Ground Down by the Wydown: baristas fired days before union election

The Wydown Coffee Bar, a staple DC coffee shop, abruptly closed both of its locations on the evening of May 14th, putting around thirty employees out of work 6 days before their union election was scheduled. Days after employees at Compass Coffee went public with their own unionization effort, the company opened a new store at the former 14th Street Wydown location to profit off of the Pride Parade on June 8th — without hiring any of the fired Wydown employees. Community members can follow Wydown United and Compass Coffee United on Instagram, as well as @CompassCoffeeU on Twitter for updates. Be cautious of fake accounts — Compass Coffee management has been creating fake accounts to distract and confuse workers. The accounts linked above are the official accounts.

ON THE EVENING of May 14th at 7:58pm, workers at the Wydown Coffee Bar received an unexpected notice from the company’s owners via their scheduling service. Less than twelve hours before workers at these two beloved coffee shops were scheduled to clock in, the notice informed the Wydown’s staff of over thirty workers that they were all fired: “Today was the last day of service for both shops. Both cafes of the Wydown are now closed permanently.” 

The email gave no explanation as to what motivated this abrupt decision, save for one cryptic sentence stating, “A process that began last year has reached its conclusion.” None of the employees knew of the owners’ plans to close the company prior to receiving this email. In fact, three former employees claim they heard discussions of plans to expand the company in the near future.

Shortly after receiving the all-staff email, Wydown workers announced a picket would take place the following morning outside both Wydown locations. When we joined Wydown’s now former employees that rainy Wednesday morning, it was clear that the staff were not the only ones  blindsided by the company’s closure. Neighbors and regular customers walked by the papered-up cafe, double-taking and exchanging bewildered glances. Even a delivery driver with supplies in tow was surprised to find the storefront shut down. 

There may be another interpretation of the owners’ line about a “process reaching its conclusion.” Exactly one month before the stores' closure, Wydown workers publicly announced that they were seeking to unionize with Workers’ United. When the owners declined to voluntarily recognize the union, an NLRB election was scheduled to begin on May 20th — six days after the owners suddenly shut down the company. Given this context, the owners’ actions send a chilling message to service workers across the DMV interested in unionizing their workplace to improve their wages, benefits and working conditions. 

This article is based upon interviews and conversations with some of the baristas at both Wydown stores about their experiences making these businesses run, their effort to form the union and the battle for recognition. We also spoke to some customers at the 14th Street location, as well as one former Wydown employee who left before the unionization process began. We’re grateful that they chose to share their stories with us, and we hope this article leads you to stand in solidarity with Wydown United and tipped workers across the city in their struggle for the pay, working conditions and dignity that they deserve. 

The Wydown 

In 2010, Alex and Chad McCracken relocated to the DMV from St. Louis, Missouri, with the intent of starting their own coffee business. The original Wydown began as a pop-up shop on U Street in 2013, featuring a high-end coffee program alongside pastries baked by Alex’s wife, Sophie. Its first permanent brick-and-mortar location opened in June 2014 in the Louis building on 14th Street. That location would have seen its tenth anniversary next month. Two and a half years later, a second Wydown location opened as part of a new development within the former Apollo Theater on H Street Northeast. 

Pictured: Failed business-brothers Chad McCracken (left) and Alex McCracken (right)

From its inception, the Wydown stood out among DC’s coffee shops and received glowing reviews in major magazines such as the Washington Post and Conde Nast Traveler. “It was busy,” recalled Holly Costanzo, a barista at the Apollo location. “You’d have your regular morning rush from 8:30 to 9:30 during the week, and on weekends the place would just get packed. I had so many people come up and say there were people lining up outside the door.” 

However, none of the reviews could fully capture the rich relationships the Wydown employees had nurtured with both their neighborhoods and each other. “I love my coworkers,” said Tom Friedl, a barista at the 14th Street location. “I always looked forward to getting to see them every day. I love coffee, I love making it. I enjoyed my day-to-day work.” Another employee mentioned that the Wydown was their “dream job” after graduating college. 

When David, a resident near the 14th Street location, moved to DC during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wydown’s community atmosphere provided respite from isolation in a new city. “The only thing I could do to get out of the house and make working from home tolerable was to come to the coffee shop,” he shared. “I feel like I knew the baristas and knew the managers even. The food was always good, the coffee was great. [The closure is] a huge bummer.” 

Ben, another 14th Street regular, shared his disappointment after learning that the Wydown had closed. “This place is a staple of the neighborhood, and it's not just the product that they serve. It's the way that the workers here built a community and show so much love and respect for their neighbors.”

The Workplace 

Behind  the Wydown’s high-end branding and community atmosphere, however, there were patterns of neglect, mismanagement, and inappropriate conduct. 

