Daily Grind closes after failure to pay rent; Employees cite mismanagement, discrimination from owner

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The Daily Grind will undergo renovations before reopening on August 23. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

After 20 years of operating as an independent cafe on the campus of the College of William and Mary, The Daily Grind will be taken over by Michelle and Steve Seiling, owners of the coffee shop and cafe Aromas and restaurant The Hound’s Tale.

Daily Grind owner Eric Christenson announced that the closing was due to revenue loss. However, testimonies from other student employees attribute the closure to mishandling of payment, mismanagement and discriminatory behavior by Christenson.

Originally, a July 19 Facebook post entitled “…and we are closed,” included a video of a hand locking the front door to the Grind. The caption read  “After 20 years of serving the W&M community as an independently owned and operated cafe, The Grind has closed it’s doors.”   

In the post, which led to widespread confusion among students over the coffee shop’s fate, Christenson cited a 45 percent reduction in food revenue as a major factor in the Grind’s closing. Christenson said he believes the revenue loss occurred due to the Tribe Truck’s new policy of accepting meal swipes and dining dollars.

“Although this is a sad ending for the community which was the Daily Grind, it is new beginning (hopefully with a much needed renovation) for Lodge 2,” Christenson said in the post “As of now, it appears that a W&M supported vendor will be taking over the space.”

Later the same day, another message posted to The Daily Grind’s Facebook page revealed that new management may potentially take over the cafe. The message read, “It has been confirmed. SODEXO is now responsible for The Daily Grind and is contracting with Aroma’s to operate a business in Lodge 2.” The College later announced the change in management to the Seilings and the renaming of the Grind to the Aromas Daily Grind.

When Christenson first took over after the previous owner Scott Owen retired in 2018, he had a clear vision for what he wanted to do to give back to the community.

“This was an opportunity to do something that I really love,” Christenson said. “I love the culture [at the Daily Grind].”

In the first month after he took over, Christenson said the food revenue was up 30 percent. He also hired more student employees than had been hired in the past and discussed plans with the College for the Daily Grind to stay open until 11 p.m. as well as beginning renovations. However, the renovations were not completed and the extended hours did not result in an influx of students to the Daily Grind.

“Everybody expected us to be open by nine and closed by five and students weren’t coming in early or late,” Christenson said.

According to Christenson, his decision to hire more student employees also became a complication. Although he said it would have worked out in time, the need to provide new employees with training overextended the Daily Grind’s resources.

However, Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Leadership Drew Stelljes cites a different problem resulting in the Daily Grind’s closure — Christenson’s failure to pay rent to the College.

“Regrettably, Eric Christianson was not able to meet the contractual terms of the lease agreement to pay rent,” Stelljes said in a written statement. “It was never the intention of anyone at W&M to close the Daily Grind. I love the Daily Grind. It’s part of what brings the center of campus to life.”

In addition to Christenson’s failure to pay rent, student employees at the Daily Grind observed different reasons for the revenue loss and subsequent closure of the cafe.

Seven different employees all attested to experiencing, witnessing, or hearing about issues with the cafe’s management style. These included problems with pay, problems with scheduling, and mistreatment of customers and employees based on their race or LGBTQ+ identity.

Naz Shirazi ’20 said that several students, themself included, faced problems getting their wages.

“For [over] a month, I was not paid for my work,” Shirazi said in a written statement. “Some people had been venmo’ed … some people had been written a check, but me and two others were sort of just groveling for our wages. I also had to remind him to pay me two other times after that, it’s stressful having to hound people for money! I hated that!”

Sarah Harmon ’19 worked for the Daily Grind for a year before she graduated and said she also encountered problems discussing pay with Christenson and had to speak with Christenson several times until she was finally paid.

According to two employees, one who wished to remain anonymous because they depend on employment in the Williamsburg food industry and fears retribution by Christenson who employs students in that industry, Christenson did not pay new hires during their training, which is illegal in Virginia under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

“He refused to pay the new hires (there were a lot) for training hours, which is illegal,” one student, who wished to remain anonymous, said in a written statement. “When we spoke to him about it, he claimed he had okayed it with his lawyer. Additionally, there were regular delays in payment or issues with Eric automatically clocking people out before they were finished working and refusing to pay them for the undocumented time.”

The second student, Madelyn, who will be referred to by her first name only for this story for the same reason as the previous anonymous source, attested to the same issues — new employees were not paid during their training, and multiple employees were paid in different ways ranging from Venmo, personal checks from Christenson and direct deposit.

Madelyn also said that employees were often automatically clocked out at a certain time, regardless of when they actually stopped working and that it was difficult to confront Christenson about receiving pay for the hours not recorded in the system.

