Spectacular Failures - Sqirl finds itself in a jam (Transcript)
Read the transcript for our episode “Sqirl finds itself in a jam.”
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Here’s a fun little fact that you might not know about this show — we do a lot of reporting. Another fun fact: Our reporting takes us to lots of interesting, glamorous places like Columbus, Ohio and Rochester, New York, and Biloxi, Mississippi. And when we arrive, the first thing my producer Whitney and I do is figure out where to eat.
Whitney and I are what I would call “special needs” eaters. Whitney is a vegan so he’s a real pill to dine with (just kidding, he’s not). And I am both a vegetarian and a person with substantial food finickiness. So we can’t just swing by a Five Guys and call it a day.
Whitney: As soon as we land, we're like, okay, where are the vegetarian-friendly... Lauren: Right.
Whitney: ...options for us?
That’s Whitney. Duh.
In January 2020, also known as the “Before Times”, Whitney and I flew to Los Angeles to report a story on teen dream clothing empire Forever 21. By the way, that was an excellent episode and you should totally check it out.
When we arrived at our Best Western Plus in LA’s Koreatown neighborhood, we fired up the ol’ Yelp machine and began plotting our meals.
Whitney: I think the night before we just looked around and Sqirl was one of the ones that popped up and I think it had good reviews on Yelp.
If you didn’t catch the restaurant name, it’s Sqirl. S-Q-I-R-L, which is both an economical and an impossibly cool way to spell it. And Whitney was right about those reviews. Just let me share a particularly breathless one with you. It comes from elite Yelper Bob V. of Asheville, North Carolina:
Bob V’s Yelp review [read by David]: “The tangy French sheep feta. The dark, richly flavored pesto. The perfectly poached egg. All these flavors and textures, in various combinations, made each forkful a wild and dreamy ride into the land of foodie nirvana.”
Bob V. was really feeling himself in this review. He continues, writing about the restaurant’s famed ricotta toast.
Bob V’s Yelp review cont. [read by David]: “...This ricotta was elevated to the point that it became a cloud in its own right - creamy, oh-so-light lushness with a mild but distinctive flavor that brought my palate to its knees. Angels in the REAL heaven ain't playin' no harps - they're eating this toast.”
What I’m trying to tell you is that people loved this restaurant. Which was news to me.
Lauren: I didn't know anything about it, did you?
Whitney: I did not. Never heard of it before.
So on our last day in L.A., we piled into our rental car and drove to Sqirl. It’s in a neighborhood called Virgil Village that has been home to tons of immigrant groups over the years. Though these days it has a bit of a different complexion.
But at the time, Whitney and I knew nothing about Sqirl or the pale-ification of the neighborhood. We just knew we could find a decent breakfast there.
Whitney: So, here's what I've been able to determine here.
Lauren: Tell me.
Whitney: On January 15, 2020, at 10:16am pacific time, we were in Sqirl.
Lauren: At Sqirl.
Whitney: ...And Clyde W. took our order.
It’s true! It says so right there on the receipt. But I am sorry to this man Clyde W., for I do not remember him. Only his mustache.
Sqirl is a counter-service restaurant with white-washed walls and an aesthetic with a capital A. In non-corona times, it has a line out the door. Whitney got a fancy tater tot sort of business with marinated vegetables and I got an omelet cooked in a skillet because I am truly basic. And our meals were… totally fine.
Whitney: I feel like it was exactly what I would expect from a place like... it was like an upscale vegan breakfast. It gave the impression of using slightly better or at least more wordy ingredients.
Not exactly a five-star review from young Whitney.
By this part in the story, you might be like, girl, get to the point. Who cares where y’all ate breakfast?
But here’s the thing, Whitney and I didn’t know it then, but we were eating at a restaurant that six months later would be embroiled in a very sticky mess… thanks to its Instagram-famous jam, and some fungi found therein.
I’m Lauren Ober and from American Public Media, this is the season finale of Spectacular Failures, the show that thinks failure always needs a little more seasoning.
