More than half a dozen staffers at the New York City-based green tea chain Cha Cha Matcha — best known for its flashy, millennial pink branding and celebrity clientele, including many of the Kardashians — allege that the company’s co-founders have engaged in problematic company practices related to hiring, promotional giveaways, and the payment of their employees.
In dozens of Instagram comments and in separate interviews with Eater, former employees alleged that Cha Cha Matcha co-owners Conrad Sandelman and Matthew Morton screened employees’ appearances during job interviews; declined to pay employees for their final two weeks of employment in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, despite distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in free merchandise to celebrities in previous months; and appeared in recently resurfaced Instagram photos that staffers labeled as offensive and culturally appropriative.
Staffers’ complaints came to the fore early last month after the chain started posting a series of messages to its Instagram page addressing the widespread, ongoing protests against police brutality. The posts — which were published on June 1, June 2, and June 3 — outlined Cha Cha Matcha’s stance on racial inequality and announced the company’s intention to donate $25,000 to local Black-led civil rights groups.
“As white owners of a business that employs and serves many people of color, there is no more standing on the sidelines,” the message by owners Morton and Sandelman reads. “As a company, we have a lot to learn.”
But soon after the posts went up, a host of Instagram users who identified themselves as former employees posted a litany of complaints alleging the workplace culture Morton and Sandelman fostered contradicted the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Black Lives Matter is a people’s movement,” according to an NYC-based former manager who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from Cha Cha Matcha’s owners. “This has never been a people’s company. It’s a company for celebrities.”
The company has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Sandelman and Morton, 27 and 28, debuted the first location of Cha Cha Matcha on Soho’s Broome Street in 2016. In the four years since, the Japanese green tea chain has marketed its matcha as the beverage of choice for celebrities and influencers in New York City and Los Angeles. The company has partnered with major fashion brands like Kith and Versace, while its drinks have appeared in photographs with models Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid.
The company quickly gained a following due to its celebrity endorsements, but it was also poised for success due to Morton’s family affiliations with the restaurant industry: His father, Peter Morton, is the co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe line of restaurants and casinos, which was sold to the Seminole Tribe of Florida for nearly $1 billion in 2006. Cha Cha Matcha now operates six stores in New York City and Los Angeles, with a seventh location planned for the West Coast, according to the company’s website.
The company’s fast rise, though, has come at the expense of staffers, former employees say.
During interviews with Eater, former workers in the company’s Los Angeles and NYC stores allege that Sandelman and Morton screened employees’ appearances via Facetime during the application process to ensure that they adhered to the brand’s aesthetic. Multiple staffers in both cities said this was referred to as a “fit-for-look” call, though some employees reported that the interview occurred in person.
Sandelman allegedly made the final decision on whether an applicant was hired or not, according to the former manager in NYC. “I had someone once who I really advocated for,” they said. “They seemed like a great fit for the job, and Conrad just said ‘No.’ He didn’t think they fit the vibe,” which the manager described as “hot and attractive.”
“Mine only lasted 45 seconds,” recalls Marli Peress, a former employee at the company’s West Hollywood store. “It wasn’t long enough to be an interview. It feels like he wants to check that you fit the store’s aesthetic.” Not unlike the company’s tropical logos and millennial-pink color palette, former workers say that Conrad and Sandelman hired employees to curate a specific “look” in their stores, which Peress described as young, white, and conventionally attractive.
In the six months that Peress worked in the company’s West Hollywood store, she says there “was not one Black person who worked in the West Hollywood location.” Another former staffer, Brandon Colbein, confirmed Peress’ account.
In a lengthy post on Instagram, a commenter — who identified himself as a former NYC manager but who declined to comment for this story due to fear of professional repercussions — added that the company should “stop denying black applicants with great resumes because they don’t fit the overly white Cha Cha aesthetic.”
Cha Cha Matcha stores in New York City and Venice Beach, California, have more diverse staffs, former staffers have pointed out. Morton and Sandelman did not respond to requests for comment.
Cha Cha Matcha is not the first company to be accused of emphasizing applicants’ physical appearances during hiring processes. Abercrombie and Fitch famously included physical attractiveness and “sense of style” as factors in its hiring process until April 2015 — a practice that is likely to lead to discriminatory outcomes.
At Cha Cha Matcha, the company’s alleged obsession with image to the detriment of employee well-being went beyond staffing, though. Roughly half-a-dozen former workers described a marketing strategy in which Sandelman and Morton gave out “lifetime supply cards” to celebrities and influencers, which, prior to February 2020, could be used to acquire unlimited quantities of free merchandise. While it is not uncommon for restaurants to distribute free merchandise as part of their marketing budgets, the difference at Cha Cha Matcha, former employees say, is that the business practice caused “chaos” and discomfort in its stores.
