Nationally-known Virgil Village restaurant Sqirl came under fire over the weekend after allegations of questionable food handling practices and mistreated employees found their way to social media. Owner Jessica Koslow spent at least a portion of the weekend defending her mega-popular daytime spot — known for its toasts, jams, sorrel pesto rice bowls, and long lines, even during the pandemic — from online allegations that the company’s well-known jams were not stored properly, leading to thick layers of mold atop open containers. Employees were reportedly told to scrape the mold off before serving it in the restaurant. Sqirl eventually turned off comments to its Instagram posts, and the account seems to have blocked several former employees across social media.
The initial round of revealing information regarding Sqirl came from the Instagram stories of user Joe Rosenthal. There, Rosenthal shared screenshots of direct messages purporting to be from former employees discussing a variety of Sqirl-related issues, mostly focusing on large tubs of housemade jam that would often be found layered atop with mold after being left exposed in a walk-in refrigerator. Some users claimed that the entire jam production and storage area was actually an unlicensed food facility that Koslow kept hidden from Department of Public Health inspectors, adding that workers would be “locked in the dark” inside of the unlicensed area if they were already inside when an inspector showed up unannounced.
Not long after an initial round of DMs and screenshots were shared, someone anonymously sent in an image that purports to show a bulk jam container from Sqirl, with a heavy layer of broken mold on top.
An employee from sqirl shared this photo of the moldy jam from their kitchen. The fact that were told to just scrape the mold off is pic.twitter.com/uPCsevWoBi— h (@hanaymoi) July 12, 2020
The information spread so quickly across social media that, at one point, Sqirl was a top-15 trending topic on Twitter across the entire United States, forcing Koslow to respond on social media. Employees said that Koslow herself specifically asked them to simply scrape off the mold on top of the jam, and to dig down a couple of inches below that to retrieve fresh jam.
Her response, shared to Sqirl’s social channels, included a photo of a portion of the jam storage area (seen below).
The statement reads further:
All jam production — for jarred retail and the restaurant — is 100% done off-site at our catering kitchen, a California Department of Food and Ag Milk and Dairy Food Safety certified facility. In the past, jam was made on site at Sqirl — always legally and always labeled accordingly.
With bulk jam, the product is poured into containers hot, cooled completely, and then stored in the walk-in. With this bulk jam, over time, mold would sometimes develop on the surface that we handled with the guidance of preservation mentors and experts like Dr. Patrick HIckey, by discarding mold and several inches below the mold, or by discarding containers altogether.
Tejal Rao, California critic for the New York Times, pointed to the USDA acknowledgement of mold on various products, including jams and jellies. It reads: “The mold could be producing a mycotoxin. Microbiologists recommend against scooping out the mold and using the remaining condiment.”
On Twitter, preservationist Stephen Wade also chimed in, saying that any correlation between the mold on top of jam and the mold found on charcuterie is “fundamentally untrue, adding: “I’m quietly furious, because the ownership should know better. Jessica was in the first MFP (master food preserver) cohort in LA, and while we agree the USDA info is conservative, the food safety angle is not up for debate... This is a black eye to (the) broader small food production community, hinders better support for non-commercial canning products and better regulations for small-scale producers. I understand wanting to cut some regulatory corners... but this ain’t it.”
The deluge of social media activity also included further discussion of issues that former staffers have had with Koslow as an operator, some dating back years. Many — including Ria Dolly Barbosa (now of Petite Peso), former chef de cuisine Javier Ramos, and former pastry cook Elise Fields — have said publicly that Koslow co-opted recipes that they created, and used them to gain national culinary recognition and to sign a multi-unit cookbook deal, with no credit given back to the staffers who came up with the dish in the first place. Koslow’s second cookbook, ironically about the process of making jam, is scheduled to be released later this month.
Sqirl has reopened after taking time off to regroup during the coronavirus pandemic. The company’s packaged takeaway business, Sqirl Away, also opened recently next door. Eater reached out to Koslow for further comment, but so far has not heard back.