Arika, a former barista at the 14th Street location, was attracted to the Wydown because she wanted to learn more about coffee. “[I] really enjoyed the work. The job itself was straightforward and I learned quickly … and my coworkers were all cool!” But “the biggest personal disappointment was not growing as a coffee professional. Management didn’t invest in their employees’ development, leaving training patchy and employees feeling stuck.” 

The employees we spoke to all agreed that raises were rare. “Baristas never get raises,” said Josiah Batterson, the Lead Barista at the Apollo location. This problem wasn’t limited to the front-of-house staff, according to a barista who chose to be identified as G. “One woman [a line cook] had told me she’d been there for two years and hadn’t seen a raise.”

In fact, employee development was not only neglected — and certainly not rewarded — they were also actively discouraged from ever taking initiative. 

Batterson recalled that a former Lead Barista at the 14th Street location revamped the company’s recipe for decaf coffee in response to customer and staff feedback. While decaf coffee is often sidelined in the industry, customers who prefer their brew without the buzz pay greater attention to the flavor of their beverage. 

But when they asked for approval from Brandon Hillen, the former Director of Operations, at a barista meeting, Batterson recounted, “[He] literally just said, ‘Well, I guess our customers don’t like our recipe.’” 

This apathy and dismissiveness towards employee initiative coincided with tremendous micromanagement. And in some cases, retaliation. 

“The lead barista at 14th before me got fired because he moved a grinder that hadn't been used in a year to storage, and the Director of Operations just didn’t like that,” Batterson told us. “Brandon exerted an unnecessary and oftentimes aggressive level of control over his employees … He would often look over my shoulder and tell me to add a single cube of ice more to my drinks, or tell me that he just ‘didn't like the look of that shot, and if you asked him what was wrong with it he would just tell you to re-pull it.” 

Arika also reported overhearing “shouting matches” between Hillen and Wydown employees “on more than one occasion.” 

The management’s neglect of the coffee program was a symptom of far deeper issues within the business. “I never had particularly bad interactions with management,” Arika recalled, “but they were not effective communicators and had a lack of urgency. Shift leads were without food licenses for months, kitchen staff had to bring in their own bleach on multiple occasions, and machines went unserviced (as well as pest and sewage problems). Even as we communicated every need and issue on a regular basis, our messages often went without response or action. Makes one think, do these guys even care?” 

Jamee Mendez, a former baker at the Apollo location, told the Washingtonian that the kitchen staff struggled in the summer months because there was no air conditioning. 

Inside the Wydown's 14th Street location

At the 14th Street location, workers were beset with an endemic and highly unsanitary flooding problem — which management allegedly refused to address.

“There was water seeping out below the sink that we couldn’t really determine the source of, that would happen every once in a while,” said Tom. “We had enough water coming out there that occasionally it was like a puddle across the floor … It even got out onto the floor where people were sitting. It smelled awful. One time it smelled like raw sewage, another time it smelled like rotten fish. Management in all these cases didn’t close the store. They just kept mopping it up and we continued working. They didn’t seem to be all that concerned about the health issues there.” 

The truly decisive factor in Wydown employees’ decision to unionize occurred at the Apollo location on H Street, after a well-liked manager departed earlier in the year. Fired Apollo workers told us that the replacement, Brian Manley, seemed to be out of place in the coffee shop. “He didn’t know what a latte was when he got hired,” said G. “He was so bad at the job, I was faster on my own than with him.” 

But Brian’s problems were not limited to his lack of coffee experience. Multiple fired baristas we talked to described Brian as “creepy” and “verbally abusive,” with “many instances of him being inappropriate with the staff and the customers.” 

“[Brian] got to the point of verbally assaulting employees in private, in the back office, on the floor, just everywhere,” said Batterson. 

When senior management finally intervened, they only made matters worse. 

“[Brian] had a very, very severe altercation with an employee in private and then our Director of Operations walked in and saw that it was heated and fired the employee on the spot without questioning,” Batterson continued. “That termination got a lot of people really angry and upset and made them realize that the managers and owners don’t care and are willing to terminate you if they happen to disagree on anything.” 

Eventually, the owners terminated Brian after talking with each member of the staff about the situation, but by then, the damage had been done, and the workers decided to take matters into their own hands.

The Union 

Organizing service workers is notoriously difficult due to high levels of employee turnover. Most service sector jobs offer low pay and sparse benefits — if they offer any at all. Poor treatment from owners and management often makes it even more difficult to convince coworkers to stick around, and by this point, many Wydown workers had understandably become jaded about the conditions at their stores. 

“We were talking people off the line of quitting probably multiple times, trying to get them to stay and fight for a better future for the Wydown,” said Batterson. 