So, Virgil Village, this neighborhood we drove to for breakfast that one morning? It’s a splinter of a community wedged between East Hollywood and Silver Lake. It’s technically a neighborhood within a neighborhood, making up East Hollywood’s eastern-most edge.
And like so many of the country’s urban neighborhoods, Virgil Village has seen waves of immigration. When one group leaves and another arrives, what is left is a crazy quilt of cultural touchstones — a Ukranian Orthodox church down the street from a kitschy Caribbean restaurant, which is down the street from a Latinx grocery that used to be a Japanese market. The Filipino barber shop becomes the Guatemalan barber shop. It’s a color wheel of humanity.
Samanta Helou Hernandez has lived in Virgil Village since 2014. Back when she moved to the neighborhood, Virgil Village was solidly Central American. You could tell from the businesses that populated the neighborhood's main artery, Virgil Avenue.
Samantha Helou Hernandez: A lot of the businesses there cater to the Central American population. So there's Pentecostal churches, there's a Salvadoran restaurant, there are taco vendors, pupusa vendors, a vitamin store that caters to the Latino population.
Helou Hernandez is a journalist who has been documenting changes in her neighborhood through her Instagram account, “This Side of Hoover”. And by changes we mean the G-word — gentrification.
Samantha Helou Hernandez: So in the last, I would say 10 years, there's been a lot of change. And it's intensified recently. So a lot of mom and pop immigrant businesses closing down and being replaced by places by things like wine bars and bagel shops, and businesses that cater to more affluent, oftentimes whiter demographic.
Helou Hernandez attributes this change in part to hipster creep. Virgil Village flanks the ultra-cool and long-ago-gentrified neighborhood of Silver Lake. And over the years, the Silver Lake aesthetic bled into Virgil Village. Helou Hernandez’s multicultural neck of the woods began to look more and more like a Silver Lake annex.
And here’s the Silver Lake stereotype: it’s the sort of place where everyone looks like they make sustainable floral installations, or art-direct Wes Anderson films, or just do yogalates and drink ethical hemp milk smoothies all day. And all of them are cooler than you.
Helou Hernandez says folks in the neighborhood noticed a sort of flip happen in Virgil Village around 2012.
Samantha Helou Hernandez: A lot of people see Sqirl, which officially opened up as like a restaurant in 2012, like that's kind of like when everything really shifted.
In 2011, a Long Beach native named Jessica Koslow took out a lease on 720 North Virgil Avenue. She found the space on Craigslist and figured it would be perfect for her new enterprise — artisanal jams that she’d sell at local farmers’ markets.
She told a reporter for the food website, Eater: “My cheat is this shitty corner on Virgil and Marathon. The cheat is, like, I pay two dollars per square foot.” Which for an 800-square-foot space meant that her rent was less than peanuts.
Now I’m sure that the Chinese carryout, the Latino party supply store and the Pentecostal Estudios Biblicos with whom Koslow shared the block wouldn’t call their stretch of road “shitty.” But there you go.
She called her spot “Sqirl”.
CLIP [Jessica Koslow, Positively Gotham Girl Podcast]: Sqirl is, squirreling things away is an old-time preserving term, and it’s a girl who’s squirreling.
That’s Koslow on the Positively Gotham Girl Podcast.
Samantha Helou Hernandez: Quickly after that, she started a pop up with G&B coffee, which is a coffee shop here in LA, and started serving toast.
Toast? Flipping toast?!
Samantha Helou Hernandez: Yeah, I mean, I think initially it was using the toast in order to showcase the jam that she was making, so...
For Koslow, jam was the jumping off point. Which she explained in this video from Westwood Westwood:
CLIP [Jessica Koslow, Westwood Westwood]: You know, when I started Sqirl, I was hiding behind the jam. I was letting that jam speak for me. When I opened Sqirl as a restaurant, I realized that the door was open to people actually seeing me and experiencing not only the food, but also who I was.
Sqirl’s jam brought people in the door. Like the late celebrated food writer Jonathan Gold, who paid Koslow’s cafe a visit in December 2012. His review stopped just short of exaltation. He wrote:
“...if you enjoy chaos as much as you do toast smeared with chocolate ganache and almond-hazelnut butter; toast with poached egg, lemon zest and cream; toast served with quince paste and transparent slices of prosciutto; or toast crowned with fried egg and greens, Sqirl may well be your favorite place in the city.”
