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The Blue & Gray Press | July 20, 2019

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Students react strongly to Blackstone closure, Katora opening

Students react strongly to Blackstone closure, Katora opening

By KATE SELTZER

News Editor

UMW’s on-campus coffee shop, Blackstone, is closing after almost five years of business. Katora Coffee, which has a location on Caroline Street in Downtown Fredericksburg, will be taking its place. The change has prompted strong reactions from students, including former Blackstone and Katora employees.

At the beginning of June, student employees of Blackstone were told the campus coffee shop will be permanently closed when classes begin in August.

“I found out in our work GroupMe chat,” said junior international affairs major Deborah Keyes. “[Don Merritt, owner of Blackstone] just told us his contract with Sodexo wouldn’t be renewed this year and that it had been great working for us.”

Blackstone’s campus location opened in the fall of 2014. Its original off-campus location, located at Eagle Village, closed in May of 2017.

“I didn’t believe it,” said a student Blackstone employee who asked to remain anonymous. “I thought they were joking with me.”

The student said that employees were not informed of the decision to close Blackstone prior to the start of the year.

“We left at the end of the semester, and it was like ‘okay, see you next fall’. It was a total shock.”

Merritt, the owner of Blackstone, was unable to be reached for comment.

The student expressed frustration at not being guaranteed a job at Katora.

“They haven’t reached out to any of us,” they said. “Not that I would say yes, but it’s kind of annoying to be told you’re losing your job [at] a coffee shop, just as a coffee shop is opening, and we don’t get any kind of first dibs at applying.”

In a joint statement, Katora’s owners, Christian and April Zammas, said they will participate in Sodexo’s campus dining fairs held over the summer from July 29-31.

“Every qualified applicant will most certainly receive fair and thoughtful consideration,” they said.

Keyes said she is not planning on applying to Katora in the fall.

“For me personally, I’m lucky – my entire junior year I’m spending abroad in Spain so I wasn’t going to return in 2019 anyway,” she said.  “But I know that a lot of people that had a job lined up for the fall semester are scrambling to find something right now.”

At time of publication, UMW has not released an official statement announcing the change. Roy Platt, general manager of dining services, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Former Blackstone employees are not the only students upset by the change. Multiple students who worked at Katora’s downtown Fredericksburg location in the past voiced their concerns about the coffee shop opening on campus – ranging from health code violations to consistently late pay to inappropriate comments regarding gender and ethnicity.

Concerns about health and safety

Senior computer science and biology major Justin Adams, who worked at Katora from its opening in December of 2017 to August of 2018, said he’s worried about the coffee shop’s food and health safety.

“They have an issue with cleanliness and I’m concerned about students getting sick,” Adams said. “They had a constant fly problem they refused to clean after we kept complaining about it. I had to get the health department involved for them to make the minimum effort.”

According to former Katora employee Justin Adams, this is what came out of a syrup pump in a drink prepared by his coworker at Katora in 2018. | Photo provided by Justin Adams

Rebecca Calloway, a senior music and physics major who worked at Katora from May of 2018 to August of 2018, had a similar recollection.

“The environment was disgusting,” she said. “There would be flies everywhere. The counter would be constantly covered with clutter, food, sticky substances, etc. They instructed us to not refrigerate the cold brew and just let it sit downstairs in the kitchen. The kitchen had a dozen fly stripes hanging up.”

Other former employees corroborated these stories. On Sept. 21, 2018, a health code report posted on the Virginia Department of Health website found that Katora had a pest issue. The health inspector “observed a plastic container of wet soiled wiping cloths covered with fruit flies on the kitchen floor.”

“As a food service veteran for over 20 years, I am committed to adhering to high food safety standards,” Christian Zammas said in response to the claims. “It has been my experience that health code violations will sometimes happen. There will be times when flies sneak in, or equipment might need repair. The important thing is to identify the problems, address them immediately, and take actions that will help prevent those problems from recurring. That has been, and will continue to be, our standard of practice.”