“He made it so that Homebase [the timeclock app the Daily Grind used] automatically clocked us out exactly at five,” she said. “To the point that, when you go over, you’re not getting paid for that … So we would message him, and we would be like ‘Eric, Homebase shut me out, I was here an extra 45 minutes,’ and it would just not show up in our checks.”

Additionally, Madelyn said that she felt she had been misled in terms of what she could expect to be paid when she was first hired.

“I feel like I was hired under false pretenses,” Madelyn said. “Because I was told that I was going to make eight dollars an hour, and when I came on, I actually made $7.25 an hour. And I was told — after a lot of us complained, because we were all supposed to make eight dollars an hour — we were told that we weren’t trained properly.”

Rachel Baldwin ’21 also said that Christenson misled her into believing her pay would be higher as her and other employees were led to believe they would be making $8.25 an hour rather than the $7.25 she made when she started working.

“He told us he was going to give us raises when he thought we were ready,” Baldwin said.

According to Madelyn, when she and other students received a raise they only saw their pay increase by 25 cents — never reaching the full eight dollars they were promised.

When asked to comment, Christenson did not respond directly to any of the student statements about pay mismanagement at the Daily Grind.

Another student employee Lucy O’Hara ’22 already worked at Lokal — Christenson’s other restaurant — when Christenson took over the Daily Grind. She said he asked her to join the Daily Grind to help fill in gaps in the employee schedule at the start of the semester. According to O’Hara, Christenson interacted differently at Lokal than he did at the Daily Grind.

“There was another wonderful lady at Lokal, they kind of co-managed,” O’Hara said. “At Lokal, the woman co-managing handled many of the day-to-day tasks, whereas at the Grind, Eric was kind of doing everything himself. There was a lot he was kind of running from the top down. … It felt like he was trying to be the owner and business manager, and also the shift manager. So there was a big difference.”

O’Hara did not experience any issues with compensation from Christenson, and she maintained the same pay rate she received working at Lokal.

Multiple employees also discussed how Christenson budgeted expenses for the Grind and indicated that his purchases occasionally exemplified his flawed financial management. According to the employees, rather than buying ingredients like milk in bulk as is typical for restaurants, Christenson would purchase individual cartons from grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s.

When asked whether he bought ingredients from Trader Joe’s, Christenson said he did buy items from the store, as well as other local stores like Aldi, but that he also bought items in bulk from stores like Restaurant Depot.

“The least expensive way to buy milk is to buy local in bulk,” Christenson said.

Christenson explained that it was difficult to get items delivered in bulk due to roads near the Daily Grind being blocked off for construction.

Another issue students shared was the inconsistent hours they were given after Christenson assumed management. Another student, who also wished to remain anonymous, worked at the Grind under both Christenson and Owens and said they noticed the difference.

“Everyone’s hours were cut a ridiculous amount, as Eric brought in new, non-student workers for consistency,” the student said.

According to Shirazi, the scheduling issues often resulted in employees leaving.

“Then there was another issue that happened after spring break where he essentially ghost-fired people, simply by [never] giving them hours,” they said. “I worked maybe four hours in two weeks, and those were shifts I picked up from others. Eventually he started only scheduling me closings which is something I just put up with because I had things I needed to pay for. But a lot of people quit as a result of the lack of scheduling.”

Harmon said she experienced the other side of the inconsistencies in scheduling.

“I was scheduled for the same hours every week under his management but I did experience problems with matching shift assignments,” Harmon said. “There were several times I was accidentally scheduled to work alone or with untrained staff during a rush hour.”

In addition to the scheduling and pay issues, multiple student employees were uncomfortable with Christenson’s treatment of both customers and employees in what they considered to be a discriminatory manner. Employees said they either witnessed or experienced instances of racial tokenization of employees of color, and the repeated use of incorrect pronouns for transgender and nonbinary individuals.

“Eric stereotyped both employees and customers regularly,” the first anonymous student said. “Additionally, he repeatedly sought to capitalize on the ethnicities and cultural characteristics of people working for him, and regularly [said] we had a super diverse staff as if it were his  achievement.”

Baldwin said that Christenson was transphobic to employees and customers and that she felt he focused heavily on her Jewish heritage.

“In general he just brought up my Jewishness every single time we spoke in a way that made me very uncomfortable,” Baldwin said in a written statement.  In the statement, Baldwin claims that Christenson would often bring up Israeli politics even though she never initiated such discussions as Israel can be a difficult topic to talk about.