Given Gold’s preeminent position in L.A.’s food writing scene, his endorsement was as good as a Michelin star. The dude loved Sqirl. So did just about every other food critic who sampled Koslow’s cuisine.
Samantha Helou Hernandez: The New York Times dubbed it “downright revolutionary.”
LA Weekly food writer Besha Rodell wrote: “Sqirl has everything I want, on one plate, over and over again.” L.A. Magazine’s Randy Clemens gushed: “I’ve developed a huge food crush on Koslow.”
Samantha Helou Hernandez: So it got a lot of reviews very early on and, kind of was kind of like a viral sensation.
And in the age of social media, once you have hype, you have crowds.
Samantha Helou Hernandez: Sqirl kind of became infamous for this long line that wraps around the block as people wait to order their breakfast or lunch.
If you don’t believe her, just check Google Street View. You can see the line there.
Now, there is very little I will wait in line for. But Sqirl had the goods to back up the hype. Especially their jams. In 2014, Serious Eats named Sqirl’s bespoke fruit spreads to its list of Best Jams and Preserves in the USA, noting: “The vibrant boysenberry jam was our all-time favorite...perhaps our favorite berry jam ever...until we tasted the rare Youngberry version, which tastes like a dream where blackberries and blueberries merge into one incredible fruit.”
Honestly, I don’t know from jam. I’ve just never thought that much about it. Which is why I called up my new favorite jamologist. Actually she’s a master preserver, but jamologist just sounds more fun.
Joyce Goldstein: My name is Joyce Goldstein. I'm a retired chef. I have written 28 cookbooks. And my most recent book is Jam Session, A Fruit Preserving Handbook. And I've been putting up preserves for, oh god, 50 years.
Joyce Goldstein: I'm a grandma honey. I'm 85.
I figured Joyce, with her infinite jam wisdom, could walk us through some of the nuances of this food that many of us likely take for granted. First, it’s taxonomy time!
Joyce Goldstein: Jam is when you chop up the fruit, you don't keep individual whole berries, everything is chopped up, cooked with sugar and lemon juice.
How about preserves?
Joyce Goldstein: I call something a preserve when I keep the fruit whole.
Ooo friends, we’re just getting going. Conserve:
Joyce Goldstein: That's when things like nuts or raisins have been added to it.
Joyce Goldstein: Which have vinegar and spices, and fruit in big chunks.
Joyce Goldstein: With citrus fruit, peel, and juice.
Joyce Goldstein: From Italy and it's a fruit preserve that has olio di senape, mustard oil added to it so it's sweet but it's got this kick at the end.
Joyce Goldstein: Jelly is the trickiest of all. It's when the fruit and sugar are cooked down and then drained through something called a jelly bag although you could rig one up with cheesecloth and a colander and the liquid drips down and then you cook that up, and it gels.
Wooo! We did it. Great job everyone.
I asked Joyce what’s the mark of a really great jam.
Joyce Goldstein: Well, texture and flavor. For me, I like jams that have a little acidity that aren't too sweet. That's too cloying, and I hate it. And the quality of the fruit that you buy is also crucial.
On this last point, Joyce is unwavering. The fruit should have some firmness and absolutely not be overripe. It needs to be inviting, even seductive. It can’t be some dumpy, bottom-of-the-barrel situation.
Joyce lives in California and basically puts up jams and preserves all year long. She’s never tried Sqirl’s jams before, but why would she have? She hasn’t needed to buy jam in 35 years.
Joyce Goldstein: I did an inventory a couple months ago. And I have, oh my God, I don't know how much. I must have over 400 or 500 jars right now.
So yeah, you could say jam...is her jam. I’m sorry. I should be canceled for that.
Joyce’s jams go far beyond your average jar of Smuckers. She makes mango lime jam, and raspberry rose jam, and carrot ginger jam. They’re like the vintage Italian sports cars of jam — handmade with care, lots of sex appeal, and packed with joie de vivre.