Colbein, who worked at Cha Cha Matcha’s West Hollywood and Venice Beach locations, says the loyalty program was “out of control.” He and other staffers allege that celebrity customers would skip lines, bring friends into the store with them, and order “uncomfortable” quantities of drinks for themselves and their guests, ranging anywhere from $75 to $150 worth of product. “You pretty much just give them whatever they want,” the former NYC manager says, in reference to the shop’s celebrity clientele.
At the company’s West Hollywood flagship store, the practice resulted in approximately $200,000 in free giveaways to celebrities and influencers in 2019 — roughly 20 percent of the store’s sales that year, according to Colbein, who had access to the branch’s point of sales system. Given that those drinks were marked as free, staffers say that celebrities and influencers rarely left tips that matched the cost of orders — let alone at all — despite some of Cha Cha Matcha’s employees being classified as tipped workers by the company.
“They never tipped,” Colbein says, in reference to participants of the loyalty program. “It pissed me off.” Meanwhile, Colbein and his co-workers were paid $14.25 per hour, the minimum wage in Los Angeles for companies with more than 26 employees as of July 2019.
Colbein says that he was offered a job to return to the West Hollywood store in May — as the company was reportedly gearing up to reopen its stores — though he says his contract specified that he would now be paid $12.25, two dollars less than his previous rate, as a result of receiving tips. The minimum untipped wage in Los Angeles for companies who have fewer than 26 employees is $14.25 at the time of writing. In New York, some employees were paid $12.50 before the novel coronavirus pandemic, also as a result of receiving tips.
Staffers say the lifetime card program was changed in February 2020, due to the company giving away thousands of dollars a month in free merchandise. Under the new program, participants in the loyalty program could still receive free drinks and food from Cha Cha Matcha stores, but limits were placed on the sizes of their orders.
Staffers’ frustrations reached a boiling point in March, when former employees say they did not receive their final paychecks prior to the company’s stores closing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. They allege that Sandelman and Morton pledged to pay workers for their shifts for two weeks while Cha Cha Matcha temporarily closed its NYC and Los Angeles stores in mid-March.
But on the day before the promised pay date, staffers say that the company let all of its retail staff go, refused to pay them for those two weeks, and assured employees that they could make more money by collecting unemployment. (While technically true, at the time of the termination, state unemployment websites were overwhelmed nationwide, resulting in weeks-long delays.)
Like many other restaurant owners, the co-founders had also created a GoFundMe campaign for their roughly 70 employees prior to letting them go. Employees say they saw the GoFundMe as a bonus in addition to the two weeks of pay that they had been promised. Once they were fired, however, employees say they only had the GoFundMe money to rely on, which amounted to a little less than $300 per person.
Cha Cha Matcha’s West Hollywood and Venice Beach stores appear to have started accepting delivery orders through Postmates, though the phone lines at both stores have been disconnected.
Staffers say their issues with Sandelman and Morton weren’t just limited to company hiring practices and employee pay, though. Following Cha Cha Matcha’s June 3 Instagram post in support of Black Lives Matter, staffers resurfaced photos of the duo, which they say were offensive and culturally appropriative.
In these photos — which have now been deleted — posted to the co-founders’ Instagram accounts and obtained by Eater, the duo is shown at a party and on the NYC subway wearing costumes, including one that appeared to mock Arab culture, with both men pictured in white robes and keffiyehs. In another post, Morton posted a video of himself dressed as a geisha with the caption “Matt Mo’s of a Geisha,” seemingly referencing the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha. Geisha costumes have long been used to promote harmful stereotypes of Asian women.
“Their elitism is a symptom of their racism,” says Colbein, who says that he decided to quit his job as a barista as a result of the photos.
Another now-deleted image posted to Sandelman’s Instagram account shows a “Make America Great Again” hat with Donald Trump’s signature on the brim. “Got an autograph from my favorite person,” the caption reads. Trump has a demonstrated history of making a litany of racist remarks before and during his presidency, including calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and regularly promoting messages from white supremacists on his Twitter account.
In response to the resurfaced image of a Make American Great Again hat, hundreds of commenters flooded Cha Cha Matcha’s Instagram posts, calling for a boycott of the brand, requesting refunds for past drink orders, and referring to the company’s support of local civil rights groups as “fake” and “pretend activism.” Other commenters demanded that Cha Cha Matcha publish receipts of its donations. The company and its founders have not posted to their Instagram accounts or issued a statement following their June 3 pledge to donate $25,000 to black-led civil rights groups.
Notably, the company’s New York City locations have remained closed at a time when many coffee and tea shops have reopened their doors for counter, delivery, and outdoor dining service.