A personal account of how the Sqirl jam controversy took shape and what to make of it.
On Sunday, July 12, a photo of moldy jam went viral on social media. Far from being the most important topic in the news that day, it likely escaped your radar, but accompanied with it was the accusation that Sqirl, a hip, cultural-icon cafe at the edge of East Hollywood and Silverlake, has been selling moldy jam to customers who pay upwards of $14 per jar. This photo horrified some, confused others, and struck those who had prided themselves on resisting the inexplicable trend toward expensive toast with the keenest sense of schadenfreude. In the hours following this new controversy, a dark web of various allegations about the cafe and its owner, Jessica Koslow, began to find light and quickly the jam conversation had spiraled into the stolen-work toxic-environment lack-of-diversity gentrification conversation. Casual observers may be inclined to assume that where there is this much smoke, there is obviously fire, but as someone who spent over five years at this establishment, with friends and acquaintances on every side, I will implore you to consider the facts and not let this cacophony of rage and innuendo define the business.
First, to the charge that Sqirl is a toxic work environment: I cannot disagree more, but with some caveats. All restaurants are inherently high stress and difficult work. Sqirl is no different. Considering the tiny space, the unconventional design, and the pace at which the kitchen pumps out high quality food at an approachable price, the stakes are a bit higher than your average corner cafe. My first year there was extremely difficult, but after putting in the work to understand the space and the personalities, I found it worth it. Some don’t, and they leave to find a better fit for them. In exchange for staying, I enjoyed healthcare, a relaxed uniform policy, and the best pay from a counter service job that I’ve ever heard of. That doesn’t mean there weren’t afternoons when I became overwhelmed by workload, got frustrated with my managers, and felt undervalued by my boss, but on-balance it was very much worth it. While at Sqirl I had coworkers of every race, sexual orientation, and background. It was a difficult job and while some thrived, others didn’t and moved on.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some Sqirl employees took it upon themselves to set up a GoFundMe for members of the staff who would be put out of work. Sqirl has a very large social media following, and they likely assumed that the wealthy, influential, and generous patrons they could reach via an Instagram post would make a killing. Otherwise, they would have to join the hundreds of thousands of other restaurant workers nationwide who would have to solely rely on the government for emergency unemployment. Upon communicating her support for the fundraiser, Jessica provided some additional stipulations, such a request to see any copy before it was posted, and she mentioned that the fundraiser could not officially be Sqirl-sponsored. These staff members responded in frustration by DM’ing followers of Sqirl with hate toward Jessica personally and toward the business, along with a link to the GoFundMe.
When this shadow movement failed to reach the crescendo they had hoped, the nation was once again confronting its difficult history with racism. The language in these attacks and accusations shifted accordingly, resulting in a cynical attempt to exploit the movement for racial justice for their own ends. The trolling on social media did not pay off entirely as intended, but these timely new accusations did create division within the restaurant’s remaining staff. When every other person and business in America was capitalizing on the moment by broadcasting their wokeness and posting black squares to Instagram, Sqirl took the opportunity to quietly and earnestly make a tangible difference by pledging to donate one percent of gross sales each quarter to organizations “addressing racism directed at the Black community.” One percent may seem small, but considering the cafe’s past sales, this is essentially a multi-thousand dollar pledge (the current and ongoing sabotage of the restaurant may, in turn, reduce this figure). Opting not to share the fact that they had made this effort would have likely led to online abuse and criticism, while sharing it on social media only led some to make accusations of virtue signaling. A popular term, generally true when alleged (as we are all chronic virtue signalers), but hardly applicable here. Those guilty of an action often try to deflect criticism by being the loudest accusers of others, themselves. When considering the real difference those dollars will make in contrast with a wordy social media post, this criticism, when applied here, proves itself absurd.
Finally, when these attempts and accusations had failed to grab traction with the public, one of the former employees behind the fundraiser leaked the photo. It went viral and dragged up with it every other grievance any employee has ever had with Sqirl. No employee at Sqirl, including those making the loudest noises about the jam today, ever had any issue eating it or sharing it with loved ones while they were employees. Jessica has since acknowledged the discomfort many feel toward the practice of removing mold, has altered her methods, and sought out significant oversight. The fact is that craft food is difficult to make and weird. If it weren’t complicated everyone would do it, and if it wasn’t worth it, no one would try it. Fermentation, preserving, dry-aging, and sausage-making all include steps that would make the typical observer uneasy. These employees took advantage of that fact. The photo in question shows multiple spatulas and colors in one jug, which tells me this is all the mold removed from every jam in a particularly bad batch, not representative of anything that would ever be served. Essentially what we are looking at is the trash can. Photograph the trash can at any restaurant and present it as food and people will rightfully be disgusted.
As a boss and business owner, Jessica went out of her way to provide the best for her staff and the community. When the pandemic forced the business to close, employees were furloughed instead of laid off. She covered all healthcare premiums for all employees for April, May, and June (as a business with fewer than 50 employees, Sqirl is not even required to co-pay healthcare premiums). Sqirl provided over 10,000 meals to out-of-work restaurant workers via the Lee Initiative, which were staffed by 10 employees who chose to stay on and received hazard pay for doing so. Upon reopening, no salaries were reduced and hourly rates were even increased. And finally, a Sqirl-sponsored fundraising drive earned more than $15K for hourly and salaried employees. Do these efforts make up for every shortcoming? Perhaps not, but they do demonstrate that the much of the ire toward this business and the business owner is misguided.
What matters for many of us when we take a job is having a roof over our head, benefits in case we get sick or hurt, and cash that allows us to live a meaningful and enjoyable life. Sqirl met all those needs and then some, but that hasn’t stopped idle employees from making outrageous and false assumptions and accusations. Some have claimed that staff were forced to walk through a construction space filled with asbestos, when in fact the building is made of plywood and cement (no employee’s health was put at risk in that construction space). Much has been made about the decision to operate an additional kitchen space that was unknown to health inspectors until 2018. The majority of restaurants I have worked in all had rooms that “did not exist” and management that required staff to take quick, coordinated action to avoid health code violations. It’s an industry norm and anyone who has spent significant time in food service can attest to this. Jessica has acknowledged that she is imperfect, but it is unfair and unwise to make her the scapegoat for every grievance anyone has with the restaurant industry.
Sqirl started with a vision: to serve fine-dining quality food in a format, price, and location that is approachable to everyone. Anyone doing something new will have haters. Some will hate because French toast and eggs are more expensive there than any other place they usually eat breakfast. In which case, there are a million other places to eat. Some will hate because the chairs are uncomfortable and the place is cramped. These people can go pay quadruple the price for a nice dinner of the same quality somewhere else, if they like. For the rest of us, it’s magic; it’s worth the price and the relative discomfort because we love good food and appreciate how it brings worlds, mixed incomes, and different backgrounds together.
We are all angry right now. Many of us have never felt so powerless. We’ve been locked in our homes while thousands continue to suffer from a pandemic that has been botched in its handling at every level of government, while the economy collapses. In response, some have taken to using what little power they have to make themselves heard, but we will not feel any better if we continue to tear down good people who are doing their best as sacrifices for our woes. Sqirl is not just Jessica Koslow. It is not just a cafe that brings people together. Families, farmers, immigrants, and others all rely on this cafe for their livelihoods. They should not be made to suffer because we have been caught up in this moment. I have no personal stake in this restaurant anymore, but I do have a conscience. The restaurant industry has many flaws, but Sqirl is far and away one of the most ethical, socially conscious, and inviting examples among it.