So too is Sqirl jam. Like Pearl Jam. But with less vocal growl. Anyway.
Jessica Koslow’s restaurant might stand out for its lines around the block and its unique take on the now-ubiquitous grain bowls. But what it’s really known for is its jam. So, naturally, I had to try it.
Sqirl’s website said there was a place near me that carried its jam. It was a fancy wine and beer shop with a very burly bearded guy behind the counter.
Lauren: Have you ever had this before?
Steve: Oh yeah, Mmmhmm.
Lauren: What do you think about it?
Steve: It’s some of the best jam I’ve ever had. I don't even like jam. That’s the only jam I eat.
With that endorsement, I bought three jars of Sqirl jam at $12.99 a pop — blackberry-Meyer lemon, olallieberry and something called June and Rich Lady peach jam. Forty-one dollars and 31 cents later, I was ready to get my jam on.
But toasting some bread, whacking some jam on it and eating by myself didn’t sound like much fun. So I asked my producer David to swing by and help me recreate Sqirl’s famed ricotta toast.
Oh, sorry — you don’t know about Sqirl’s famed ricotta toast? Here’s the Food Network’s Claire Thomas raving about it.
CLIP [Claire Thomas on Food Network]: It’s absolutely beautiful, you want to instagram it immediately. You have this giant thick slice of brioche, beautiful whipped ricotta on top and not one but three jams in a row. Now the question is how do you attack this? It’s basically the size of a porterhouse. So I don’t think I should lift it up and eat it unless you want to see me with a big ricotta mustache.
Which I most certainly do.
Anyway, I bought the last loaf of brioche bread at my local bakery and I grabbed a tub of ricotta from the grocery store. Then David came over and we were ready to make toast!
Lauren: I'm gonna wash my hands first because, since this is partially about food safety.
David: Yes, smart.
I cut the brioche into huge slabs, just like they serve at Sqirl.
Lauren: It is like almost too big for my toaster oven, they're enormous.
Once the bread finished toasting, we cracked open our ricotta and jams.
Lauren: So what do we have here? Tell me what kind we got here.
David: Okay. First thing we have is an olallieberry jam. Which I looked up and is a cross of different kinds of blackberries with some raspberry ancestors in there.
Lauren: Raspberry ancestors?
David: Correct. So some of those blackberries were descended from raspberries as well.
Lauren: Oh my god.
The two Sqirl berry jams looked fresh and had a perfumey sort of bouquet. The peach jam looked like baby food and smelled like it, too. Sorry.
I smeared about a quarter of a pound of ricotta on our respective brioche bricks. Then I made a little well in the cheese for the streaks of jam to settle into. I artfully spooned out a bit of each flavor onto David’s bread, but I kept mine purely berry because the peach business was giving me Gerber flashbacks.
Then we were ready to tuck in.
David: Well, here we go.
Lauren: It's enormous. How do you fit it all in your mouth?
David: Mmm. That is good though.
Lauren: Is it?
David: The cheese goes surprisingly well with the jam. Like I did not expect that.
But for real, David was really vibing with that toast.
David: I think, I think that the consistency of the cheese, of the ricotta, with the bread is really good and then like the jam just like kind of glosses elegantly right on the top there.
Lauren: Hmm? Glosses elegantly?
David: It just like...it merges well together. I’d say. The bite is pretty nice, I’d say.
Lauren: Okay, it’s a cohesive bite. Have you been watching food TV cuz that's what it sounds like?
David: I have not but I know I know the buzzwords.
Um, hi, Food Network? We’re your next breakout stars.
I can see why people are into this toast. It’s an elevated version of a breakfast staple that feels novel and tastes fresh. This ain’t some Smuckers/Wonder Bread operation.
But there’s one more thing about our little culinary copy job:
Lauren: Here's the great news.
David: What's the great news?
Lauren: None of these jams had mold in them.
David: That's true. I don't see a speck of mold.