According to Costanzo, the unionization process required that workers overcome the separation between bar and kitchen staff. “When we learned more about each other’s situations, we learned about what we have in common. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, that happened to you? This happened to us!’ Just that back and forth, as bad as it is, to bond over terrible working conditions.” 

“Logistically, you had to talk to people you might not have talked to otherwise, just to make sure that everyone was on the same page,” said G. “Just by doing that, I feel like I got closer with some coworkers that I didn’t interact with very much to begin with.” 

Despite these difficulties, several Wydown employees successfully motivated their coworkers and strengthened connections across both Wydown locations. 

To support their unionization campaign, Wydown workers secured the backing of Workers’ United, the SEIU affiliate which also represents unionized Starbucks employees. After a majority of employees had signed union cards — enough to be voluntarily recognized and begin bargaining — Wydown United went public on April 14th. 

Wydown workers participate in May Day 2024 marches and festivities alongside the wider labor movement

“I was thrilled to hear that the staff was organizing,” said Arika, “yet frustrated as hell that things hadn’t changed since I left.” 

But the McCrackens showed no interest in recognizing their workers. 

“They essentially ignored us,” said Friedl. “Two days after we gave them the letter, they sent out an email basically saying, ‘We respect the right of the employees to choose to be represented by or not be represented by an organization, yadda yadda yadda,’ telling us we had to do an election. And then they just didn't acknowledge it after that.” 

“They told us that they wanted to ‘restore communication, hold a meeting with all members of the staff,’ and none of that ever happened,” said Batterson. “In fact, they became even less present after we filed for a union election.”

However, Batterson’s interactions with the McCrackens were especially illuminating after they fired Brandon Hillen, the Director of Operations. 

“As soon as [Hillen] was removed from his role, probably a month before closure, we started to notice that [his] patterns of behavior … had been passed down from the McCrackens. They just had a lot of moments where they were particular about certain things, like putting out coffee on the shelves. They really, really needed it to be in a specific order and you weren't really allowed to change it and you couldn’t really ask why. So, it definitely felt at times like they would use small preferences of theirs as a way to assert control over employees.”

Though the McCrackens demanded their workers undergo a formal NLRB election, they weren’t particularly interested in setting a date, and as the process stalled, employees’ interactions with the McCrackens became more heated. 

A week before the stores’ closure, Wydown employees at the Apollo location stopped work to read an open letter outlining the issues that they wanted to address, such as reversing employee hour cuts by promoting able staff, paying workers the DC living wage of $24 an hour, and finally installing air conditioning units before the summer began. 

While an employee read the letter to the storefront, the McCrackens stepped onto the floor to make drinks, ignoring and pushing past the barista.

“We are here today in good faith to show the business how much we care about providing a safe place for our workers, a livable job for everyone, and most importantly, as per our mission statement, ‘to create a moment you want to hold on to’ for customers,” the Wydown barista read. Owner Chad McCracken tapped them on the shoulder to move them out of the way while loudly grinding an espresso shot and went back to ignoring the workers. 

“[The owners] quite literally just stonewalled them,” said Friedl. “They just didn’t look at them, didn’t acknowledge them, refused to even pay attention to what they were saying. They basically just refused to acknowledge us up until this exact moment.” 

After the work stoppage, Costanzo reported to the Washingtonian that they “received a positive response from the McCrackens, who apologized to her for ‘letting the team down.’” But later that afternoon, the head baker at the Apollo location found a draft of the closure letter on the floor. 

“We assumed it was a scare tactic in response to us reading a letter to our boss and engaging [in a] work stoppage,” G reported. “We [assumed] they couldn’t possibly be that sloppy as to just leave that lying on the floor, and their lawyers hadn’t notified our union or the NLRB that the store was going to be shutting down,” said Batterson. 

“They are required to give us notice, so we assume that that would be happening … and now here we are.”

The Closure 

In the wake of the stores’ closure, Wydown workers were highly skeptical that the business was struggling financially. The process of unionization requires that employers make certain records available to their employees, and while Wydown employees “did not get the full records … we did know that each business was making over [$500,000] a year at least. Each store.” 

During the same period when the unionization process took place, there were multiple signs that the Wydown planned to expand operations. Employees report that the owners were “actively hiring a general manager,” overhearing management telling customers about their intention to do so. “They had a meeting with me probably a month and a half-ish before the closure talking about how the reason we had seen so many changes at Apollo was because they wanted to open a third location and wanted to make sure the blueprint was correct,” added Batterson. 

Outside of the shuttered 14th Street Wydown location, a note to customers was taped to the door providing the same explanation for its closure as the all-staff email.

The closure notice posted on the door of the Wydown.

But community members were similarly suspicious of the owners’ intentions. 

“Karma will get [the owners] … my wife is going to be so upset when she finds out,” said one customer at the 14th Street location. 

