Food

Entire Staff Quits (Again) Over Coffee Shop Owner’s Alleged Sexual Harassment and Covid Denials

Killer ESP owner Rob Shelton calls many of the accusations "absurd" lies

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

The entire staff of Alexandria coffee shop Killer ESP has quit en masse for the second time in the past six months. Employees allege that owner Rob Shelton willfully disregarded Covid-19 safety protocols and told staff and patrons they didn’t need to wear masks. They also echo previous allegations of sexual harassment, including unwelcome physical contact and sexual comments about their appearances.

“He blatantly said that Covid was a hoax, that it was stupid, that it didn’t make sense, that Trump was going to save the country and make it a paradise and Biden was a terrorist,” says former manager Mary Gmaz, 30, who walked out with four other teenage employees on Sunday.

Gmaz and other former employees say Shelton didn’t always wear a mask in the shop, and when he did, he usually didn’t cover his nose. She says he made fun of her for wearing a mask and offered to pay any fines if she was cited by health inspectors for not wearing one. “I don’t care about that. I want to not die,” she says. “I have MS. I have Lupus. I have a lot of immune-disorders, so I want to keep myself safe.”

Ella, a 15-year-old high-school student who worked at the shop part-time, says she witnessed the same behavior from Shelton. “He’s told us multiple times that Covid is stupid or it’s fake and that the government is trying to control us,” says Ella, who spoke to Washingtonian with her mother’s blessing. “I felt kind of unsafe because so many anti-maskers would come in, and I’m sure they knew about Rob’s standing.”

Shelton only responded to requests for comment via text message. “I don’t agree at all with the Covid restrictions as I mentioned last time,” he said. But he claims he’s nonetheless “fully complied” with Alexandria Health Department recommendations. He also sent Washingtonian photos of himself at Gmaz’s wedding (Gmaz says he “kind of invited himself” so she gave him an invitation to be nice earlier in her employment), a full transcript of every single text message sent between them, and photos Gmaz posted on Facebook supporting #BlackLivesMatter.

“I don’t agree with BLM’s trained Marxist views or the damage that they cause to people or property. I don’t talk about it,” he said.

Presented with some of the specific accusations against him regarding sexual harassment and the shop’s cleanliness, Shelton said, “This is outrageous. These lies are more absurd than the first go around.” He said he would follow up with call, but later texted, “I’ve been advised by my attorneys to keep quiet.”

A different group of former employees quit together in June after Killer ESP (which stands for Espresso Snacks Pie) came under fire for tweets suggesting that the pandemic is a hoax and George Floyd’s death was staged, among other offensive or questionable content. Many of the shop’s food and coffee suppliers cut ties.

At the time, Shelton denied sending the tweets and suggested that maybe an employee he fired went rogue with the handle as retribution. But in an interview with Washingtonian, he didn’t disagree with the most of the content posted on social media. He called government restrictions around Covid-19 “manipulation and control.”  Asked about conspiracies around Floyd’s death, he said, “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.”

Gmaz says she didn’t know about the coffee shop’s history when she was hired in July. When she did find out, she says she initially didn’t believe the stories. “He seemed like a sweet, weird dude.” She says Shelton told her he fired the previous group of employees for stealing. Over time, though, she experienced many of the same things her previous counterparts alleged.

Gmaz says the shop did not have any real disinfecting products. Instead, she says they used hot water from the espresso machine to wipe down the tables, fridges, and other areas. At most, Shelton would put a capful of Simple Green all-purpose cleaner—which does not kill bacteria and viruses—in a spray bottle with water. Beyond the alleged disregard for Covid safety, Gmaz says the dishwasher was often broken and the place had roach and fly infestations.

“There are gnats and flies crawling all over the food, and he still wanted us to sell it to customers,” Gmaz says. “We even had customer complaints saying, ‘Are you going to sell this to me? Because I can see there’s bugs crawling all over this food.’ I would throw the food out, and then he would get mad at me and say ‘Oh it’s just bugs. It’s not like it’ll to get anyone sick.'”

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Ella adds that the towels smelled like mold, and the ice machine was never cleaned. “If a health inspector walked in there, we would have been shut down immediately,” she says. (According to public records, the health department last visited the coffee shop on March 4 and found various foods held at improper temperatures and no certified food protection manager on duty, among other minor violations. One recent Yelp review mentions spotting roaches.)

When Gmaz tried to talk to Shelton about the health code and Covid safety, she says he blew her off. “He just kept telling me over and over again, he doesn’t understand why we would clean chemicals with chemicals. I told him that doesn’t even makes sense. I don’t even know what that means.”

But for Gmaz, the final straw was the alleged sexual harassment. In June, Washingtonian spoke to seven ex-employees who accused the coffee shop owner of unwelcome touching and routinely telling young female employees they were “sexy” or “hot.” Gmaz and Ella say they had similar experiences.

Gmaz says Shelton told her “I only want to hire sexy fucking girls.” At one point, Gmaz suggested that all the employees wear aprons, like baristas do at other coffee shops. She alleges Shelton told her he’d rather they be allowed to dress like “cute little hookers.” He also allegedly described the look of one of his teenage employees as “Steampunk hooker” and told Gmaz she had a “tight ass” and “he would motorboat me if I wasn’t engaged.” Gmaz says she stopped wearing v-neck shirts and skinny jeans to work.

“I started dressing like a little old lady and even my husband would joke about how I was dressing for work,” she says. “I didn’t know what to wear to make him stop.”

According to Gmaz, Shelton would graze his arm against her breast or come up behind her and touch her shoulders or her lower back. Last Friday, when the two were in the basement together, his crotch “bumped into” her butt. Gmaz says Shelton would play off these encounters as if he was just clumsy, but she felt he was intentionally trying to cop a feel.

“That’s not clumsy. Your whole crotch went up against my butt in the slowest fashion that it could to get past me. You were doing exactly what you were planning on doing,” she says.

Ella says she had similar encounters where Shelton would press against her while maneuvering through a tight space or put his hand on hers while showing her how to use the milk steamer. She felt uncomfortable but dismissed his touchiness at the time. Only in hindsight did she consider it could be “his way of groping you.”

These were among the accusations Shelton called “outrageous.” He previously denied similar 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.”

Gmaz says she stuck with the job as long as she did because she had to pay rent and she worried about leaving her teenage employees alone with Shelton. After the incident in the basement, Gmaz told him the reason she came in every day from open to close was to make sure he wasn’t doing anything inappropriate. She claims he subsequently cut her hours.

“That was the final straw for me of I can’t protect them, and I don’t know what he’s going to do,” she says. “There’s no adult supervision but him and I was terrified to leave them alone.”

Over the weekend, Gmaz told the four other employees about her experience and said she was leaving.

“We knew that if Mary were to ever leave, we would leave as well,” says Ella. “We felt unsafe without her there.”

Another 19-year-old employee had only worked at Killer ESP for about a week. “Just having past experiences and having that same feeling, I knew I didn’t want to wait around for anything to happen,” she says.

So they all decided to quit. They told customers they were closing early because the espresso machine was broken. They cleaned up the shop, counted the cash drawer, restocked for the next day, and took a video so Shelton couldn’t accuse them of impropriety. Gmaz sent Shelton a text on behalf of the group, explaining his “inappropriate behavior and comments have created an unsafe and toxic work place.”

Now, however, Gmaz is worried about who might be hired next.

“He’s lost two two sets of staff over this type of behavior,” she says. “It terrifies me the idea of a whole other set of underage girls walking into that store, being completely oblivious and believing him like we did.”

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.