Food  |  News & Politics

The Entire Staff Quit Over This Coffee Shop’s Racist and Covid-Denying Tweets. The Owner Claims They’re Not His.

Former employees now accuse the owner of sexual harassment. He denies the allegations.

Former Killer ESP employees accuse the owner of ignoring safety protocols and sexual harassment. Photograph by Andrew Beaujon.

Over the past couple months, the Twitter account for DC-area coffeeshop Killer ESP has liked, shared, and commented on a series of tweets suggesting that the pandemic is a hoax and George Floyd’s death was staged, among other offensive or questionable content.

Last week, the entire staff of the Alexandria location quit (the Chinatown location is currently closed). Local suppliers of coffee and baked goods have cut ties with Killer ESP (which stands for Espresso Snacks Pie). But owner Rob Shelton claims that he’s not behind the Twitter activity and hadn’t logged into the account “in years.” He’s since deleted the account.

As screenshots of the tweets started to circulate early last week, so did allegations of sexual harassment against Shelton. Washingtonian spoke to seven ex-employees who accuse the coffee shop owner of unwelcome physical contact and sexual comments about their appearances. Shelton denies the allegations: “I’m a friendly guy. I’m a hugger. I give you a hug instead of shaking your hand, but this kind of stuff, this is extreme bullshit… These are just people coming out of the woodwork to ruin somebody’s life.”

The Killer ESP Twitter account liked tweets that said “Why was George Floyd’s funeral closed casked?” and “Electrify that fence!!” in response to a barrier erected around the White House during Black Lives Matter protests.

The recent tweets set off the first alarm bells. In response to a video showing a Harlem funeral home turning away bodies of Covid-19 victims, Killer ESP wrote, “This is definitely a fake video w paid actors. no doubt.” The coffee shop liked multiple tweets questioning why Floyd had a closed casket and one saying “if they can stage a ‘pandemic’ and riots within 24hrs of a ‘staged’ event… organising a funeral is Mickey Mouse.” The account also also liked a tweet saying the fence erected around the White House during protests should be electrified and another saying white privilege “is a lie meant to casually imply that black people are lesser than white people by default.”

Killer ESP liked a series of conspiratorial tweets about George Floyd’s death.

“No one in their right mind with a family and a business that they busted their ass on is going to like and comment in any fashion like that on social media,” Shelton says. “I’m not political. I’m not red or blue. I’ve always just lived my life right or wrong.”

Shelton says he let his staff run the business’ social media accounts, and at least a couple dozen employees have had the password over the years. He suggests that maybe an employee he fired for stealing or not showing up to work went rogue with the handle as retribution. He calls the alleged hack “no different than throwing a Molotov cocktail in the window of my shop with me and my daughter in it.”

Nearly a week after his entire staff quit, Shelton posted his first public statement on Instagram saying that he “wholly” condemns the Twitter postings.

“I understand your reaction to those outrageous postings, and I am sorry that you were subjected to them. We are following state guidelines in regards to COVID-19 to make sure employees and patrons are safe and healthy,” the statement read in part.

At the same time, Shelton tells Washingtonian that some of the tweets do line up with his beliefs. “I’m not that guy that just follows along. The science behind this Covid stuff doesn’t actually match up with what’s actually going on,” he says. He calls the government precautions “manipulation and control.”

“The masks don’t help anything. They’re more about conformity and submission than they are about safety,” he says.

He also volunteered his thoughts on vaccines: “I’m not just going to blindly go and say here shoot these chemicals in my daughter without researching everything. There’s too many incidents of children getting hurt.”

Shelton also shared, unsolicited, his thoughts on the movement for racial justice: “I don’t understand Black Lives Matter, because I want all lives to matter. But if you say that, then I’m denounced for doing that. People online are brought down for saying that. Black people have their problems. I have problems too. Mine aren’t any less because theirs are so big.”

Asked if he believes George Floyd’s death was staged, Shelton says, “I don’t know, but why can’t I question it?… I’m just not going to accept what the media is telling me. There’s so much more out there.”

When Washingtonian pointed out there didn’t seem to be much daylight between the controversial tweets and what he was saying, Shelton said he hadn’t seen the full extent of what had been posted before he deleted the account. “It sounds somewhat like something I might post but not to that extreme,” he says. He specifically disavowed a tweet from the Killer ESP account saying a favorite thing about President Trump was his “BALLS OF STEEL.”

