Sqirl Is In Berry Hot Water With Allegations Of Moldy Jams And POC Erasure
Sqirl, the Virgil Village cafe that arguably did more than any other Los Angeles restaurant to normalize paying exorbitant amounts for ricotta on bread, is under fire. The bastion of "south Silver Lake" foodie hipsterdom allegedly sold moldy jam, operated a secret (and illegal) kitchen, and failed to credit its opening chef, as well as other employees of color, for their contributions.
LAist reached out to owner Jessica Koslow this morning via email, phone and text about the allegations but has not yet received a response. We will update this article if we hear back from her.
She has, however, provided a public response on Twitter to some of the allegations.
The controversy, came to light Sunday when self-described "food antagonist" Joe Rosenthal (he's also a mathematician based in the Twin Cities) compiled a list of the complaints against Sqirl on his Instagram Stories. Many of the allegations were made via social media by users who say they are former Sqirl employees.
They allege the restaurant routinely served jam that had grown a layer of mold on the top and that Koslow had instructed employees to scrape off the mold before serving the jam. (Koslow launched Sqirl as a jam-making business before expanding it into a cafe.)
On social media, people who describe themselves as former employees also claim that food at Sqirl was, for a time, prepared in an unlicensed back kitchen that was dusty, dirty and still under construction. They also allege that Koslow hid the site from L.A. County Department of Public Health officials.
As for the other complaints, at least two past employees -- former chef Ria Dolly Barbosa and former chef de cuisine Javier Ramos -- allege in comments on Instagram that Koslow has minimized their contributions to the restaurant and written them out of Sqirl's history.
Sqirl's appeal rests, in large part, on its image as healthyish and progressive. In social media comments on other people's Instagram posts, Barbosa and Ramos complain that Koslow, a white woman, is taking credit for work and recipes created by her employees of color.
While Sqirl has not responded to us directly, Koslow has responded to the allegations about its jam-making practices by releasing a statement that reads, in part:
"We don't use commercial pectin, sweeteners or other stabilizers, and to highlight the fruit, we add little sugar... And put simply, a low-sugar jam is more susceptible to the growth of mold. The same types of mold that develop on some cheese, charcuterie, dry aged beef, and lots of other preserved foods."
Master food preserver Stephen Wade disagrees. In a lengthy and helpful Twitter thread explaining some of the issues around fruit preservation, he writes that if you see mold on your jam, "jam must be assumed contaminated (unseen spores, release of toxins, secretions into the mix) at all levels, and destroyed."
mold can happen, and pretty universally, whether for home or commerical use, within nearly all communities and perspectives, the answer is the same: jam must be assumed contaminated (unseen spores, release of toxins, secretions into the mix) at all levels, and destroyed.— Swole Porter (@_terroirism_) July 13, 2020
Wade goes on to explain that the types of molds found on and in cheeses, meats and other preserved foods are fundamentally different than what you might find growing on jams or preserves -- and hence, scraping mold off jam, is not acceptable by food safety standards.
Koslow was in the first Master Food Preserver cohort in Los Angeles, a program run by the University of California's Cooperative Extension program.
In the statement released on social media, Koslow says that prior to a major renovation of Sqirl, which was completed in January 2020, jams had been prepared on-site, at the Virgil Ave. restaurant. Now, all jam production is done off-site at a catering kitchen.
Koslow's statement does not address claims of her allegedly taking credit for her employees' work but she does say, "I am so proud of where Sqirl is today -- in the throes of changing and improving A LOT of systems -- but it has taken us years to get here."
She is slated to release her second cookbook, The Sqirl Jam Book, on July 21. It's unclear if this controversy will affect the book's release.
In a note on Instagram, the company said, "We knew maybe 1% of everything that was going on at Sqirl, and clearly didn't have all the facts before we went into this... The collab gave Sqirl another trendy marketing boost that was in direct opposition to what its own workers are fighting for."
This isn't Koslow's first brush with controversy. She has been accused of gentrifying Virgil Village, a neighborhood where many residents and longstanding businesses (including jerk chicken spot Cha Cha Cha) have been forced out by rising rents and development. Journalist Samanta Helou Hernandez has been documenting this process on her Instagram account, This Side of Hoover.
In a 2016 profile in Eater, Koslow says she opened the restaurant at "this shitty corner on Virgil and Marathon" in part because she could "pay two dollars per square foot."
NOTE TO READERS: LAist has been investigating these allegations for a longer, upcoming feature story. If you have information that you believe could be useful, please send us an email.