“Compassionate” Vegan Chain Lays Off DC Employees, and a Regular Fights Back

Native Foods Café closed around the holidays, but its staff won't be left out in the cold.

Native Foods Cafe shuttered both its DC locations. Photograph by Anna Spiegel.

The California-based vegan/vegetarian chain Native Foods Café pulled out of the DC market last week, closing its last two locations in Dupont and Penn Quarter (a Falls Church shop shuttered earlier). Though the brand didn’t find success in Washington with its menu of house-made tempeh burgers and veggie bowls, it attracted a small loyal following, among them senior campaigner Pulin Modi. A vegan, Modi was a regular at the branch near his office, and took action when it became apparent that the Native Foods employees were being laid off with little warning and no additional compensation—a stark contrast to the Native Foods motto of “100% compassionate meals.”

“They basically found out the restaurant was closing when they went to work and saw a sign on on the door that they were closing,” says Modi. “It’s just not in line with the values to treat workers in that way.”

Modi turned to his own company website for a solution, launching a petition that lobbied Native Foods to compensate their DC employees through the end of the year—about three weeks of income. Though common in other fields, severance packages are basically unheard of in the hospitality industry, better known for the erratic coming-and-going of restaurants and employees.

“I just wanted to do something as a customer who appreciates staff who’re always friendly,” says Modi. “I know people who work there have kids, and others are trying to save money for school.”

Shortly after the petition launched, newly-appointed Native Foods chairman Michael Mack reached out to Modi. A spokesperson for the restaurant says Mack then approached the board, and convinced them to grant the DC employees a one-week severance package as well as other benefits, including job referrals, and free career counseling and resume-building services for up to six months.

“The decision to close a location is never an easy one, and there are times when we need to make those difficult business decisions for the good of the whole company,” says Mack in an email to Washingtonian. “We are working to ensure that all decisions are made with Native Foods’ trademark compassion for its employees and customers.”

Modi says he’s not completely satisfied, and the petition remains active. At the time of this post the campaign lists 291 supporters out of a goal of 500. Still as a former loyal customer, he hopes the best for the company that still has 19 locations between the West Coast and Chicago.

“It’s not what I wanted, but I realize Native Foods must be in a bad situation,” says Modi. “Ultimately I want them to succeed because they’ll employ more people, and make food that, in my opinion, is better for humans and animals.”

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.