Late last year, local writer Nancy Rommelmann started a YouTube series called #MeNeither. In it, she and columnist Leah McSweeney chat casually and openly about their frustration and mistrust of women involved with the #MeToo movement, in particular activist Asia Argento. It comes across as relaxed conversation, as if its implications don’t carry significant weight, don’t sting any person who’s struggled to be brave in the wake of profound violation and pain.
Rommelmann isn’t just a local writer. She’s the wife of Din Johnson, the co-owner of prominent local coffee roaster Ristretto. So when former Ristretto employee Camila Coddou spotted these YouTube videos and sent out a letter of protest, 30 current and former employees also signed on, saying that Rommelmann’s words didn’t represent their views. And when the letter circulated, it turns out they weren’t alone, either — Portlanders called for boycotts and local grocery chains like New Seasons pulled the company’s coffee from their shelves.
The company’s line, again and again, had been that Rommelmann was not a part of the business, and therefore Coddou and Ristretto’s employees unfairly targeted the company, its staff, Johnson, and herself in “a hugely damaging public row,” in the writer’s words. When the story first broke, this claim was incongruent with business filings, which listed Rommelmann as a manager, and outlets like The Oregonian have evidence that Rommelmann was involved with the business as recently as May 2018. The license information has since changed, albeit irrelevantly so: In January, Rommelmann gained access to Ristretto’s official Twitter account, which was used for promotional and brand-building purposes, and went on a now-deleted Twitter rant criticizing Coddou and Portland’s “outrage culture.”
Now, the since-deleted the Twitter thread has re-emerged in the form of an essay written by Rommelmann for the website Quillette. In it, she presents the outrage as a vindictive, petty campaign designed by a disgruntled former employee that is unfairly hurting her husband’s employees.
“The mob did not seem to notice (or mind) that Camila’s email had created precisely the kind of ‘demoralizing and hostile environment for employees’ it was ostensibly intended to prevent,” she writes. “Young staff now worried that maybe the next crazed college girl would do more than scream; that they’d lose their jobs (and health insurance) if Ristretto were forced to close; that I—a person with whom they’d heretofore had a perfectly congenial relationship—might be a secret monster.”
Rommelmann contends that her personal views should not affect the bottom line of her husband’s business; that because she’s not an official owner, Ristretto’s employees have no reason to feel unsafe or unsupported in their workplace. (The premise that she has no control over the business was immediately debunked when she was able to tweet a self-indulgent rant using the company’s social media accounts.) But in reality, in a moment where consumers in film, TV, and food are becoming increasingly aware of where to vote with their dollars, the impact of her views is inextricably tied to the livelihoods and overall comfort of her husband’s employees.
This moment is particularly pointed, right now, in the hospitality industry. In the past year, the hostile work environments fostered by massive figures like Mario Batali and John Besh have come to light — that environment included allegations of sexual misconduct like those that Rommelmann’s web series tackles. It extends into the world of coffee, as well: In a 2018 lawsuit, eight former employees of Bay Area coffee company Four Barrel detailed stories of sexual harassment and attempted rape by co-owner Jeremy Tooker. It even inspired movements like #coffeetoo, which is dedicated to “empowering coffee professionals with knowledge of their legal rights regarding discrimination and sexual harassment.”
In her piece, Rommelmann insists Ristretto cafes are, in fact, havens for women in the coffee industry. “For all the allegations about female safety, since the company’s founding in 2005, there has never been an internal sexual harassment incident,” she writes. “Most of Din’s hires are and have always been women. He pays his employees competitively, offers paid vacation, and engages in Direct Trade with many coffee farmers.”
But Rommelmann’s decision to start her series in the first place actively contradicts everything she says the company tries to foster. To those speaking out against her web series, it must be particularly disheartening to see Rommelmann challenge and disregard women who have come forward publicly, especially as it becomes increasingly obvious that #MeToo stories are particularly pervasive — and underreported — in the hospitality industry. For those currently working for Johnson, it’s not unlikely that they might see Rommelmann, once a potential ally, as someone who will not be in their corner if they have something to report. And if Ristretto has an issue in the future, all those employees might think twice before reaching out to management.
Let’s assume Ristretto is the haven for women Rommelmann has claimed it is. In that case, Rommelmann is right: A business with no bad actors and a lot of female employees will go under, all because of a few conversations recorded on YouTube. The murky, in-between targets of boycotts, the collateral damage of “outrage culture,” is not a myth Rommelmann made up. It extends beyond Ristretto, beyond coffee shops, beyond restaurants tied up in the #MeToo era: There are a lot of good people who are hurt when viral cascades of outrage break.
Still, no one is obligated to spend their money, period. People decide not to support businesses for reasons far more flippant than a boycott — a lack of parking, a less-than-desirable bathroom, a sandwich that is $1 more expensive than it should be. Citizens have their own rights to free speech, to say the idea of mocking survivors of sexist violence is disgusting and shameful, to even suggest boycotts of companies that, in one way or another, protect bad actors.
Rommelmann had the right to start her YouTube series, but her lack of foresight, her inability to foresee that other people — her husband, her husband’s employees — may suffer because of her words, is on her, not those who choose to boycott her business. Rommelmann’s open (and tacky) critique of former employee Coddou fails to recognize that her outrage — Portland’s outrage — is based on public YouTube videos anyone can see. Coddou didn’t have to concoct a negative portrait of Rommelmann; she did that all on her own.