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Meet the Cool Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Tensions between workers and management boil over at a punk rock vegan donut shop

“You guys are being really shitty right now,” the owner of Donut Friend told a handful of his assembled employees.

Mark Trombino, the owner, was responding to a letter the employees had delivered outlining their issues with management. On a Friday afternoon last September, they had arrived at the donut shop’s Downtown location for an impromptu meeting. Among the biggest issues was communication. Employees felt like their concerns weren’t heard, and that they couldn’t get clear expectations or answers from management. Since the beginning of 2020, workers at Donut Friend’s two locations had been talking to each other about their working conditions. Now, a majority had signed on to a letter outlining their grievances.

“We read the letter to Mark and we asked for a staff meeting,” explained Flynn Nicholls, one of the employees who delivered the letter. When Trombino told them they were being “really shitty,” Nicholls said, “he was really dismissing us.”

Over the next few months, Nicholls and two other employees in that meeting would be fired, and another suspended, a unionization campaign would begin in earnest, and a viral tweet would turn the situation into a public relations crisis for the store.

The conflicts that boiled over at Donut Friend are the same as those at many other businesses in retail and food service. Whether at a vegan donut shop or a Walmart, when employees lack the structure to negotiate over working conditions, problems fester. No matter how cool your boss is, the interests of employees and owners are sometimes inherently at odds with one another. Workers don’t want a suggestion box, they want a meaningful say in how their workplace operates. That requires building a structure, like a union, that can speak for workers.

After a year of fits and starts, employees and ex-employees under the banner Donut Friend United are trying to build that.

Donut Friend is an informal workplace, with hip, mostly-young employees and a DIY aesthetic. Trombino, a music producer and drummer with no professional culinary training, opened the Highland Park store in 2013 after several years of “dicking around” with vegan donut recipes. With roots in punk and indie music scenes, Trombino wore his amateurishness as a badge of pride — a year after opening the shop, Trombino gave a shockingly frank interview about his mistakes as a first time restauranteur, describing his numerous missteps in building out the store and managing production. Despite setbacks, the Highland Park shop’s DIY donut bar and band-themed flavors (Fudgegazi, Nutellavision, Green Teagan and Sara) charmed customers, and in 2019 the operation expanded to a second location in Downtown LA. In early 2020, Trombino also opened Creamo, a “vegan ice cream concept” in Silverlake.

This expansion didn’t come without change. When Donut Friend added a second location, the store abandoned its original recipe, opting instead to make donuts from an off-the-shelf vegan baking mix provided by Dawn Foods. “Everything was pre-packaged,” said a former manager. “He was a smart businessman. These things cost Mark a penny each, almost no value.”

Trombino’s DIY approach resulted in some inventive donuts, but it also meant job descriptions and workplace policies were ill-defined. While an employee handbook given to new hires layed out policies and rules, several employees reported that guidelines were rarely followed. “It’s defunct at this point. Management makes up the rules as they go,” said James Marshall, a former Donut Friend employee and member of the group who delivered the letter.

“Food Service Unity” graphic from @DFUWorkers

“Mark straight up told me he’s never worked for anybody before. I could tell,” said Nicholls. That’s mostly true — Trombino said he put himself through college as a union member at a grocery store, but since then has largely been his own boss.

When asked to describe the culture at Donut Friend, Trombino described a fluid and open relationship between employees and management:

“If I had to choose between working for a large supermarket chain or Donut Friend, it’s no contest. We have an open door policy. Anyone who has any issues with something I am doing is free to walk into my office and discuss them with me personally any time they like. Or they can message me directly. Or text me. Or, as a last resort, I even put out suggestion boxes a few months ago so people who aren’t comfortable coming forward have an avenue to reach me as well. You don’t have that kind of access at a large company.”

But in conversations with a number of current or former Donut Friend employees, a recurring theme was the feeling that management never actually listened. Donut Friend employees felt that Trombino would technically listen to them, but bigger issues were left unaddressed. Concerns about scheduling, COVID safety, promotions, employees reviews, and other important topics were raised, but frequently these conversations went nowhere.

“My experience was that I had some success in communicating with management about production stuff on a day-to-day basis,” said Cass Vogel, a baker at the shop. When issues came up that impacted working conditions but weren’t important to the product or the shop’s bottom line, Vogel said “I was met with ‘I’ll pass this along to Mark.’ Nothing was done about it.”