“When the hell have I ever said that in my life?,” Shelton says.

The Killer ESP account commented that Trump had “BALLS OF STEEL” and called liberalism “an incurable disease of stupidity and a closed mind.”

Shelton says he told his staff that he wasn’t behind the Twitter account, but they all quit anyway. (Some of the former employees started a GoFundMe page to help with their daily living expenses while they look for new jobs.) At least three of the employees who quit last week say they believe Shelton wrote the tweets. Other former employees who followed Shelton on his personal social media accounts say many of the tweets are in line with his previous posts, some of which include #qanon and #thegreatawakening hashtags. One former employee who had access to the coffee shop’s social media two years ago says that even then the business’ accounts followed right-wing and conspiratorial content.

“Even if it wasn’t him, that is still how he views things. Anybody who’s been around Rob can vouch for the fact that everything that was said on Twitter was definitely something that would come out of his mouth,” says Kristyn Crow, an employee who quit last week. She didn’t even know the coffee shop had a Twitter account until it started blowing up.

Recent employees say Shelton made it clear that he didn’t take the coronavirus pandemic seriously.

“When he would come into the shop, he would be telling customers, ‘You can remove your mask, it’s a mask-free zone,'” Crow says. “And we were like, ‘Well, what about our well-being? Because you’re not really looking out for us.”

The employees say Shelton didn’t stock up on extra disinfecting products or provide masks for the staff. Instead, they brought their own masks.

“I was so happy when it became legally mandated that we had to wear masks because I was afraid to wear one before that,” says one employee who quit last week and asked to remain anonymous. “I thought if I showed up with a mask that he would verbally lash out about how stupid it is and how stupid I am to wear one.”

In fact, when she finally showed up wearing a mask, the employee says Shelton told her, “Take that thing off. I’ll pay your fine if you get one.” Shelton claims he never disparaged employees from wearing masks and never said anything about paying fines. “They were just good employees wearing their masks like everybody else working in a restaurant or a store,” he says. “I was lucky that they even wanted to work through all this crap.”

At one point, the employee says Shelton asked if he should put up a sign saying “Unmasked Rebels, $1 off drinks.” She says she talked him out of it by telling him he would lose business.

“That was a joke,” Shelton says of the drink discount. “Everyone here has done everything that the health department asks. Whoever is behind the counter is wearing a mask.”

But employees say Shelton didn’t wear one himself, even when Virginia began requiring them in food businesses. (He says he “sometimes” wore one. “I don’t agree with it at all.”) Nate, another employee who quit last week and asked to be identified only by his first name, says Shelton didn’t respect social distancing measures either: “He was still very into handshakes and fist bumps and high-fives.”

Shelton’s denial wasn’t convincing enough for the suppliers who cut ties either.

“I was really hoping to see some kind of comment that this isn’t us, these aren’t my views, we do not support this, but I did not see that,” says Emma Cech, whose Falls Church bakery the Happy Tart has stopped providing pastries to Killer ESP.

Pie Shop owner Sandra Basanti says the fact that all Shelton’s employees walked speaks for itself. “As a small business owner, if somebody had accused me of doing something or saying something derogatory that wasn’t true… it’s not adding up. Someone would have your back,” she says.

Lost Sock Roasters was also among the businesses that immediately stop supplying Killer ESP. “We’re not the arbitrators of what’s true or not, but this has also brought to light allegations of workplace harassment. There’s no room for that in specialty coffee nor anywhere. Everyone should be treated with respect,” founder Nico Cabrera said in an email.

Seven former employees told Washingtonian they were sexually harassed by Shelton. They all say their boss, who’s 51, would routinely tell young female employees they were “sexy” or “hot” and touch them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.

Sarah Lore, who worked in the shop off and on from ages 16 to 19, recalls one time when she was nervously biting her nails. “He grabbed my wrists, and he told me I’m too fucking sexy to bite my nails,” she says. “Then he started going on about how he can tell all he needs to know about a woman by the state of her nails… If she doesn’t have nails then he doesn’t want to fuck her.”