According to the Virginia Department of Health, the most recent health inspection in February of this year found minor violations including a broken door handle and mops not being hung up to dry. The report notes that most violations were corrected to satisfaction.

Discrepancies in pay

Former employees also cited stories of long solo shifts and pay that was frequently delayed.

“[The owners of Katora] would leave a single person working alone for 10 hours straight without a check-in or bathroom/lunch break,” Adams said.

Multiple former employees said they were rarely paid on time. At one point, employees were asked to take a dollar pay cut.

“Over eight months of being paid weekly, I was paid on time five times,” said Caleb DiLoretto, a former employee of Katora who is not a student at UMW.

“We would sometimes go weeks without pay, and if we asked about it, we were given cash advances in odd amounts,” said a former Katora student employee, who asked to remain anonymous.

Adams said that the owners attributed the late pay to financial struggles, “but then they would appear with new decor for the store,” or with larger personal purchases.

“There was even a time this happened, and we found the owner had bought a new motorcycle,” Adams said.

April Zammas did not respond to the claims about the late pay, the pay cuts, or the purchase of a motorcycle, but said she and her husband took on second jobs to make ends meet.

“We made many sacrifices for the business such as cashing out my 401k, selling a house from my divorce, downsizing our townhouse to an apartment and using a no money down credit building loan for a vehicle to save gas,” she said. “We do not take a paycheck from the business. We are doing this on our own and learning as we go.”

Offensive comments

Former employees also brought up inappropriate comments made by Katora’s owners about gender and ethnicity.

“By my third month there, I witnessed a lot of rules being broken as far as health code by our owners, as well as numerous insulting comments disguised as jokes about people’s gender identity and sexuality,” DiLoretto said.

Calloway said that, for example, “instead of saying LGBTQ+ or any form of that, [Christian Zammas] referred to the community as ‘the alphabet kids,’ which clearly made the employees uncomfortable.”

“My first day there, the owner, Christian, said to me, ‘we really wanted to hire a gay black guy so we could check all the diversity boxes,’” she continued. “‘But a Mexican lesbian works too.’” She said Zammas was referring to Calloway’s ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Christian Zammas did not directly respond to these concerns but said that inclusivity is a key part of Katora’s mission.

“My co-owner wife and I both identify as queer, which makes us especially sensitive to the importance of fostering diversity in the workplace,” he said. “We have taken the Equality Virginia pledge to never discriminate against any LGBTQ+ individuals, and we proudly display that certificate in the front window of our Caroline Street shop.”

DiLoretto also said that April and Christian Zammas illegally disclosed his epilepsy to other employees under the guise of a joke. April Zammas, speaking on behalf of both owners, said they had no comment about the situation.

“As far as conversations go between employees over a year ago, it isn’t something we keep track of,” she said.

Students react

In a post on “The M in UMW Stands for Memes” Facebook page, students voiced their feelings about dining changes – both Blackstone’s closure and the replacement of Qdoba and Jamba Juice with Panera– in a thread that garnered more than 250 comments. Some, like Benjamin Jones, urged students to give Katora a chance and not base their opinions off of “he said, she said rumors.”

Others expressed concern about the school’s lack of communication and transparency.

Senior English major Britt Ingels said she was disappointed to see that Katora is opening on campus.

“It was already disheartening enough to hear about the sudden closing of Blackstone in the first place, but it salted the wound to know Katora would be its replacement,” she said. “There’s nothing positive about bringing an unclean and unethical business to Mary Washington.”

DiLoretto offered advice for students considering applying to work at Katora in the fall.

“I don’t know what people’s circumstances might be for working there, so without any judgement, all I will say is know your rights as a worker. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed around, neglected or intimidated,” he said. “No one deserves to work in unfair, unhealthy or unsafe conditions, especially not at a campus cafe job.”

Calloway went a step further:

“For students wanting to apply for Katora – don’t,” she said.

The Zammases remain optimistic about the new location.

“We really look forward to being an active and vital part of the University of Mary Washington campus community,” they said in a statement.

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