The entire staff of Alexandria coffee shop Killer ESP quit not once—but twice—over the past year following allegations that owner Rob Shelton sexually harassed female employees, didn’t follow pandemic safety protocols, and promoted conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and George Floyd’s death. After the second mass departure in November, the shop closed. But a new owner, tech entrepreneur Erik Muendel, has since revived the cafe with some old employees, a new look, upgraded menu, and revised name—ESP Tea & Coffee.
Muendel says Shelton, who’s repeatedly denied the allegations against him, is no longer involved in the business in any way—financially, operationally, or otherwise. Muendel runs a nearby digital marketing company called Brightline Interactive and says he approached Shelton about taking over the business because he wanted to keep alive a neighborhood staple that he frequented several times a week.
“I did an asset purchase. It was pretty simple, pretty clean. Obviously there’s a lot going on with him, and I didn’t want anything like that,” Muendel says. “There’s no association.” (Shelton did not respond to a request for comment about the ownership change.)
But as a longtime regular whose daughter worked in the shop, Muendel has some history with the previous owner. Last June, the Twitter account for Killer ESP came under fire for a series of tweets suggesting the pandemic is a hoax and George Floyd’s death was staged, among other offensive and questionable content. Shelton acknowledged that some of the content lined up with his own beliefs, but denied sending the tweets, claiming some former employee must have gone rogue with the account.
In his own since-deleted tweets at the time, Muendel defended Shelton’s assertion that he wasn’t behind the tweets. “I read it and I was like, ‘That’s crazy. Why would a business owner who’s already lost half their revenue scare the other half away? It just didn’t make sense to me,” Muendel says of his thinking at the time. “I was like, ‘His account’s been sabotaged. Don’t you think critically?’ This and that. And then I got a whole bunch of responses back to that… He did have these opinions, which I did not know at the time. He’s never talked politics ever.”
Then, when the staff quit the second time in November, Shelton gave Washingtonian Muendel’s number to speak in his defense. “I think Rob thinks that I am sympathetic to him because I’m probably the only person who talked to him,” Muendel says now. He also adds: “I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know the magnitude of it. Sometimes you just jump into things.”
Despite their connection, Muendel says the two are not friends. “I am a friendly person and I talk to him in a friendly way… I only know him from going to the shop. I’ve never hung out with him outside of Old Town,” Muendel says. He says he has “no idea” what Shelton is up to now.
Nine women accused Shelton of unwelcome physical contact and sexual comments about their appearances in interviews with Washingtonian. Asked whether he believes the sexual harassment allegations against his Shelton, Muendel says, “I don’t know what transpired. I don’t know, and would never claim to know, unless there was a full investigation.” He emphasizes that he has zero tolerance in his own businesses for sexual harassment, racism, bullying, and “just being uncool towards others.”
Muendel also says he’s taking Covid restrictions and mask mandates seriously. “I totally feel that masks need to be worn in the workplace,” he says. “I’m all about it. I’m about the culture of it. I’m all about testing. It is a very serious deal. People need to feel safe here.”
Muendel has made several other changes to try to give the place a new feel and identity (and get rid of the fruit fly problem). He’s upgraded the space with refinished counters, new artwork, and rugs, plus branded mugs and merchandise. He’s removed half the furniture for better social distancing. He’s putting more emphasis on tea, including bringing in premium products such as fermented pu-erh tea. And he’s introduced initiatives to raise money for local charities, such as ALIVE, which provides food, shelter, and support for Alexandrians living in poverty.
Killer ESP initially stood for “Espresso Snacks Pie”—items it lost when purveyors such as Lost Sock Roasters, Happy Tart bakery, and Pie Shop cut ties after the racist and Covid-denying tweets came to light. Muendel says the ESP in the new name now stands for “extra-sensory perception,” and the new logo is a flower with a third eye. He’s also been working to bring back some of the shop’s old vendors as well as old employees. While Muendel oversees branding and budgeting, he’s otherwise taking a hands-off approach and letting his team run the show day-to-day. He’s implemented profit-sharing for employees who work a certain number of hours.
“I wouldn’t have come back if the previous owner was involved at all,” says Carl Cabading, a former employee who’s since returned as one of the managers. Cabading says he’d had problems getting paid on time while working for Shelton—something also alleged by other former employees. He says that hasn’t been an issue under the new ownership.
“Things have greatly improved,” he says. “It’s going to still be the great chill place that it was, but hopefully without the drama.”
Despite all the changes, Muendel says he’s nervous about still being associated with Shelton. “I feel like I’m going to be pigeonholed, and I’m going to be two-degrees away from this guy who I barely know,” he says. “My admiration for him is the fact that he was able to build this place. It goes there.”
He ends our interview with a request: “Could you say the word ‘heal’? That’s what I want to do. I want to heal the community. I want to heal the situation.”