Firebrand Wage Theft
Firebrand Artisan Breads has been hit with two wage theft lawsuits. Former lead baker Flor Cajabon filed a lawsuit last May, accusing the wildly popular bakery with a “systematic pattern of wage and hour violations.” According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Cajabon claims the business:
- failed to pay employees for regular and overtime hours
- failed to provide required breaks.
- regularly did not pay for “off-the-clock” work,
- adjusted their clock-in and clock-out times to keep it off the books.
A jury trial is set for February 2025.
Last August, another baker filed a state wage theft complaint reported The Chronicle, and according to a document provided by the California Department of Industrial Relations. This complaint is also disputed by Kreutz.
Who is Kreutz and Firebrand?
Kreutz told The Chronicle that “We didn’t have adequate systems in place to manage staff…But I don’t think that’s who we are.” Last summer, Firebrand was named best employer of the year by Alameda’s chamber of commerce after opening a public café at its ginormous 40,000-square-foot production facility. It runs under an employee-governed trust, and 80% of its 115 workers are formerly incarcerated or homeless people. It offers free health care, financial literacy and ESL classes. Firebrand transitioned in 2021 to a perpetual-purpose trust, which owns 51% of the business’ shares. (A similar model is embraced by outdoor clothing company Patagonia, known for its progressive values.)
So, what went wrong? Speed and greed are usually the downfall of small businesses that expand too fast. Kreutz confirmed that Firebrand is behind on paying vendors, and said the business is establishing payment plans with all of them. But Trevor Smith, owner of East Bay company Spark Smith Electric, says he wasn’t offered a payment plan and Firebrand was three months late on payments. “They’re supposed to be this really great, philanthropic company … but you don’t care about me or about my bill,” Smith said.
Along with the above wage theft lawsuit, the California Department of Industrial Relations filed a separate wage-theft claim. Firebrand borrowed $1 million to cover the Alameda expansion, but Kreutz said it almost took Firebrand to the brink of insolvency. During its legal battle, Firebrand’s accounts were frozen – it couldn’t pay rent, vendors or employees. Firebrand’s public identity as a “people-first” business that is committed to “radical candor” may need rebranding. “We embrace ourselves as the Bad News Bears of bakeries,” Kreutz told the Nob Hill Gazette. “We don’t think of ourselves as a bakery; we’re in the people business. We think about how we can use a business for good.” On its website, Firebrand says it takes pride in “people first, purpose driven”.
Sweet Lady Jane
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Wage theft is common in the food industry. A study on wage theft in the industry in California found that, out of more than 400 workers the researchers interviewed in the first three months of 2022, 85 percent said they had experienced wage theft, and almost a third said they had faced retaliation for speaking out about their treatment or even taking a sick day.