Now why would that even be on my mind? Why would I think that there was a possibility that this jam could be moldy? Well, we are a show about failure. So something’s bound to be bad.
In July, amid a pandemic that shut down restaurants around the country, Sqirl got caught up in a food flap that very nearly could have ended them. A photo surfaced of moldy jam, the internet did what the internet does best and the whole thing spiraled out of control.
When we come back, how that very unappetizing photo of mold made its way around the internet. Plus, what even is mold? And what do you do when your reputation has been put through a fruit grinder? Yeah, that’s a thing.
By day, Joe Rosenthal is a mathematician in St. Paul, Minnesota. His work involves improving cancer diagnostics through deep learning. But in his spare time, Rosenthal writes about food. Or more accurately, he’s a self-described “food antagonist” who creates elaborate Instagram stories about food.
Joe Rosenthal: You know, I started out just posting pictures of my food on Instagram. You know, I was learning to make pizza. And, I’d post pictures as I was doing it. And, I made a lot of friends in the pizza world. And so I would kind of just become familiar with what was going on there.
Rosenthal had a blog — Richard Eaglespoon dot com —and he started writing about folks in the pizza industry who were, in his words, “problematic figures.”
Joe Rosenthal: You know I was kind of saying, like, Hey, you know, like, this is a problem, you know, we need to stop promoting these people, you know, in the pizza world. I was kind of viewed as the antagonist, you know, I was disrupting the status quo. And the industry wanted to maintain that.
Rosenthal continued his food antagonism with extensive, almost obsessive, Instagram stories. Mostly about complaints of racial and economic inequalities at food media giant, Bon Appetit. And then he read a tweet from food writer Alicia Kennedy.
Joe Rosenthal: It was on Saturday, July 11 in the morning that I saw it. And she tweeted, you know, something interesting or, you know, something going on at @sqirltruth. It's this Instagram account that was kind of highlighting issues that employees were having at Sqirl.
Neither Rosenthal nor Kennedy can remember exactly how the tweet read. And Kennedy later deleted it. But that “something interesting” proved too enticing to Rosenthal.
Joe Rosenthal: There wasn't like a smoking gun, but it seemed like oh, okay, something's going on here. And I don't know why, but I kind of just started digging into it.
Now would be a good place to note that Rosenthal has never eaten at Sqirl. He’s in St. Paul, Sqirl is in LA. He didn’t know the owner, Jessica Koslow, or any of her employees. And despite his blog and instagram account, he isn’t a food journalist.
But Rosenthal is a guy with some time on his hands.
He beat the bushes until a former employee finally told him what the issue was: mold. In the house jam. That same jam that was used to make a bazillion portions of that famed ricotta toast.
Joe Rosenthal: Okay, mold. You know, food molds. But when I hear like, the house jam is moldy, I wanted to know like, is this a regular thing and who knew about it and what was going on with the mold.
And then came the photo. It landed in Rosenthal’s DMs from the account of a former Sqirl employee. It’s on the web now, but I’ll describe it for you in case you’re too grossed out to look. Imagine a clear 3-gallon commercial kitchen bucket with four long spatulas rising like Excalibur from a mass of red jam. And crumpled on top of the jam are rough ribbons of what looks to be ashy blue-green mold.
To be clear, the mold photo was taken in late 2019 and is not of a bucket of house jam, but rather the discarded mold scraped from other containers.
But scraping mold off? Dr. Linda Harris says that’s a big no-no. Harris is a food safety microbiologist at UC Davis. And she knows all about the stuff in our food that maybe shouldn’t be there.
Lauren: Do you have a favorite mold? Is that a crazy question? Are you like, you’re nuts. Is there a mold that’s like super cool? Like, oh, what a cool dude that mold is?
Linda Harris: So I have a favorite bacteria.
Lauren: You have a favorite bacteria!
Linda Harris: But I don't really have a favorite mold, I’ll have to be honest.
Just for the record, Harris’ favorite bacteria is salmonella. Oh my god me, too! Twins!
Harris says the problem with food mold is that it’s microscopic.
Linda Harris: You know, by the time you see the mold, there's a lot of mold.
