The Coffee at Large logo.

Image: Felix Tran

Imagine heading to your favorite coffee shop one morning to grab a latte only to find it closed. That’s what happened to customers on June 22, when the Ballard location of Slate Coffee Roasters was unable to open after five baristas and their manager walked out. “As you may notice, there are no baristas here to serve you coffee. Awkward? We know,” read the now-infamous sign in the window. “And you’re probably curious as to why—so we’re happy to explain.”

Samantha Capell gave up a cushy 9-to-5 job as a cafe manager to accept a position at Slate Coffee two years ago. As a career barista, she’s spent the last 11 years honing her craft and was looking forward to learning more from the coffee trainer at Slate. On her first day, Capell discovered the trainer had left the company, but she nevertheless decided to stay on. The new hire rose through the ranks, with promises of higher pay (though she would never see it), and eventually Capell became the company-wide trainer and Ballard shop manager. For 10 months, she worked for Slate, training every barista the company hired before sending them out to work at their respective shops. Things turned sour for Capell in April when upper management stopped sending her new employees to train and, well, stopped communicating with her entirely. Later that same month one of her baristas relayed something they overheard: A new employee claimed to have Capell's job. By mid-June, Capell had been terminated.

Capell’s story is just one of many accounts alleging mistreatment at Slate, which include discrimination, sexism, intimidation, and late and unreceived pay, among other grievances the baristas listed.

Following the walkout, Capell and three other former Slate baristas—Felix Tran, Rachel Hopke, and Jason Beutler—created Coffee at Large, an Instagram account dedicated to sharing stories from the industry. The account has gained close to 7,000 followers since its creation. While the last few weeks have been spent responding to messages of support, Coffee at Large has big plans for the future.

The organization aims to give a voice to those who feel they aren’t being heard. It looks to shed light on the unfair treatment baristas constantly face in the workplace, and to be a leader in an industry where employees are underrepresented and often seen as expendable. The former baristas have also been attending union meetings in hopes of providing support to those looking to take a stand against hostile work environments. Eventually, they want to provide educational training for employers and set new standards for the barista-employer relationship in the specialty coffee industry. 

And in Seattle, that’s not an easy feat. With over 275 coffee shops in the city alone, the majority of which aren't Starbucks locations, Seattle is a hub for roasters and Third Wave cafes.

The key to a healthy workplace? Basic respect and transparency, says Capell, something she feels Slate didn't provide. Seattle Met reached out to the roaster for comment but did not receive a response before press time. Despite a vague if seemingly heartfelt response on Instagram from mother-and-son owners Lisanne and Keenan Walker, who stated their commitment to “work through” the complaints, Capell and her team have yet to hear from the company directly despite multiple attempts to reach out. “It's not uncommon for Slate not to respond. In fact, that was one of the issues we brought up when we left,” she says. “It wasn't unexpected that they wouldn't get back to us.”

For now, it’s all about growth for Coffee at Large. They’re on Twitter and are working towards applying for a nonprofit license to make the movement their full-time jobs. “The response so far has been incredible,” says Capell, “but we’re just getting started.”