Identity Coffees has an identity problem.
Former employees have accused Identity co-owner and prominent figure in the Sacramento coffee scene Lucky Rodrigues, 35, of gender discrimination, anti-gay slurs, and mistreatment of homeless people.
The allegations arose on social media in early-to-mid June and spread into a deluge of comments, prompting the third-wave Sacramento roastery to delete its Facebook and Instagram pages entirely rather than deal with the torrent of criticism flooding both.
Third-wave coffee roasters rely heavily on social media to reach customers, and Identity’s radical erasure shows how pervasive the online protest was. Rodrigues has a high-profile role in Sacramento’s burgeoning restaurant and craft coffee scene, and is not only a purveyor of coffee in his cafe, but a leading trend-setter and supplier of coffee to other businesses.
Rodrigues, co-founded Insight Coffee Roasters in 2011, left in 2015, and opened Identity the following year with his wife Vanessa Rodrigues and co-founder Ryan Rake in 2016. The trio owns the 4,400-square foot flagship cafe at 1430 28th St. as well as Westside Identity Coffees in West Sacramento and the recently-closed Simpleton in Boulevard Park.
They provide wholesale coffee to local restaurants including Magpie Cafe, Ink Eats & Drinks, Canon, Backbone Cafe, and Drake’s: The Barn.
Rodrigues is a Sacramento native with roughly 20 years of experience in local coffee. He built his business with his own hands, using his woodworking and metalworking skills to craft Identity’s tables and chairs.
He’s involved in everything from hiring and training to visiting coffee farms and attracting new wholesale clients, former employees said. But former employees said they also saw him punch holes through walls and threaten homeless people outside Identity. They said Rodrigues’ comments about women and LGBTQ+ people made the workplace uncomfortable.
“I definitely think it was a really toxic, toxic work environment,” said Katie Bear, who served and roasted at Identity and Westside from June 2017 to December 2018. “It’s been the past year-and-a-half of having so many close friends and making friends who worked for Identity and watching them suffer.”
In a written statement to The Sacramento Bee, Rodrigues declined to respond to specific allegations but wished his former staff well.
“Though it has been sad to hear that not every ex-staff member enjoyed working with me, all of my former staff are truly missed and their work with us was deeply appreciated. I’ve got nothing but love and appreciation for anyone that has ever been a part of any of my companies whether it be staff, customers or friends,” Rodrigues wrote.
“I truly believe that every human from every walk of life is beautiful and full of immense potential and they all continue to inspire my deep personal mission in business: (t)o continue to (b)uild and elevate a great coffee community in Sacramento(,) California for people of every ethnicity, gender, class and sexual orientation.”
Rodrigues continued: “I encourage everyone in these confusing and uncertain times to look deep within themselves to find true love and empathy for one another to connect, stick together and continue to build a better community and a better world.”
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Alleged sexism and homophobia
The 10 former Identity, Simpleton and Westside employees interviewed by The Bee said they heard Rodrigues call female wholesale clients “c—s” and “b—–s,” ask prospective female hires if they planned on having children during job interviews, joke about female employees’ past sexual experiences and make blanket statements about women, such as his belief they are emotionally volatile.
They said an inner circle of male employees received preferential treatment. When a male coworker ignored Bear’s requests to clean a toilet, Bear said Rodrigues’ response was, “that’s OK, he’s a good one. He just doesn’t respect women. I just need to talk to him because he’s not going to respect you.”
Homophobic slurs also contributed toward a tense work environment, employees said. In telling the story of a deliveryman who set off an alarm in the shop, Bear, who identifies as a queer femme and uses they/them pronouns, said Rodrigues referred to him as a “f—–” and other gay slurs.
Nate Zoeller had worked at Simpleton for six weeks before the March 17 shelter-in-place directive sent employees home. He said in that time he heard Rodrigues make several off-color remarks, especially as economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic increased.
“I heard some sexist and homophobic comments, for sure.” he said.
Treatment of homeless questioned
Nearly all former Identity Coffees employees interviewed by The Bee agreed: Lucky Rodrigues’ treatment of homeless people in and around the cafes bothered them.
Identity has a blanket policy not to serve anyone who appears to be homeless, multiple former employees said. Dorrian Weber, an Identity barista and cashier from October 2019 through March, said staff was told during onboarding training that allowing transients — referred to by Rodrigues as “derelicts,” “zombies” and “those things” — inside the shop presented an image ownership didn’t want.
In November, Weber said a woman who appeared homeless entered the store, was asked to leave, and lay down on the sidewalk outside the store. He said Rodrigues slammed the doors open on her, hurting her. He yelled at her and dragged her belongings down the street, he said.
“That was the most intense moment I witnessed, and pretty soon after that, we had a staff meeting because me and other employees who were around were all very uncomfortable and talking to each other about it,” Weber said.
Ex-employees such as former barista Sierra Rudolph said Rodrigues expected workers to threaten transients sleeping by Identity’s eastern wall with a metal rod stashed underneath the ice bin, as he did at times.
It created a culture of fear for the boss who once explained olfactory memory as, “If your dad used to beat the s— out of you with a leather belt, the smell of leather might be a bad smell to you,” Weber said.
Multiple employees said they were intimidated by Rodrigues’ outbursts such as punching a hole through a wall and ripping an alarm out of another, and homeless people around the store appeared to bring out that anger.
“He has told employees, myself included, that ‘if you think it’s uncomfortable or scary kicking homeless people out, just wait until you see me when I find them in here while you’re working,’ ” former head roaster Jess Mill wrote in an email.
Rudolph, who uses they/them pronouns, generally adhered to the rule but let a woman who appeared to be homeless inside the store without buying anything last Christmas.
When a supervisor arrived to find the woman dozing in a corner of the near-empty shop, she instructed Rudolph to call 911 and claim their life was in danger, Rudolph said. Rudolph’s plea for a Christmas exception to the homeless ban was rebuffed.
“In that moment, I just didn’t want to be with that company anymore. It was like, ‘no, that’s not how you treat people,’” Rudolph said. They quit a week later after two-and-a-half years with Identity.
‘A culture of reexamining power dynamics’
Despite the complaints, none of the employees interviewed said they had filed lawsuits or grievances with the California Department of Fair Employment & Housing.
Identity’s outward-facing image has been one of social justice, a message that’s been heightened since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. Specialty labels on certain bags of coffee inside the midtown cafe last month told customers to “stand for accountability,” “end inequality” and “end violence and corruption,” with all profits going toward the ACLU.
Those efforts and a black square on Identity’s now-deleted Instagram page rang hollow to employees who felt they had been mistreated or seen others suffer over the last four years, Rudolph said.
“I think that we’re currently in a culture of reexamining power dynamics, and people are trying to challenge those who abuse power, and so it’s bringing up the abuse that’s happened at Identity,” Bear said.
Around June 4, a handful of one-star Yelp reviews scolded Rodrigues for allegedly berating a woman of Asian descent who entered Identity with a competitor’s coffee cup, telling her “you are what’s wrong with America.”
Ex-employees started posting their experiences to Instagram and Reddit shortly thereafter, with more joining in as they felt increasingly emboldened by the growing number of posts, Mill said.
Yet by deleting Identity’s social media presence, Mill said, the owners tried to conceal the conversation rather than own up to past mistakes.
“I think seeing each other speak out and noticing the similarities between all of our experiences helped empower more people to share their stories,” Mill wrote in an email. “I’ve seen and heard things in that cafe that I regret not acting upon sooner. I was hopeful that the social media outrage would inspire accountability and change, but they seem more intent on trying to hide while they continue to abuse people.”