Donut Friend, the popular vegan doughnut shop with locations in Highland Park and Downtown Los Angeles, has come under heavy social media scrutiny this week after an anonymous Twitter user accused the company of firing multiple workers “for trying to unionize.” The tweet, written by a friend of a former worker under the handle @ElSangito, adds simply: “I highly suggest not supporting them and making their business suffer even more for it.”
Current and former employees, as well as Donut Friend owner Mark Trombino, say that the now-viral post, which has garnered tens of thousands of likes, is false — though employees have raised valid workplace concerns in recent months and are now in fact pushing for a formal unionization, though that is still to come.
Flynn Nicholls, a former employee of Donut Friend who was let go on January 17, says that the tweet is technically inaccurate, though he supports the messaging. In an updated statement sent after publication, workers told Eater that Nicholls was less supportive of the current“unofficial boycott” the tweet had caused: no picket lines, but lots of social media vitriol and comments about never buying from the business again. “Any boycott... should be a group decision” among unionizing staff, the email to Eater reads, and should be “organized towards a goal,” not simply pushed into the world by a tweet.
No formal unionization paperwork has been sent to Trombino or the company at large, Nicholls tells Eater, though he and others (both former and current employees) are planning to push for formal union recognition in the coming days. Those employees set up social media accounts for their forthcoming efforts on Wednesday, and say that while Trombino has not formally been asked to recognize any union, he has been aware of organizing efforts among staff for months.
“Mark never heard the word ‘union,’ and then said ‘Okay, you’re fired,’” to Nicholls, a current employee who declined to be named told Eater. “But did he know we were organizing? Hell yeah, he knew.”
donut friend in highland park LA just fired a bunch of their workers for trying to unionize and I highly suggest not supporting them and making their business suffer even more for it— Dragula Rasa (@ElSangito) January 20, 2021
The movement started in September 2020, when a letter signed by multiple employees was given to ownership asking for more communication between Trombino and staff, and for more transparency and better safety measures during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In Trombino’s words, employees “read a list of demands to me” that he says he then attempted to address, particularly with regards to communication. That included one-on-one meetings with all staff members, suggestion boxes, and town hall-style public discussions.
Several employees that Eater spoke with, including Nicholls, say the letter was a precursor to a formal union effort meant to come soon after, but in the months that followed, several employees who signed the letter, including Nicholls, have been let go or suspended. In an email sent by current and former employees after publication, they state that two employees were fired in October, and another in January, along with a suspension. Trombino says that one member of staff was recently fired “for cause,” unrelated to any unionization effort, but declined to name the employee.
Nicholls contends that his firing on January 17 was a result of signing the initial letter and driving a slow-moving but growing union organization effort among staff, not his abilities as an employee. “It was an unquantifiable job performance reason for terminating me,” Nicholls said. “It felt really suspicious.” While there are safeguards in place to protect employees who are attempting to unionize from being fired, California is an at-will state, meaning employers need only to offer the barest of reasons for letting an employee go. The surreptitious firing of organizers is an anti-labor, union-busting tactic meant to keep other employees away from those unionization efforts.
Eater has obtained a copy of the September letter sent from staff to Trombino. It demands, in part, “clear channels for communication” and “a work environment that is safer both physically and mentally for all workers at Donut Friend,” particularly with issues like ownership’s response to COVID-19 cases among staff. The letter is not a formal request for union recognition, though it is signed by multiple employees under the title “The united staff of Donut Friend.”
Owner Mark Trombino, a former music producer who opened the first Donut Friend shop on York Boulevard in 2013, has denied any allegations of union-busting, while noting in an Instagram post this week that he has “not communicated or listened to” his employees “as well as [he] could have” over the years. Trombino, who spoke with Eater on the phone on January 20, says simply: “The allegations that we are union-busting and have fired our Highland Park staff for attempting to organize is categorically false. It’s simply not true. If there was an attempt to organize, or a group of people working on this, it’s not something that was brought to me.”
“I know it’s confusing from the outside,” says one current unnamed employee, “because [Trombino] said publicly he’s not anti-labor, and because you think it wouldn’t be that difficult to send a petition” for unionization to ownership. But given the potential for retaliation (including loss of employment) for attempting to unionize, they say, “it still feels really fucking scary to do that.” Another employee tells Eater that they believe the immediate implementation of one-on-one meetings, started by management at Trombino’s insistence following the September letter — ostensibly as a way to bridge those communication divides — felt like “a typical anti-labor practice, meant to separate and isolate employees.” They add: “A lot of people felt disciplinary action increase after that letter. The environment didn’t seem welcoming to coming out in the open with labor organizing.”
The Downtown LA location of Donut Friend recently had a staff member test positive for COVID-19, leading to a dayslong shutdown at the store, though the closure was initially described by the company on social media as being “for repairs” only. Pressure from current and past employees on social media forced Trombino to recant that statement and reveal that the closure was coronavirus-related.
Workers say that afterward, a strongly worded email was sent to the Downtown staff, blaming them for the positive test and for not following COVID-related protocols. A copy of the email, which has been shared with Eater, reads in part:
It should not be lost on anyone that the reason we are forced to close is simply because people were not social distancing while at work. It’s not because someone got sick, it’s because people were careless. There is only so much Donut Friend can do… Donut Friend is a large shop. If you are spending any time less than six feet from another person you are doing something wrong.
Currently, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health only requires restaurants with three or more positive cases (per location, and at the same time) to publicly submit to the county outbreak database.
Ultimately, the primary issue comes down to communication, says one current employee. “When is Mark going to discuss this [all] with staff?” they say of the perceived anti-labor pushback and Trombino’s statement on social media. “Obviously the issue here is communication between employees and the owner. We all saw his post on social media, but he hasn’t said a word to staff. To me this is an image thing for him.”
For now, unionization plans at Donut Friend are ongoing, though no formal submission has been made for Trombino or anyone else at the company to recognize any union. Trombino says that “If that’s something the staff wanted to do, I’d certainly explore the idea. I want people to be happy and productive, and for this to be a great place to work. We’re not perfect, there’s always room for improvement.”
That requires direct engagement, one staff member says, not just posts on social media — from either side. The potential unionizers acknowledge that the inciting tweet isn’t accurate, and that it’s far from the complicated story of the past few months at Donut Friend. “It is important that people know what the facts are,” says one former employee. “We’re not trying to embellish anything. That’s a social media thing.” Still, says a current staff member, talking openly, honestly, and offline moving forward is going to be the healthiest next step for all. “The whole point is for him to actually listen, and to sit down and talk to us about the issues at Donut Friend. Not to tell the public that he’s a good guy.”