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Café Gratitude and the Cult of Commerce

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Unless you are operating at a Matthew McConaughey level of chillness, there is plenty to take umbrage with at the vegan, organic Café Gratitude chain, the majority of which lies on the surface. The names of the dishes served (examples include "I am Generous," a summer squash quesadilla, and "I am Bountiful," a gluten-free pasta) are annoying. The food is astronomically priced. Every quinoa-laden plate asks customers, "What are you grateful for?" It comes off like a parody of Southern California's cultish obsession with healthy living.

But silly monikers and sillier prices are the least of Café Gratitude's weirdness. Once you dig below its macrobiotic exterior, a portrait of the company emerges that can best be described as "cute" (Thanks, Jess C. from Yelp!) and worst described as high-pressure and high-priced (No thanks, Skeptical Vegan!).

According to a 2009 East Bay Express exposé on the restaurant, managers and owners describe it as "a school of transformation disguised as a cafe." The methods in which employees are expected to "transform" are what some people, former personnel included, find questionable.

The restaurant's business model, which the owners have dubbed "Sacred Commerce," integrates spirituality into their profit-making. In order to infuse the company with positive energy, employees are strongly encouraged to participate in the Landmark Forum, a program "designed to bring about positive, permanent shifts in the quality of [one's] life—in just three days." Matthew Engelhart and Terces Lane, the founders of Café Gratitude, met at one such forum.

Landmark, a for-profit enterprise, is a trusted ally of companies—big and small—looking to increase the "personal productivity" of their employees; higher-ups at Reebok, Panda Express, and Lululemon have sung their praises, alongside comparatively tiny operations like Café Gratitude. Enlightenment … and capitalism? Working hand in hand? You better believe Apple's one of their clients.

But some people say Café Gratitude is a little too encouraging of participation in the Landmark Forum, which starts at several hundred dollars for a workshop (at least they foot half the bill). Ash Ritter, the former manager of a now-shuttered San Francisco location of the chain, claims she was demoted and fired for refusing to sign up for Landmark classes. She's not the only one to make such accusations.

In fact, Café Gratitude closed all of its San Francisco-area locations in 2011 due to lawsuits from disgruntled former employees, who claimed they were punished for not embracing the ethos of Landmark (and, therefore, the ethos of Gratitude). They, in short, refused to drink the company's (organic) Kool-Aid, which led to their dismissal.

It makes sense to be wary of Landmark. The program is the descendant of est, a pseudo-spiritual organization that was wildly popular in the seventies and eighties, but also mired in controversy, especially when it came to their use of "attack therapy," wherein participants were verbally berated until they had a "breakthrough" (and, often, an emotional breakdown). Immediately before a 60 Minutes exposé on the company was set to air in 1991, est founder Werner Erhard left the country, signing over rights to his brother, who in turn founded Landmark.

Landmark uses est-like strategies in their immersive, weekend-long workshops, which are designed to result in "breakthroughs" for participants. A 2009 Mother Jones investigative report presented it as an emotionally grueling process (with only one meal per 13-hour day and few breaks) that ends with a hard sell on the next class.

Landmark is a commercial enterprise, and it reportedly takes that role seriously. People who have participated in the Forum, including the Mother Jones writer, say teachers actively encourage participants to take more courses with them and to recruit friends and family.

The organization is firm on its website that "Neither Landmark nor its programs are spiritual, religious, or cult-like in any way." While they may emphasize recruitment, they certainly don't isolate anyone from their families, sacrifice helpless animals, or murder movie stars for kicks. They do, however, promise "a new and unique kind of freedom and power"—if you're willing to pay the price, buy into the dogma, and maybe tell your friends.

And Café Gratitude isn't a cult, it's just a restaurant. But it's one that's been repeatedly accused of pressuring employees to get on board with Landmark's specific form of transformation.

The same thing that has made LA susceptible to cult-like influences and health-related promises since its earliest days—its population of migrants and directionless dreamers, seeking to find themselves or get healthy by any means necessary—today makes it susceptible to an equally-convincing brand of marketing and commercialism. Café Gratitude promises awareness and self-growth via a restaurant job, one in which you can either swim or sink based on how willing you are to give yourself to your employer, which in my opinion makes it just another cult of capitalism. I am Not Surprised. —Megan Koester
· How Cultists, Quacks, and Naturemenschen Made Los Angeles Obsessed With Healthy Living [Curbed LA]
· Cults Week [Curbed LA]