Some former employees also described a darker side of Trombino’s management style, characterized by periods of silence punctuated with outbursts of rage. Josh Patora, an early participant in worker organizing at Donut Friend, described how the store changed when Trombino was present. “We were in an environment with so many hard working people that cared so much. We had this energy, we loved showing up to work, we loved each other,” said Patora. But when Trombino was around, employees walked on eggshells.

“People need to be protected from him,” Patora added.

A former manager who asked not to be named recounted several instances where employees were left in tears. “There was an experienced baker from Taiwan, he made a batch of donuts and a couple of them came out misshapen,” they said. “He made this guy cry for not having a perfect batch of donuts.” The manager recounted that afterwards, Trombino told her he was “having a bad day,” but never apologized to the employee for his behavior.

Later, the same manager would find themselves in the crosshairs of Trombino’s anger. During a meeting, the manager suggested to Trombino that there were issues with the store’s bookkeeping, and that the system they used should be updated. “He kept saying ‘why why why,’” the manager recounted. Eventually, Trombino told the manager to “shut the fuck up.”

“I’ll never forget it. I don’t think anyone’s ever talked to me like that before. His tone, and the directness of it, how undeserving I was of him speaking like that. He made me feel very stupid,” the former manager said. “He liked to demean people and make them question themselves and their self-worth.”

When reached for comment on specific issues mentioned here, Trombino did not respond.

When the pandemic arrived, it hit the food service industry particularly hard. For workers at Donut Friend and many restaurants across the city, this left them extremely uncertain about their futures.

“I was in limbo for a few months,” said Marshall. “People came back to work wondering if they’re going to have a job or a livelihood to come back to. Mark wouldn’t respond to them.” By April, many workers at the store were let go or had their hours reduced due to COVID-related changes.

While many workers opted not to come back, some who wanted to return to work were reportedly left behind. Employees were told that all who’d asked to come back were contacted, but that many didn’t respond. Donut Friend workers disputed this, relaying stories from multiple former co-workers who said they were never asked to return.

“A lot of people were off the schedule collecting unemployment,” said Nicholls. “Mark sent out a message saying ‘hey, if you want to come back, or not, email me.’ He sent this at the bottom of a seven paragraph email. More than a few people said they were ready to come back, and didn’t come back at all.”

As officials struggled to deal with shifting rules around safety protocols and indoor/outdoor dining, restaurants were forced to make huge changes to their operations while revenues declined. In a July essay for Eater, Brittney Valles of Guerilla Tacos described the steps they took to revamp operations in the face of COVID. “We did 32 full hours of training on new COVID-19 protocols and safety measures and the importance of taking the pandemic seriously,” Valles wrote. “We updated our menu, purchased the PPE required for reopening safely, invested in training, redesigned the restaurant’s layout, and did construction to create more space and incorporate plexiglass dividers. I could see, even through their masks and face shields, that my staff was excited and comfortable about reopening.”

At Donut Friend, the in-store response to COVID was more haphazard. “The COVID response has been consistent with other responses to safety issues, which is that until it’s a problem nothing happens. It doesn’t cross [Mark’s] mind to have a protocol in place,” said Nicholls. While employees acknowledged the difficulty of the situation, they expressed frustration with what they saw as a lack of communication about their jobs.

Employees were concerned about retaliation for bringing issues about scheduling and COVID safety to management, fears that turned out to be well founded. In an incident confirmed by multiple sources, an employee named Miranda spoke to management about health and safety concerns, and suggested that Donut Friend temporarily close and allow workers to collect unemployment. Shortly afterward, she was let go. When an employee asked the store’s general manager about it, she was informed Miranda was let go for “always having drama.”

A graphic from @DFUWorkers encourages supporters to contact the store on their behalf.

One of the simplest demands workers made in response to these issues was for a store-wide meeting to be held via Zoom. The store had not held an all-staff meeting since December of 2019, leaving workers feeling disconnected.

“We asked for a Zoom meeting because we didn’t want everyone gathered in one place,” said Marshall. “He didn’t want to do that.” Instead, Trombino opted to schedule separate in-person meetings at each of Donut Friend’s two locations, and put out suggestion boxes, which to many employees felt like a slap in the face.

After watching a global pandemic dramatically impact small businesses across the city, it’s understandable that there would be mistakes and miscommunication. Business owners were forced to make difficult, fast, and often costly decisions that put their own futures at risk. But workers faced the same crisis, often without any input on decisions that could alter or end their jobs. At Donut Friend, this meant worker safety was left in the hands of an owner they didn’t trust, and who they felt was refusing to engage with workers as a collective unit.

“It’s become an expectation that if you bring up a problem, you become a problem,” said Nicholls. “That’s what it feels like at Donut Friend. They’ll find some weird passive aggressive way to get back at you.”

In October, James Marshall and Josh Patora found out they had become the problem. Along with another employee, they were called in to meet with management. All had been present at the meeting in September. That day, Marshall and Patora were fired.

When they found out they were losing their jobs, both felt blindsided.

“They really treated me unfairly,” said Patora. “I got an employee review two weeks before I got fired, and it was a great review not saying anything about anything that they were firing me for.” Marshall also says an employee review held shortly before his firing was mostly positive.

“We specifically asked for them to record a reason for firing,” said Marshall. “He said it’s an at-will state and he doesn’t have to do that. In the meeting, he was fine telling us it was about attitude and communication. They weren’t willing to put it on paper. On my termination notice it doesn’t give any reason, just ‘We regretfully terminate your work at Donut Friend immediately.’”

The third employee called in that day was not fired, but all three described their inclusion in the meeting as an act of intimidation aimed at the group responsible for delivering the letter.

When employees start to organize, “it’s usually a pretty small group of people at first,” said Corey Kniss, a labor attorney at Weinberg, Roger, and Rosenfeld. “They come up with a plan to send a letter, or talk to the boss. When that happens, a lot of times the boss is going to retaliate. Demote you, maybe put you on different duties, outright fire you.”

While organizing activity is legally protected, “in most cases, it’s not very risky for” employers to retaliate, said Kniss. “At-will employment is the law in California. The employer doesn’t have to give you any reason for your termination, so that makes it very difficult to challenge your termination and prove that it was for some kind of protected reason.”

In January, the Downtown LA location temporarily closed. When Donut Friend announced the closure on Instagram, they left the reason vague, saying that the store would be closed for unspecified repairs. Shortly after, a Highland Park-based Twitter user, @TheNewYorkBlvd, posted a screenshot of a DM conversation between current and former Donut Friend employees. According to the employee, the store was closed due to two positive COVID tests among employees, and the store did not want people to know.

A screenshot of a DM written by Cass Vogel revealed potential COVID exposure at the store.

The DM asked people interested in “taking down the man” to “call out” the store, and accused Trombino of intentionally deceiving employees and the public. “Owner Mark Trombino has routinely kept workers and the public in the dark about potential COVID exposure. There have been at least five workers at Donut Friend who have tested positive for COVID in the last year.”

Cass Vogel, a baker who had helped deliver the September letter, wrote the message in the screenshot. “I reached out to a couple of former employees and told them via Instagram that the downtown location had a couple of COVID cases and had to close because of it,” said Vogel. “Somebody screenshotted my DM and sent it to an anti-gentrification account, and my picture wasn’t cropped out.” Anyone familiar with Vogel could tell exactly who wrote the message. That included store management: a little over a week later, Vogel was pulled into Trombino’s office and informed that she was receiving a two-week suspension from her job at the store.

“Mark said point-blank that the plan was to fire me. Not sure why he didn’t do it, maybe the optics, he said he’s a softy,” said Vogel. “When I explained why I did what I did, I said I cared about my co-workers downtown. We’re all one company and so I care. Mark was like, ‘it’s none of your business what happens at that store. You guys are lucky that you knew anything at all. I don’t have to tell you anything.’”

“In regards to the social media thing that I was suspended for,” she said, “he told me ‘I know that you weren’t the only person involved with this.’ He was fully aware I wasn’t a rogue, disgruntled employee. I just happened to be the person that got caught.”

Donut Friend clarified the reason for the closure, and avoided any major public controversy over the issue. But a little over a week later, a widely-shared tweet turned what had been a discussion between co-workers into a public controversy.

“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,” wrote @ElSangito, a former employee of Donut Friend.

@ElSangito’s tweet pushed the unionization issue into public view.

While “just fired a bunch of their workers” was not wholly accurate, Flynn Nicholls had been fired that week, not long after Vogel’s suspension. “It was a very impulsive, emotional decision from my dismay about Flynn getting fired,” @ElSangito said. “He’s very good at his job so it felt obvious that it was an at-will retaliation for his unionizing efforts at the store.”

“I’ve been trying to fact check as best I can,” said Nicholls, who along with Vogel was the main subject of the post. “It seems like the narrative evolved through the twitter chain. It started with union busting, and became ‘they fired a bunch of people.’”

Nicholls was told that he was fired for performance issues, which Trombino confirmed, adding “it had nothing to do with them organizing a union drive.” However, Nicholls felt that his firing was motivated by his involvement in staff organizing efforts.

“In the time since the letter, we’ve been circulating a petition,” Nicholls said. “Talking to people after our shifts, asking them if they’d want to sign. They knew that we were doing something. To me the circumstances of my firing seem really specific.”

Nicholls also disputes management’s claims about job performance issues: “They said stuff about my job performance which was the opposite of what they’d said for months.”

Because at-will employment is the law of the land, the reasons for a firing like Flynn’s will always be the worker’s word against the boss’s. The link between firings and worker organizing is rarely made explicit. But as a legal matter, even circumstantial evidence can help workers demonstrate that they faced retaliation for their protected organizing efforts.

“Rehire Flynn” graphic from @DFUWorkers

“If you can show that ‘I was doing organizing, and then I was part of this group, and shortly after I was fired,’ that’s a good start to showing that you were retaliated against,” said Kniss. “Your boss can find ways to refute that allegation, but the fact that they were organizing and were fired shortly after is proof of retaliation.”

What started with a small group delivering a letter in September is now out in the open. Workers have gone public with their demands: consistent and accessible communication, fair scheduling, additional COVID safety measures, clearer store policies, rehiring of workers who faced retaliation. Some of their demands have been successful — Donut Friend United recently announced that Vogel was back working at the store after her suspension. But on other issues, the workers are still waiting for answers from management.

“Cass is Back!” graphic from @DFUWorkers

When asked about the unionization effort, Trombino said “no one ever approached me about forming a union so I’m not sure I have a stance at the moment. That said, would it be appropriate for Donut Friend? I would explore the idea if my team came to me and said that’s what they wanted. I just want a happy and productive work environment, and I’m willing to entertain any reasonable and actionable ideas that get us there.”

After news of Nicholls’s firing broke on Twitter, Trombino published a statement on Instagram explaining that he’s “new to this” and “has a lot to learn.”

Donut Friend United organizers have encouraged supporters to make calls to the store, or even to go to the store and ask to speak to a manager about COVID safety and retaliation against employees. Importantly, the workers organizing Donut Friend United have been explicit about pushing back against calls for boycotts or attempts to make the store suffer. While they’ve asked friends and customers to advocate on their behalf, damaging the store’s bottom line doesn’t just hurt Trombino, but also risks the jobs of their friends and co-workers. In other words, Donut Friend United wants to see the store succeed, but on terms that treat employees as participants in determining the store’s future.

Nicholls, a food service veteran, explained why he wants a union at Donut Friend. “Food service is one of those jobs where people think it’s not a real job,” said Nicholls. “It is a real job. You do a ton of exhausting work for a long time, but because it’s not valued your boss can walk all over you. Even a lot of food service workers feel like they don’t work a real job.”

The past year has been a difficult one at Donut Friend. But many of the problems could have been avoided had a structure like a union been in place before the relationship between labor and management reached its breaking point. Without formal channels for feedback, employees were left feeling that their concerns were falling on deaf ears.

Donut Friend United Logo

Unions give employees power, which is why owners are often reluctant to accept unionization. But unionized employees become partners in the business that employs them. The workers of Donut Friend United don’t want the store to fail, they want it to thrive in a way that lets them share in the benefits of that success.

“That’s kind of the irony of it,” said Kniss.” “I think a lot of people would be satisfied if there was some kind of structure where they can present their grievances to the employer and they would take them seriously, consider their input and treat them as equals in the partnership of this enterprise. They could make things easier on themselves by dealing with employees directly, respecting their wishes and concerns, but they don’t want to.”

Los Angeles is a city where being cool can get you pretty far. Cool can help you create a space where customers want to be. It can give employees a sense of self-expression. And it can drive the kind of buzz that lets you sell your remix of an age-old product at a steep markup.

Large chains have their own rich histories of workers’ rights violations and union suppression, and certainly don’t provide a solution to the problems at places like Donut Friend. But in the choice between an anti-union corporate hellscape and an anti-union cool boss, the difference is mostly just the soundtrack.