. Along with Café Gratitude, numerous highly respected companies and government institutions from around the world include Landmark’s programs among those they offer for their employees’ training and development. Harris Interactive®, one of the largest and most respected market research firms in the world, conducted an independent survey on behalf of Landmark of health professionals and educators (including doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, teachers and academicians) who have taken Landmark programs; the results show that an overwhelming 94 percent agree that Landmark’s programs are professionally conducted and provide great value. To date, more than 40,000 health professionals and educators have participated in Landmark’s programs.
--Linda Howard, General Counsel, Landmark Education