And generally, you can’t just scrape off the mold and go on about your day. And to those of you yelling bleu cheese at me while you listen, yeah I know, some mold is good.
But the problem with mold on things like artisanal jams is...
Linda Harris: When you see something on the surface there might also be what we call mycelia growing below the surface as well that is not as clearly visible.
Lauren: Is it like an iceberg?
Linda Harris: Yeah, exactly. A little bit like an iceberg.
So basically, you can get rid of the mold on top, but there could be lots of little mold buddies way down in there.
And apart from just being gross to look at, food mold can be dangerous. Particularly for people who have allergies to mycotoxins, which some molds produce. And I’m sorry but when your grandma said “Just cut it off” about moldy bits, she was wrong. You really just need to chuck anything that has mold and shouldn’t.
Our resident jamologist, Joyce Goldstein is also a multi-James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur. And she says that serving jam in that kind of shape is also just bad business:
Joyce Goldstein: Your greatest fear is to have someone get sick in your restaurant. I mean, my God, it's a lawsuit. It's horrible. And I would never, ever serve anything that had mold on top, even if you spooned the mold off. It should be dumped.
I want to be really clear about this — there is no record of any complaints to the county health department in L.A. about anything moldy at Sqirl. And in a statement provided to us, Jessica Koslow says “In eight years of Sqirl the restaurant, I’m not aware of a single complaint related to a customer getting sick from anything mold-related.” She goes on to note that no employees ever complained about work environment-related health issues either.
Still some employees had concerns about what they saw over the years. Like what was depicted in that photo.
Balo Orozco started working at Sqirl in 2016. Before that he had worked at restaurants in New York and Mexico. Orozco liked the vibe at Sqirl and he was proud of the food he was making. But...
Balo Orozco: But and then there was like a few things like, I don't know, I saw moldy jam and I was like, this is trash. I was putting it in the trash. And I was told no, just take it off, you know, and it's fine. But and then it’s like ok...
Lauren: Who told you? Can I interrupt? Who told you to do that? Like, “No, it's fine. Don't worry about it.”
Balo Orozco: Jess. Jessica.
Orozco says he and other employees knew about the mold situation. But the general public was unaware. All that changed once Rosenthal posted the photo on an Instagram story called “The Fungal.” Then the Sqirl haters were off to the races. Thus began #moldgate, a brief but blistering social media flareup.
Tim tweeted: “Is it bad that I'm totally giddy at watching the Sqirl empire crumble?” Marissa F: “[I]s it bad that im kinda living for the Sqirl mold scandal.” Bonnie Liu: “Sqirl mold drama! I cannotttt,” followed by shocked ghost emoji.
Alicia Kennedy: I mean, schadenfreude is very powerful.
That’s Alicia Kennedy, the food writer whose initial tweet set Rosenthal’s investigation in motion.
Alicia Kennedy: You know, we love to tear people down. We love to see successful people fall which is a, you know, just a fascinating human tendency.
Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I think things might have been different if Koslow was a dude.
Alicia Kennedy: And I do think of course there was a lot of misogyny in the response to her being taken down because at the same time Sqirl was very unapologetically in its aesthetic and in its food, feminine.
I mean her signature item was handcrafted jam not like a T-bone steak. And while moldy jam is bad, it’s still pretty low on the list of bad chef behavior.
Alicia Kennedy: It might not have been as big a story if she were a male chef, because we've come to kind of expect it.
But women in the food industry have to thread the finest of needles. You can’t be a jerk, your food has to be perfect and you have to manage to keep everyone happy with a lot less access to capital and other kinds of support.
The world does not cut female bosses one bit of slack. The internet, even less.
So naturally, Sqirl’s popularity pre-mold made them a huge target once that photo came out. It seemed like almost every online food writer took a swipe at Koslow and her restaurant. And big publications like GQ, the Washington Post and New York magazine also wrote about the brouhaha.
Even late-night hosts Desus and Mero got in the mix.
CLIP [Desus and Mero]: You guys want some L.A. goss now?/ L.A. goss! Gimme some L.A. goss!/ A moldy bucket of Sqirl Jam is making the internet lose its mind./ Yeah, listen, shoutout to y’all for putting me onto this. ...
Once that initial wave of bad press crashed over Sqirl, more in-depth reporting by folks like Helou Hernandez and Kennedy began to emerge. And according to former employees, the issues at Sqirl weren’t just about some bad jam.
There was an unlicensed secondary kitchen that employees said they felt unsafe in. Some employees claimed they had to hide in that space when health inspectors came. Though Koslow through her reps said that the health department was working with the restaurant to bring the second kitchen up to code.
There was also an issue of credit and who got it and who didn’t. Now, this is a dicey issue and Sqirl’s PR folks sent me pages of links to employees being praised in the media. But, as Koslow received accolades from the food press, some former employees, like Balo Orozco, felt like she was taking credit for dishes that she didn’t create.
Balo Orozco: Do you need to take also the credit for like, oh, I did all these dishes? Or this is mine, this is my recipe; it’s like, this is your restaurant and people work for you and this is the people who are working for you, you know. As a cook, as any cook, it's so hard to be recognized. You know, and it's so hard to get to a different level that people said, I appreciate you something so maybe you can do something on your own.
And coronavirus exposed other bad feelings. In the early days of the lockdown, staff wanted to create a GoFundMe for Sqirl employees. But they claim Koslow objected to them using Sqirl’s name for legal reasons. Journalist Helou Hernandez talked to more than 20 current and former Sqirl staff for her story about the issues at the restaurant.
Samanta Helou Hernandez: When the pandemic hit, which really exposed everyone's vulnerabilities, they felt that Jessica wasn't really there to support them. So it was, you know, all these little aggressions that had added up for them. And then Jessica refusing to support the GoFundMe was really like the straw that broke the camel's back for a lot of the people that were currently there.
Still, Sqirl committed to paying its employees’ health benefits at least through June and it furloughed most folks rather than laying them off. That allowed staff to file for unemployment while the restaurant was closed.
But needless to say it’s been a rough few months for Jessica Koslow.
So what happens to a business that becomes internet-famous and is later brought down by that same internet? How do you even come back from that?
Rick Camac is the dean of restaurant and hospitality management at the Institute of Culinary Education. He’s got 20 years under his belt owning and operating high-end restaurants. And he knows that managing all the different interests is a high wire act. Camac says the restaurant industry is a real…
Rick Camac: ...what have you done for me lately business. Now what has accelerated that times 50 is social media. Somebody on social media can blow you out of the water so easy it’s incredible.
And because of the scourge of influencers and superduper Yelpers and the like, restaurateurs have to make darn sure that consistency is a top priority.
Rick Camac: You've got that challenge of, almost like a Broadway show, you've got to repeat a performance every single day. And you're only as good as yesterday.
And when your yesterday served up a million stories about moldy jam featuring side dishes of unacknowledged work and unlicensed kitchens among other tasty morsels, that can be a rough rebound.
Rick Camac: You know, that's super damaging, and especially in times when we're all supposed to be so sensitive to what we're doing from a food safety, you know, component. I mean one of the courses we teach here is food safety and I can tell you this, you know, there's 20 things wrong with that picture. So, you know, how do you salvage that? I mean, to be perfectly honest, that's a really tough one.
For public-facing businesses like restaurants, reputation is everything. It used to be that a food critic could make or break a restaurant. Now it’s also every person who walks through your door with a Yelp or Instagram account.
Anastasiya Zavyalova is a business professor at Rice University, where she studies reputation management. And she says there’s one especially critical element that can turn the tide of a reputation gone south: trust.
Anastasiya Zavyalova: Trust is an important part and I think they're tightly connected with reputation. Trust, just like reputation, takes time to build. It's not just, you know, one transaction and I think you're a great company, I'm gonna trust you it does take time.
And so Sqirl must build back the trust of its customers, its staff, the community and food media. It’s a tall order, but owner Koslow says they’re working on it. Through her rep, she said:
“The house jam process has been changed over: it is now all done by the same ‘hot pack’ method [and this is my note — that is the method they use for their retail jars of jam], and that process is approved by the California Department of Public Health. Beyond that, we work with an independent food safety professional to make sure we are going above and beyond at Sqirl and Sqirl Away.”
Like so many businesses and celebrities and others who’ve been excoriated by the public, Koslow has had to go on a mea culpa tour of sorts. She wrote: “I am imperfect and I have made mistakes and I am deeply sorry.” She goes on to write “Together, I think we’ll find a way to get back to the place where we all get to hear that ‘really sweet, sweet tune’ I wrote about when it all began.”
But her acts of contrition have been met with mixed results. Which is kind of on par as far as public apologies go these days.
Anastasiya Zavyalova: More and more now with these types of apologies which could be read as just textbook statements, feel one sterile and two...well, people accept them with skepticism.
It’s hard to believe in 2020 that anything as simple as a public apology could ever move the needle. In the age of social media, we are much harder to satisfy and placate. An “I’m sorry” statement often just doesn’t cut it anymore. There must be consequences — jobs must be lost, careers must be dashed, bridges must be burned. The people will get their pound of flesh.
Or maybe they won’t. The news cycle these days is shorter than a gnat’s life. And these internet flash fires have a way of fizzling out almost as soon as they begin.
Balo Orozco, who now runs his own kombucha company, thinks ultimately none of this will change Sqirl’s bottom line.
Balo Orozco: I think she's gonna be just fine. The restaurant is gonna be just fine and it's gonna be busy again once everything is done.
But the Sqirl story is bigger than just one restaurant with some moldy jam. It’s about the way we think about restaurants — who runs them, where are they located and what food do they make. And perhaps most importantly, who works in them. Samanta Helou Hernandez:
Samanta Helou Hernandez: I do hope that this sheds a light on larger issues within the restaurant industry and within the media world, and kind of maybe inspires journalists and other media people to kind of slow down and take into account the stories of workers and to be cautious around creating idols of people without looking deeper at other issues.
If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that restaurant workers are absolutely essential. Thank you for your service, friends. I mean in the middle of a global pandemic people weren’t like “Oh, Lauren, thank you for risking your life for us. Your half-baked jokes really were critical to our survival in this unprecedented time. Your podcast is the bleach and UV light cure-all we have been waiting for.”
Businesses have closed up shop left and right during the pandemic. And that’s rough because we know that the knock-on effects can be devastating — for families, communities, our whole economic enterprise. If nothing else, this time has required us to recalibrate, retack, reimagine our visions for ourselves and our work. It’s also allowed us to demand what we need from businesses — accountability, sustainability, more delicious takeout options.
Maybe it’ll lead us to a future with fewer failures. Or maybe it’ll build up our bounce-back muscles for when things do fall apart. Or maybe we’ll all just be a little more thoughtful when it comes to how we conduct our business. Who knows? But here’s hoping.
Spectacular Failures is a production of American Public Media. It’s written and hosted by me, fruit-phobic finicky person Lauren Ober. Semi-pro bread baker Whitney Jones is the show’s producer. Our editor is jam connoisseur Phyllis Fletcher. Toast maker David Zha is our assistant producer. Our theme music is by the delightful David Schulman. Other original music this season comes from Jenn Champion and Michael Cormier. This season was fact-checked by Ryan Katz and Tarri Ryan. Legal by Mark Anfinson. Kristina Lopez is our Audience Engagement Editor and Lauren Dee is our executive producer. Concept by Tracy Mumford. Alex Schaffert is our COO. The general manager of APM Studios is Lily Kim. Many thanks to all the rest of our APM buds who help make the show possible, especially our engineer Johnny Vince Evans. Special shoutout to my pal Kim Severson for the chats. So much love and gratitude to the following folks: Hanna Rosin, Jess Levy, Family Dinner, the guy from IT who always reset my password, Bianca Grimshaw, Killa K, Big Russ, Dukie O. and his parents who are pretty ok, too, and my mildly deranged dog Raffie, who has been nothing but a pain in the rear during our closet recording sessions.
Raffi: Ruff Ruff...Ruff.