On October 4, San Francisco-based Ritual Coffee started pulling espresso shots at a new airport cafe in SFO’s Harvey Milk Terminal.
The outpost has taken more than five years to bring to fruition — just one of a number of new developments the company will finally see through this winter. This month, Ritual will also start selling canned coffee in its stores, another five-year project coming to bloom. Up in Napa, “Cup and Star” bar at the Oxbow Market is back to work as of November 15, a small part of Ritual’s larger cafe with a suite of drinks only available at that bar. Eileen Rinaldi, Ritual’s owner and founder, says she feels optimistic about the future of the business she started 17 years ago on Valencia Street. “In 2020, when I knew we were going to survive the pandemic, I said ‘Okay, now is the time to make Ritual the company I’ve always wanted it to be,’” Rinaldi says.
That sentiment could reassure fans of a coffee company that’s been beleaguered by controversy over its almost two-decade run. In 2011, Rinaldi’s husband, artist and provocateur John Joseph James Rinaldi, known as “Chicken John,” riled up numerous Ritual workers over his alleged behavior. He racked up a number of workplace culture complaints from staff until being fired by Rinaldi in 2020; among the most notable was an incident that occurred while he worked on a freelance construction project for the company and allegedly used a racial slur toward a Black man. The company also faced criticism for its founding by Jeremy Tooker of Four Barrel Coffee, who allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted multiple Four Barrel staff members. Many are waiting to see if the business will really become worker-owned, as Mission Local reported in fall 2021.
Rinaldi says she feels all these concerns are legitimate. “It’s been a difficult time as a business owner, and as a wife, to navigate everything,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time listening to my staff, learning from them, working to understand how I can consistently show up better.”
Since 2020, the company has taken two approaches to address the concerns voiced by staff and customers. One is the formation of a diversity committee in 2021, a nine-person company-wide committee with staff from various teams and roles represented. In November 2021, the company sent a mass message via Basecamp to all employees inviting them to join the diversity committee. The idea is the group creates a place for staff to share concerns, and for the team to conduct internal surveying and research to determine concrete steps and resources for employees. The outfit is just getting going, but Allissia Lias, an assistant manager at the Napa cafe who sits on the committee, says it’s been positive so far. “It’s been a phenomenal experience,” Lias says. “The work has been very productive.”
Lias has been with the company since September 2021 and identifies as mixed-race. She identifies also as a member of the queer community and says participating in the diversity committee has helped her feel welcome within Ritual’s ranks. Though initially pitched as a three-month project, the paid opportunity to be on the committee has been extended indefinitely. One output so far comes as a list of diversity, equity, and inclusion-related questions supervisors throughout the company can use on a day-to-day basis with their staff to, hopefully, allow workers to better express concerns and input. “Based on my perception, the work we’re doing is ongoing,” Lias says. “It’s going to continue to evolve. I see the commitment.”
Ritual is still exploring becoming a worker-owned company. Rinaldi contacted Project Equity, a nonprofit that helps businesses determine if they’re right for a broad-based ownership model and how to initiate a restructuring. When a company decides to go worker-owned, ownership technically sells the business to its staff. Stacey Smith, the vice president of program operations and client experience for Project Equity, says it only works if the company is healthy and the buyers are interested. If so, the staff can get numerous benefits including finances for retirement and stock options. “We really promote employee ownership,” Smith says.
The company is early in the process, still determining if it's even possible for Ritual to transition into worker ownership. If they determine the change looks doable — and that there are enough employees interested — then the company would move toward becoming worker-owned. “That is a remaining step,” Smith says. “Everyone has to walk through the gate together. And they haven’t walked through the gate yet.”
Ultimately, Rinaldi says she wants to strengthen partnerships with the company’s partner coffee farmers. If she could, she says she’d take all her employees to visit them. For now, the company has plenty on its plate: a number of successes and a number of places to improve. “The lesson for me is to keep going, keep working on being a better leader, figuring out how to do that,” Rinaldi says.
Ritual Coffee is now open at SFO in Harvey Milk Terminal 1 from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily.