Workers of famed Castro bakery, Hot Cookie, went public last week via Instagram to accuse the shop’s owners of a pattern of sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
According to the social media post, co-owner Paul Perretta was accused of a pattern of using the “hard N-word” among other unsavory racial discriminatory language at the workplace, while co-owner Tony Roug was admonished for allegedly sexually harassing workers.
Stella Gutierrez, a current Hot Cookie worker, was unequivocal in the allegations she lodged at Parretta and Roug on behalf of the more than 20 current and former employees of the bakery, who collectively described their lived experiences as perpetual “unlawful treatment” by the owners. Gutierrez said that the group of employees attempted to voice their concerns directly with the owners outside of the public spotlight, but were unsuccessful at getting their bosses to engage in substantive direct dialogue. Once the concerned employees made the complaints public via social media, it received more than 5,000 likes within 12 hours.
“We tried communicating with management and owner alike to try and have our voices heard before having to go public. We tried to give them a chance to meet with us to no avail. There was no urgency on their part; instead, we were met with “solutions” that best suited their needs and comfort with this subject,” Gutierrez said.
The owners of the shop, famous for its chocolate penis-shaped cookies, have remained tight-lipped as far as a direct response to their employees about the allegations of racial and sexual misconduct goes. Hot Cookie did not respond to invitations via their website to comment to Xpress, but they did issue a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle in which they said the Hot Cookie management team is looking for an independent human resources entity to mediate.
In addition to airing their grievances on social media, Hot Cookie employees foisted the owners with calls to the public for a boycott, which dropped their rating from the highest possible score of five starts to the lowest possible of one star, in their month-to-month Yelp rating. Due to the public nature of the issue, however, Yelp has temporarily disabled the ability to post to the Hot Cookie listing on its site. This move effectively hindered the workers’ Yelp boycott effort, in part, past the month of July.
Yelp issued an “unusual activity alert” in its Hot Cookie listing in which it signaled support in general for efforts to fight racism, but also signaled its wish to be impartial to the issue. “We unequivocally reject racism in any form,” Yelp said on its Hot Cookie listing comments section. “Yelp must reflect an actual first-hand consumer experience (even if that means disabling the ability for users to express points of view we might agree with). The best place to share other views is on Yelp Talk.”
LGBTQ+ Gators who frequent the shop were saddened to learn that another chapter in the Castro neighborhood’s long history of hostility to its own community was being written, but not surprised.
SF State alum Alfredo Kuri De Labra, who currently resides and works in the Castro as a mental health counselor, has grown frustrated throughout his seven years of living in the Castro at the long legacy of hostility in his neighborhood toward transgender people of color, women and people of color in general.
“It’s frustrating because people in the Castro are not completely woke about the issues that affect racial minorities, women and the [transgender] community,” De Labra said. “Clients of color I work with routinely describe not feeling welcome. They feel there are not enough spaces dedicated to them, and the spaces that do exist are commonly mired in controversy. Through my own experiences and those of the people I work with, I feel the Castro is not a safe place.”
According to SF State alum Marisa Castro, who works as a high school teacher, women and people of color are not safe in a corner of the city perceived as “most inclusive”. In response to the Hot Cookie calamity, Castro shares De Labra’s views, at least in part.
“Unfortunately, the worker’s allegations points to the fact that the Castro District has not been a safe haven for the queer and trans BIPOC community for nearly a decade now,” Castro said.
So, who in the LGBTQ+ spectrum is safe in the Castro neighborhood if not women, transgender people, or people of color?
“White gay men,” Castro and De Labra both said.
The Castro neighborhood is no stranger to controversy involving race. In 2005, a San Francisco Human Rights Commision concluded that Badlands bar owner Les Natali, a gay white male, had in fact been implementing policies at his establishments that targeted Black people. Among the findings of the investigation was evidence that Natali referred to Black people as “non-Badlands customers,”denied them entry by requiring them to show multiple forms of identification and selectively enforced dress code rules.
The legacy of racial discrimination and sexual harassment in the Castro is not strictly a white-on-Black or white-on-Brown issue.
According to SF State instructor Juan Garcia, who teaches event planning in the Hospitality and Tourism Management department, there are racial and sexual hostilities that go in every direction in the Castro that he has witnessed first hand.
“I’ve seen unfair or nasty treatment from drunk people toward people of color working behind the counters. Racist comments were made but not always from just white people. People of color are racist too,” Garcia said.
Garcia has a slightly diverging view from his fellow Gators on the controversy at Hot Cookie. He sees the allegations as half baked.
“If I remember correctly, Hot Cookie sells chocolate dicks and the employees sample cookies on the street in Hot Cookie printed underwear. Aren’t the walls covered in photos of these employees half naked and with tourists? I think what’s happening there is a bad example of harassment or discrimitaion and more about an outdated way of running a business and haphazard cancel culture,” Garcia said.
Garcia went on to say that the worker’s social media tactics, what is considered today as “cancel culture,” are not the best way to handle the matter.
“Using social media to character assassinate people is a turn off,” Garcia said. “I just wish they’d be smarter about getting light shed on the issue.”
On a remedy for the Castro’s legacy of injustice, including the circumstances surrounding Hot Cookie, SF State Professor Scott Siegel, who teaches in the International Relations department and resides in the neighborhood, thinks there is a way forward. He said the path begins with a spirit of continued accountability and efforts of ameleriotation by “gay white males of privilege,” such as himself.
“The way forward is more people standing up against [injustices of the past] and receiving support by the majority, the majority white and wealthy in this city acknowledging the positions of power and privilege they enjoy and putting more people of color and marginalized communities in power to address systemic inequalities,” Sigel said.
Omar Morales is a recipient of the 2021 Washington Media Fellows Scholarship. He is a senior at SF State majoring in international relations with a minor in journalism. Omar has completed two terms as copy editor for both Xpress publications, and remains a contributor. His original contributions to Xpress include packaged multimedia stories, which highlight racial justice and equity issues in the era of COVID-19. Omar's hobbies include reading, photography, poetry and working out. (edited)