“He had me contact a rabbi to see if he would put a mezuzah in the Grind (mezuzahs don’t even belong in businesses, they belong in homes),” Baldwin said in the written statement. “He asked me to bring back a specific type of fish from a Jewish deli. I mean these are all examples I can think of but really every time I saw him he would bring up something about Jewishness. It was just super weird and uncomfortable.”

Shirazi also had interactions with Christenson that focused on their race.

“In terms of racism though, he did corner me one time and request that I get my mother’s Iranian recipes and I was a bit startled,” Shirazi said in a written statement. “He asked because he wanted to sell a special at the grind and it just sorta made me uncomfortable.”

Madelyn attested to a similar situation.

“He would just also be kind of inappropriate with customers?” Madelyn said. “Like, one of his quotes that we all just are in awe about… he once asked an Indian customer ‘Do you want that your spicy, or white boy spicy?’ And we were all just sort of standing in shock…. We would all just sort of see these interactions and be like ‘Oh my god — you can’t say that!’”

Madelyn also said Christenson misgendered transgender and nonbinary employees even after being corrected by herself and more than one of the other employees.

She also had an interaction where she confronted Christianson about times he was misgendering employees. During a conversation, Madelyn recalled Christianson referring to a nonbinary employee with the incorrect pronoun. Despite Madelyn’s attempts to correct Christianson, he would continue to misgender employees on other occasions.

When asked if he wanted to respond to comments about student’s statements regarding instances of racial tokenization and transphobia, as well as issues with pay, wages and scheduling hours, Christenson supplied the following statement.

“I am saddened by the end of our relationship with the College of William & Mary to operate the Daily Grind at William & Mary in Lodge 2,” Christenson said in a written statement. “The decision was not taken lightly and based solely on the economics of the business environment at the college. I enjoyed serving the students, academic community and staff as customers and in offering employment to students and community members. At no time did I or any other member of our team show or demonstrate bias against customers or team members based on race, color, religion, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability or age.”

More than one student employee said that the change in treatment of employees made the overall atmosphere of the Daily Grind feel different.

“…he created a truly toxic work environment; he made several employees cry, regularly criticized employees in an unprofessional manner,” the first anonymous student said.

The student also had doubts about the food truck’s overall role in the closure of the Grind.

“The reduction in revenue did not come from the food truck, but rather from Eric not understanding how kitchens and cafes operate,” the first anonymous student said. “He refused to order food supplies from bulk suppliers, instead buying from Trader Joe’s every day. He changed recipes on a whim; menu items that had been longtime favorites were changed and tasted worse, so if any reduction in business caused the reduction in revenue, it was caused by his changes to the food.”

Shirazi also doubted the Tribe Truck’s involvement in the closure of the Grind. Rather, they credit the Daily Grind’s closing to its high food prices, recalling that on Tribe Truck days, they often found that the day ended with the same amount in the register as on normal days.

Harmon said that she thought Eric’s managing style changed the atmosphere of the Grind.

“I believe Eric’s abrasive management style certainly impacted the appeal of the Grind for many people,” Harmon said. “For a ‘student run coffee shop,’ the Grind felt like a hostile environment where students’ needs weren’t heard. I ended up quitting my job before the end of the semester for several reasons, but most importantly because the Grind stopped being the place I loved to visit every day.”

When contacted about whether the administration knew about the issues with racism and transphobia that the student employees discussed, Stelljes said that third-party contractors cannot be investigated for discrimination by the College but that their contract may be reexamined in these cases to ensure that they are complying with the College’s anti-harassment policies.

“We cannot speak about specific cases, but in general, employment issues with a third-party contractors are not within the university’s jurisdiction to investigate. However, in the case of such reports, W&M’s Office of Compliance can help students navigate any process the company or employer may have. In addition, if discrimination is happening with a third party contractor, the university may look at the contractual agreement to determine if they are complying with W&M’s policies in their employment practices.”

According to Stelljes, the renovations to the Grind are almost complete, and reflect changes to both equipment and decor.

“It’s looking great,” Stelljes said. “The whole place is painted and new equipment has been delivered. New furniture has been delivered as well for both inside and back patio. The space to the right when you walk in will be more of a lounge area with comfortable seating.”

According to a news release from the College, the Daily Grind will reopen Aug. 23, in time for students returning to campus. It is now under the management of Big T RSL, Inc., owned by Michelle and Steve Sieling, the owners of Aromas. Its official name is now “Aromas Daily Grind.”

Christenson, who also owns and runs Lokal on Prince George’s Street, said he is still invested in the Williamsburg community, despite his leaving the Grind.

“I finally made a business decision,” he said of the Grind’s closing and the Aromas takeover. “You’ve got to be able to support the business…. Everything has to sustain itself.”