The National Labor Relations Board has forced one of Chicago’s chicest bakeries, Lost Larson, to pay more than $2,000 to a former worker after a four-month investigation concluded that owner Bobby Schaffer and his team illegally fired a worker as retaliation for participating in organizing her workplace to raise concerns with management about wages and COVID safety measures.
Lucy Honold, a 31-year-old former worker at Lost Larson’s original location in Andersonville, filed a complaint in November 2021 claiming that Schaffer fired her via email in August 2021 after raising concerns on behalf of colleagues about workplace conditions.
Honold, who began working at the bakery in November 2020, says that just a week before her termination, she requested a demotion from her position as shift lead, citing a lack of support that she felt was necessary to succeed, according to an email reviewed by Eater.
“Organizing with my coworkers was so exciting and the camaraderie I felt with them was incredible,” Honold writes in an email to Eater. “Confronting management was scary. Their dismissal of our concerns was infuriating, and the retaliation that we experienced was demoralizing. It was a period of really intense emotion and moral clarity that will continue to shape how I think about wage labor and capitalism.”
Founded in June 2018, Lost Larson — an Eater Chicago 38 member — debuted to great fanfare on Andersonville’s densely packed main drag, buoyed in part by owner and former pastry chef at three-Michelin-starred Grace, Bobby Schaffer’s fine-dining pedigree (he also worked as executive pastry chef at New York’s fabled Blue Hill at Stone Barns), as well as a void left by the 2017 closure of 88-year-old neighborhood institution Swedish Bakery. Hordes of fans descended on the cafe, forming long lines down the block for laminated pastries, princess cake, and cardamom buns. In January 2021 — slightly under a year into the pandemic — he opened a second outpost in Wicker Park.
Both cafes spent much of the past two years exclusively offering takeout, with Wicker Park opening for indoor customers in June 2021, and Andersonville following suit this past March. As they prepared in May to remove pandemic restrictions in Wicker Park, workers began to grow worried that a rushed transition process could leave them vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure, several former employees told the Tribune, which broke the story.
Inspired in part by unionization efforts at Colectivo Coffee, the Wisconsin-based chain with five Chicago locations that last year formed the largest cafe union in the U.S., Honold says she and her colleagues began to organize themselves to bring their concerns to management. In addition to pandemic safety measures, they felt their wages were not sufficient, especially given the bakery’s popularity and high-profile image in Chicago. Lost Larson around this time also eliminated tipping, instead compensating employees with a flat rate between $15 and $20 per hour, but the change had little financial benefit for workers, according to the Trib.
Meanwhile, largely unaware of the tension behind the scenes at Lost Larson, the increasing politicization of public health measures reached the bakery’s virtual doorstep. Online, patrons who felt entitled to indoor seating began to voice their unhappiness: “I do not mean to sow division or cast aspersions when I say this, but the people who run Lost Larson seemingly have a medical fetish and are marching in lockstep with the corporate-controlled CVid [sic] narrative,” one user wrote in November 2021 on Instagram.
Employees met with Schaffer in late May 2021 to discuss their concerns, and a week later, Honold was reprimanded by email for performance issues, citing an incident when she was recorded on security camera “standing still for too long,” she writes. In Honold’s view, Schaffer hadn’t delivered “a single substantive piece of negative feedback until [she] started having direct conversations with management about concerns that were widely shared among staff.”
On August 2, 2021, Schaffer sent an email to Honold informing her that she was fired, effective immediately that was reviewed by Eater. “Through our previous talks we have determined that your involvement with the company isn’t meshing with our current team,” he wrote, and offered to provide an exit interview. Honold declined, and four months later filed a charge with the NLRB. The parties reached a settlement on March 8, with the NLRB stipulating that management will not fire or “interfere with the right of employees to freely bring issues and complaints regarding safety, wages, communications, training and other terms/conditions of employment to the Employer on behalf of themselves and other employees.”
Management also agreed to “remove from its files all references to the unlawful discharge” and pay Honold lost wages and benefits lost due to the firing. Meanwhile, Honold waived her right to be rehired as she had already found employment at another bakery in the city and more than five of her co-workers had resigned in the days and weeks following her termination: “The only reason I would have gone back to Lost Larson would have been to pick up where I left off with the organizing effort,” Honold writes.
Despite the settlement, Schaffer maintains that “it’s our position that the company complied with the law,” he writes in a statement emailed to Eater. “These cases can prove to be lengthy and expensive; we felt the best course of action was to settle the complaint in order to be able to focus on moving the business forward.”
In addition to its sleek aesthetic and beautiful — if pricey — baked goods, Lost Larson cultivated an image as a progressive hospitality business, making public donations to social justice groups, and at one point adding an optional up-charge for patrons to help fund healthcare coverage for his staff. In his statement, Schaffer also points to paid time off, sick leave, and a recently added 401(k) option – rarities in the hospitality industry at large – as evidence of his attention to workplace culture.
“We care deeply about our employees’ wellbeing and continually strive for a rewarding working environment,” he writes. “We have a wonderful team of employees who work hard each day to provide a welcoming atmosphere alongside our bakers who craft outstanding baked goods.”
Schaffer’s efforts to wave off the specter of illegality isn’t unusual, says labor attorney Mitchell Chaban, a partner at Chicago law firm Levin Ginsburg. But in his view, scenarios like the one Honold reported are precisely what the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 — a foundational statute in labor law that guarantees the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively — is for: to protect workers from retaliation for discussing the terms of their employment.
Though his practice hasn’t seen an influx of similar cases, Chaban has observed parallel scenarios in the hospitality industry in particular. “Unfortunately, this sort of thing is more common than it should be,” he says, attributing that pattern in part to a cultural stigma in the U.S. when it comes to discussion of wages among co-workers. In general, he says, employers are also better informed about their rights and have more resources than the individuals who work for them.
Over the past few years, however, that framework has begun to shift. The union victory at Colectivo, as well as well-publicized labor campaigns at major companies like Starbucks and Amazon, to many have signaled a change in dynamics between employees and management. Though Honold and her colleagues didn’t see similar success in their organizing efforts, she’s satisfied with the outcome of her case and hopes that the resulting publicity will help educate other industry workers about the legal avenues available to them.
“This is a moment in time when I think workers have more leverage than they’ve had in as long as I can remember,” Chaban says. “That’s why I think someone like [Honold] is able to say ‘I don’t want my job back’ and can just move on. They have that power.”