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Ex-Milk Bar Employees Question Whether the Shop Closed Due to Unionization Efforts

The company says the timing of the shutdown and the staff’s intent to unionize was “purely and unfortunately coincidental.”

A sunny dining room with pink and black decor on the walls.
Milk Bar vacated the Harvard Square space on February 19.
Sarah Storrer/Eater Boston
Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

Dessert chain Milk Bar and its celebrity chef and owner Christina Tosi came under fire this weekend following the bakery’s recent shutdown in Harvard Square. Employees at the now-shuttered shop, which closed on February 19, posted a joint statement to their personal Instagram accounts on Saturday, February 25, alleging that the closure may have been in retaliation over the group’s recent decision to unionize.

Milk Bar’s eight staffers at the Harvard Square shop voted to unionize “after nearly a year of unsavory work conditions, severe pay discrepancies, and a blatant steady decline in investment of its staff and physical space,” the statement on Instagram reads.

On January 11th, employees presented the store’s management with a physical letter announcing their intent to unionize with local shop NEJB Unite Here. On the same day, hours after the letter was delivered, Milk Bar president Keith Levy sent an email to staff stating that the store’s lease had been terminated and it was going to shut down, putting the entire staff out of work.

“In this deeply informal and hastily written email in which multiple staff members’ names were misspelled, it was announced with no evidence nor explanation that the landlord at 3 Brattle Street had chosen not to renew the lease,” reads the statement on Instagram recounting the incident. (The staffers declined to comment on the allegations when contacted by Eater.)

The employees are now calling on Milk Bar to publicize documentation corroborating Levy’s account in order to “dispel any suggestion of retaliation against us, their unionized workers,” the statement reads.

A spokesperson for the bakery chain told Eater in an email that they are working to get permission from the landlord at 3 Brattle Street to share the lease termination letter with staff.

According to the spokesperson, the company was under a sublease agreement with another former tenant in the space, &Pizza, the fast-casual pizza chain that Milk Bar initially partnered with for its Boston expansion. When &Pizza closed up shop last May, the spokesperson says, the landlord agreed to allow Milk Bar to keep operating out of its partial space.

Then, the spokesperson says that the landlord notified Milk Bar in the beginning of January that their sub-lease was being terminated. Weeks later, NYC pizza icon Joe’s Pizza announced that it would be taking over the entire space at 3 Brattle Street in its first-ever Boston expansion.

“We did not close this location in response to union activities,” the spokesperson said. “The closeness in proximity to our team member’s communication sharing their intent to unionize was purely and unfortunately coincidental. Not owning this storefront outright, and given our limited status as a former sub-tenant of another establishment, made the decision to close something that was unfortunately completely out of our control.”

Among the company’s 11 shops, no other Milk Bar locations have unionized. “In total, there were only eight of us, and every single one of us gave an enthusiastic yes vote to unionize,” former employee Sarah McClune said in an email. “We’re all genuinely shocked to see the impact that such a small team can have and we really appreciate everyone who’s reached out to share encouraging words.”

The Boston team was following in the footsteps of many other coffee shops and bakeries in the city that have recently organized, including independent shops like the Somerville trio of Forge Baking Company, Diesel Cafe, and Bloc Cafe, and local outposts of national chains like Starbucks.