Workers at both locations say Ricky Hernandez hasn’t paid them for weeks, and has failed to pay them consistently for years.
Amidst a surge of local worker organizing, Coffee Coffee, the popular upscale coffee shop with locations on Fairfax and Melrose Avenues, has been closed for over a week because its employees refuse to work without pay.
Almost every single employee of Coffee Coffee met at the Melrose location on Friday, December 16, hoping to receive their paychecks, which were already 11 days late. Owner Ricky Hernandez said he’d be there with the checks at 11:30 AM. Instead, he spent the day individually texting them messages like “it takes time” and “I’m a small business” and promising to pay later.
The workers told Knock LA they loved the coffee shop; they have fun together and like their regular customers, and they wanted to be patient with Hernandez and believe his excuses.
But this behavior has been going on for at least six years, causing employees to fall behind on rent and car payments, cancel travel plans, and even lose partial access to their bank accounts due to repeated attempts to deposit checks that bounced.
Frustrated workers organized a shared folder with screenshots of text message exchanges with Hernandez. In these messages, reviewed by Knock LA, workers regularly ask, cajole, nudge, and remind Hernandez to pay them correctly. One employee requested their paycheck “so that my family has money to eat,” and Hernandez replied the next day: “Hey I’m just waking up got back to Bali last night from an island, didn’t have reception there [sic].” To another request for pay, he replied “I’m in vegas [sic].”
According to these screenshots, as well as conversations with workers, when Hernandez did deliver paychecks, he frequently asked employees to wait days before depositing them so he could gather the funds, and then responded with surprise when the checks bounced. He frequently paid with Zelle or with cash, pulling his new Tesla into a nearby parking lot and asking workers to come meet him at the curb for the cash. Or he’d hire an Uber Delivery driver to bring loose personal checks to workers at their houses or at the store.
“He doesn’t show his face at the store because so many people are looking for him,” said Vanessa Law, a barista at the Fairfax store.
Coffee suppliers came by the store asking about thousands of dollars Hernandez owed them. The restaurant’s landlord served eviction notices stemming from $10,000 in unpaid rent. Debt notices stacked up: AT&T canceled phone service due to over $20,000 in unpaid bills, the water bill went unpaid for two years, and the California Tax Board sent reminders of his outstanding debts. Sheriffs came by looking for Hernandez.
“I’ll fill your tip jar if you tell me where Ricky is,” said one visitor. The employees didn’t know; they rarely saw him.
In the spring of 2021, Ani Nazari was working as a manager when Hernandez made an unexpected visit to the store. “I have a warrant out for my arrest,” Nazari recalls Hernandez telling her. “I think it’s for tax fraud and money laundering. I’m going away for a few days; if people come in asking for me, tell them I don’t work here anymore.” Nazari refused to lie for Hernandez. A few days later, she saw police arrest him in front of the store. That night from jail, he used his one phone call to tell her not to worry, and not to tell anyone, because it was just a misunderstanding.
Over the next few weeks, about a dozen employees quit out of frustration over unpaid hours, unsafe working conditions — there was no air conditioning, and at least one worker suffered heat exhaustion — and Hernandez’s inappropriate sexual comments about customers and employees. It was just one of several rounds of mass quittings over the years. For Nazari, the final straw was Hernandez’s sexual harassment of Kyla Roberts, one of the store’s baristas.
“Ricky hires people who are vulnerable so he can more easily manipulate them,” said Law.
When Roberts started working for Hernandez, he was in his 40s and she was 22, had just moved to Los Angeles from a small town, and was deep in student debt. “I’ll take care of you,” Hernandez told her, promising her a high-paying side job notarizing his documents. He drove her around the city to meetings that never materialized, and told Roberts that he’d like to date her, if only she didn’t have a boyfriend and he wasn’t married. He took note of the location of her other job at a dispensary in the Valley — around 15 miles from the store and his primary home — and visited her there, sliding a $100 bill across the counter, Roberts said. “It made me feel gross,” she recalled.
Despite failing to properly pay workers, suppliers, his landlord, and the government, Hernandez would sometimes offer lavish gifts to individual employees, and then encourage them to explain his perspective to his frustrated employees. While workers were defaulting on car and rent payments due to unpaid wages, Hernandez gifted one manager a Cartier watch worth thousands of dollars. Soon after, that manager told workers to be more patient with Hernandez — because it’s hard running a small business, and he’s going through a difficult divorce.
Meanwhile, some staff noticed their paychecks were lower than the pay promised in their sign-on letters, and lower than the legal minimum wage ($15 in Los Angeles and $16 in West Hollywood). Baker Gisele Habib, for example, says Hernandez underpaid her for nearly a year. In a handwritten response sent in June and reviewed by Knock LA, Hernandez confirmed the wage discrepancy and calculated that he owed Habib more than $700. Six months later, Habib says she still has not received the money.
“He tries to make it out that the business is struggling,” said Law. “But we see how many customers there are, we know the prices and how much rent and wages cost.” The Melrose store alone regularly makes around $60,000 per month in sales, said Alvin Jeong, director of food. Jeong joined the protests after his paycheck bounced for the 11th time.
Many workers also did not receive legally required tax documents, despite repeatedly asking for them, and their pay fluctuated week by week even when their hours remained consistent. When workers texted Hernandez to ask for pay stubs and tax information, his response was unsatisfying. “His version of a pay stub,” said Roberts, “was he would send me a screenshot of this online calculator generator he would use to decide how much to take out of the taxes.” Other workers told Knock LA the same thing. Roberts estimates Hernandez took around $500 in “taxes” per employee per month.
Some workers have filed complaints with the California Department of Industrial Relations and the IRS, but have yet to be connected with case workers or see any progress on their cases.
To organize next steps, workers started messaging each other on the store’s scheduling app Homebase, and when Hernandez disabled the chat feature, they used text and email. They decided to go on strike, refusing to work for free. And they decided to communicate with him collectively rather than let him try to wear them down individually.
Around December 8, Hernandez sent some workers their overdue paychecks, but the amounts were too low and the dates were two weeks into the future. When barista Sara Carpenter texted him about the errors, Hernandez didn’t respond. “Following up,” she texted hours later. “Quickly following up,” she texted again. And then: “Ricky I am getting nervous you changed your number or something.” The texts stopped being delivered. She finally found a former manager to confirm he’d changed his number, and to share his new one. (Knock LA attempted to reach Hernandez for comment, but he did not reply.)
The following Friday, December 16, Hernandez and several workers agreed to meet at the store to receive their checks. They waited for him for over three hours. In the meantime, they posted flyers on the store window with links to their hardship fund, made protest signs with cardboard boxes and Sharpies, and informed disappointed customers that the stores will not reopen until the workers are paid in full.
Update: On December 19, the Fairfax location reopened with an entirely new workforce. When unpaid workers protested outside the store, owner Ricky Hernandez called the police on them. No arrests were made.