“I wish that the owners have maybe thought more deeply about the paths they could’ve taken other than the most drastic one,” said Ben. “Maybe there could’ve been… some other solution that could’ve worked out for everybody and not just the owners here. In DC, we pride ourselves on being creative and looking out for one another, and when things like this happen in our backyard here — it's just disappointing that we couldn’t find a better way to work together.”

“I’m really incensed by the owners’ decision. It’s definitely not compassionate, I’m not sure it’s legal,” said David. “To put a bunch of people out of work with no notice, for no stated reason, obviously with the union election looming … it just seems like it’s in bad faith.” 

At the Apollo location, workers were surprised to find that the storefront’s locks had been changed, and they were unable to retrieve their own personal property. In a follow-up interview, G told us that the McCrackens had apparently forfeited everything in the building to the Apollo. 

“The entire day after they closed, we were all messaging them, ‘Hey can we please go in to get our things?’ And they were like, ‘No, you have to message the building! You have to message the building!’ And after two or three hours of sending them messages, they deleted the messaging app so we couldn’t contact them anymore.” 

“We had employees with medication in the store that they wouldn’t assist in getting,” added Batterson. 

Another one of the fired baristas, who chose not to be identified, also expressed their surprise that the McCrackens had shut down the business. She claimed that the Director of Operations had tried to talk her into quitting her full time job so that they could pick up more hours at the Wydown. 

The scene outside the Apollo location was melancholy. As baristas talked with each other, customers stopped by in the rain to show support. One worker hugged a customer, telling them they’d miss them. 

A few days later, Wydown workers and community members returned for another demonstration of what the Apollo meant to them. The storefront and the streetlight in front were covered with notes capturing their feelings, the sense of community they shared, and the anger at the owners for taking it away. 

The Aftermath

As the labor movement arises from its slumber, it has reawakened in some industries that were smaller at its initial height. Unionization in the service sector has drawn bad-faith critiques and criticisms. Service sector jobs are often not viewed as legitimate livelihoods, but as temporary positions meant to be filled by high school and college students temporarily. 

“[College students] still deserve to have a livable wage and fair working conditions,” said Costanzo. “No one is above OSHA. No one is above paying a liveable wage.” 

“There were also people there supporting families,” added G. “It’s not just blue-haired baristas. There’s also a back-of-house team and the people in the back-of-house skewed a little bit older. And we all had bills to pay. We all needed to pay rent. We needed a union to make that happen.” 

“Because it had been ten years of this treatment,” said Costanzo. “For ten years, they had treated their employees like this.” 

When workers begin the battle to unionize their workplace, they are making a tremendous choice about their lives. This decision is never made lightly; oftentimes they struggle against apathy, false promises from management, and the very real threats of losing one’s livelihood due to illegal employer retaliation. Solidarity is not simply a feeling or a value, but an urgent necessity that makes or breaks a union. 

Despite the McCrackens’ decision to destroy the business, the workers of the Wydown successfully organized together. They organized both front- and back-of-house staff across two storefronts in spite of hostile ownership, belligerent management, and worsening conditions. The solidarity they built among themselves and within their community has already outlasted the company itself. 

“The union effort has been a lot of fun honestly,” said Friedl. “It’s really nice to see people take encouragement from one another to stand up for themselves.” 

“I learned a lot about my coworkers, and also the people in the community, the customers,” said Costanzo. “They’re people I’d see every day.” 

This fight for workers’ rights in our community is far from over. Workers at the Compass Coffee chain have recently announced their unionization campaign with Workers United — as Compass’ management has now acquired the Wydown’s former 14th Street storefront without hiring any of the former Wydown employees. 

“A member of upper management at Compass … let us know that Compass had purchased the old Wydown”, said Joseph Babbins, a supervisor with Compass Coffee United. “To add insult to injury, [CEO Michael Haft] acquired that location and is now rushing to get it open in time for Pride in order to profit off the Pride Parade.” 

“In the meantime, the cafes that already exist are breaking down … Our stores are literally deteriorating around us … They’ve prioritized expanding and boosting their own public image instead of taking care of our customers who are supposed to come first, and as long as our machinery keeps breaking down, we cannot serve quality drinks.” 


Though their stores have closed, Wydown United are far from finished with their fight. You can follow their Instagram page for updates as well as information on other local labor struggles. Community members can also support the struggle of Compass Coffee United by attending rallies, following and boosting them on social media, avoiding using the Compass Coffee Mobile app and supporting their workers in person at cafes. 

“Philadelphia had a major union drive in coffee a few summers ago,” said Costanzo. “This could be the summer for DC coffee.”

Wydown workers demonstrate in front of their closed business.

Writers Sam G and Gabby C are members of Metro DC DSA.

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