Lore says that Shelton would frequently make comments about her body. “I had an eating disorder at the time, a pretty bad one, and he was constantly making comments about my weight and about how I looked skinny, which was really damaging to me,” she says. 

Once when she was closing the shop, Lore says Shelton picked her up, pressing her against his chest. Another time while she was making drinks, he hugged her from behind and kissed the top of her head.

“The space is very small and everybody’s in front of you, and it was just kind of humiliating to me,” she says. “And he always did stuff like that.”

In response, Shelton denies “grabbing” Lore’s wrists and doing anything untoward. He says she was “a young girl looking for some kind of attention.”

“You know what, she’s a very large breasted girl,” he says. “Ask her about the times where she secretly came in to give me a big hug in the kitchen and pressing her breasts on my chest, and I could not reach my arms around her for thinking that she was going to say something about that.”

Lore responds: “Wow, I think that speaks for itself.”

Shelton continued: “If I was such a bad person, why didn’t she quit? Why did she keep coming in the shop? This is stupid, to be honest with you. If it’s anything maybe I didn’t give her the attention she wanted.”

Lore says her coworkers and the regulars are what kept her coming back, and she needed the $17 an hour she made with tips. She says it was others initially sharing their stories in the DMV Coffee Facebook group that inspired her to come forward.

“Sexual harassment is so much in the status quo and it’s almost mundane how much it happens in the workplace that I just never gave it a second thought that this is something that this is wrong,” Lore says. “I never thought that sharing my experience could do anything.”

Ally Rigoli, who worked at the shop when she was 19, says Shelton would demand hugs then linger a little too long, pick her up without consent, or brush past her too close and grab her waist. He’d also regularly comment about her appearance and tell her she was “so sexy.”

Rigoli is one of several employees Washingtonian spoke to who also describe late, bounced, or missing checks as well as unusual pay arrangements over the years. Rigoli says Shelton initially paid her in cash and told her to pay him back when her actual paycheck came through. She eventually returned the cash, but the paycheck still never came. In her entire four or so months of employment, she says she maybe got paid once, if that.

“I stayed because I wanted to get that money back,” Rigoli says. “Even after I quit, I was constantly texting him about it. He would either act like he had no idea what I was talking about or not respond at all. He was gaslighting me.”  

Shelton says he doesn’t remember ever “hugging this person” or calling her sexy. As for the pay issues, he says he sometimes had problems with his paycheck company. “If they needed money I would Venmo them, or sometimes in a rare occasion, I’d give them cash. This is getting so blown out of proportion, it’s insane.”

Rigoli says she later consulted a police officer who was friends with her father for advice about the sexual harassment and pay. “He suggested that I let it go because I would get nothing out of it. He said it was too late.”

Other former employees asked to be anonymous about their experiences to avoid issues with work or because they feared backlash from Shelton. Several say Shelton would massage their shoulders or backs, hug them from behind, or pick them up without consent. One says she caught Shelton trying to look down her shirt. Another says Shelton once told her that a cappuccino she made him was so good it gave him a “hard-on.” He then allegedly urged her to look at his pants to verify he wasn’t lying. The same employee says Shelton once grabbed her hair from behind while talking about “how sexy it is” in front of two colleagues.

Shelton denies these allegations: “That is something that I would never, ever do. That is absolutely insane.”

He says “maybe at one point” he told employees they were attractive, but he doesn’t recall using the words “hot” or “sexy.” “I’m a very positive person and I always want people to feel good, and I’m always trying to be uplifting… just like a dad.”

He alleges he was the one turning down advances: “There have been employees that hit on me as well that I don’t pay any attention to. And that pisses them off. Little cute girls that have worked here that are being denied, OK? And you’ve got to understand that too. And that might piss somebody off too. I don’t do it. I’ve never messed around with anyone at work.”

When Lore finally did share her experience publicly online last week, it was also the first time her mom learned what happened. Her mom promptly went down to Killer ESP last Wednesday and confronted Shelton.

“She said, ‘I wanted to speak to the man who was sexually harassing my daughter.’ He just said that he didn’t know who I was. She said that she talked to him for five minutes, and he just kept saying I don’t know a Sarah.”

Shelton says he really didn’t know who the woman was.

“I couldn’t understand the last name,” he says, “because she had her mask on.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.