Under the lid at Righteous Gelato
Former employees speak out.
For years, Righteous Gelato has been celebrated as a Calgary company that makes a difference. Staff encourage each other to “do good in your hood.” The company is known for championing local causes and jumping in to help wherever help is needed.
Righteous is a B Corp, a certification for businesses that meet high social, environmental and public transparency standards “to balance profit and purpose.” In 2018, Righteous even beat out Ben & Jerry’s B Corp assessment score by one point.
When the company rebranded earlier this year from Fiasco Gelato, it picked a name that reflected this. “Awesome, virtuous, morally right, and most of all, a beacon of amazing moments,” said CEO James Boettcher at the time. “That is the essence of Righteous.”
But behind the scenes it’s a different story, say former staff.
In recent weeks, The Sprawl interviewed 12 former employees of Righteous who worked at the company over the last decade. Most asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, but others went on the record with their names.
They described an internal company culture deeply at odds with Righteous’s do-good public image.
Interviewed separately, the former employees shared similar stories of how they were pressured to work weekend events without compensation, staff were publicly shamed, and workers who made mistakes were coerced to reimburse the company for errors—even as they were urged to write positive online reviews of the company.
They use culture to cover up what is very cult-like… as a way to cover up treating individuals poorly.
They described an environment of manipulation and gaslighting amid a culture of "toxic positivity."
“They use culture to cover up what is very cult-like,” said one employee. “And they use culture as a way to cover up treating individuals poorly.”
“If you stand up for being treated a certain way, it's, ‘Well, you're not the right culture fit.’”
Former employees started sharing their experiences on social media, particularly via Instagram stories by @yyc.notforblacklives, as Righteous made headlines in June for a botched fundraising effort. Amid the Black Lives Matter uprising, Righteous rolled out a chocolate mint chip BLM gelato, choosing a white artist’s work for the packaging.
Online blowback was immediate and fierce. People pointed out that the company was overwhelmingly white. “This is so disgusting,” one Twitter user wrote. “You’re literally trying to commodify BLM for profit?”
That night, as criticism intensified, Righteous pulled the product from the company's website and deleted the social media posts about it.
People are attracted to what the image of the company culture there is.
CEO James Boettcher apologized in a statement the next day. “While our intentions were from a place of love, we truly failed, and we are wholeheartedly sorry,” he wrote.
Boettcher has since locked down his personal Twitter and Instagram social media accounts. In the aftermath of the controversy, former employees felt empowered to speak out.
Trouble at the folk fest tent
Carling Nugent started working for Fiasco in the summer of 2016, hired as the company’s cafe and events supervisor. With one of Fiasco’s biggest events coming up—Calgary folk fest—she felt ready and eager.
“People are attracted to what the image of the company culture there is,” said Nugent. “It's this adorable little gelato factory, and ‘we make the world a better place.’ It feels like an exciting opportunity.”
Nugent’s paperwork laid out that, like all Fiasco employees, she would get a free pint of gelato each week, flexible hours and be eligible for the company’s profit-sharing program. She was also expected to join the company’s “Giving Gang,” volunteering at places like the Drop-In Centre.
“You are responsible for creating a strong and positive presence in the community,” she was told.
He just kind of tears into her and tells her she’s inept and all these other insults.
Nugent represented Fiasco at folk fest just over two weeks after she was hired. Aware of the event’s importance, she asked for a training meeting with Boettcher, keen to learn the finer points of her new role.
“I brought a journal and a pen, and I was ready to write down everything I needed to know so that when I was home later thinking about it and worrying about it and determined to do a good job, I'd have some notes to look at,” said Nugent.
“He spent the entire time name-dropping. I’m not kidding. He bragged the entire time about how we would be working long days and he would be backstage with all the artists because he was so cool. Like, not helpful.”
Other former employees describe a similar lack of training.
“They expected you to read people's minds, and if you couldn't, then you just didn't ‘get it,’” said one. “And that held a lot of weight, because that meant that you didn't fit in with the company and you were replaceable. And James would mention that.”
For Nugent, it came to a head on the festival’s Friday night, after the folk-rock band Whitehorse closed out the main stage.
I won’t deny that I am passionate and precise about detail.
As Nugent was closing up the Fiasco tent for the night, Boettcher arrived. He pointed out a burnt-out lightbulb and a tarp that needed to be adjusted, she recalls.
“I said, ‘Okay. I understand. I will get these things fixed,’” she said, adding that she asked Boettcher where the light bulbs were kept at the warehouse.
He said he didn’t know, and according to Nugent, seemed annoyed by the question. “He took a step, drunk—took a step into my personal space, glared at me, and said, ‘I steer the ship. You change the toilet paper.’”
“Like, you're degrading me and the job you gave me... I couldn't believe it. I was gobsmacked.”
Another former employee, Andie Amaya, recalls Boettcher reaming Nugent out that weekend.
“He just kind of tears into her and tells her she's inept and all these other insults that I just can't remember,” said Amaya. “But I do remember him calling her inept and insulting her and ridiculing her in front of all of us.”
“We're all just kind of between the ages of 16 to probably 20, and he's tearing apart a manager like that. It just—it didn't seem acceptable.”
The gelato life 'isn't for everyone'
In an interview with The Sprawl, Boettcher said he doesn’t recall details of the exchange at folk fest, but acknowledged that he is frank in his feedback to employees— “direct, to the point, precise in what needs to happen.”
“I won't deny that I am passionate and precise about detail, because the small things are always going to be the big things,” he said.
I was hurt, and my confidence was incredibly shaken.
The weekend after folk fest, Nugent and her team went to Canmore to work the Fiasco food truck at a two-day event.
Accommodation for the crew wasn’t provided. After a 17-hour day, Nugent’s husband drove out from Calgary to help them set up at a campground for the night.
“We slept on the ground, and then we did it all again the next day, 17 hours,” said Nugent. “Worked the full Sunday, and then drove all the way back to the city and then unpacked and cleaned.”
A week later, Nugent typed up her resignation letter and fired it off to Boettcher and another manager, saying she would not step foot in Fiasco again.
“I know my worth and the value I bring to a team,” she wrote. “I will not subject myself to any further degradation in any job, anywhere.”
Boettcher followed up with her by email: “While we are not perfect, our culture here is to foster and empower fully-formed adults”—Nugent points out she was 28 at the time— “and give them the ability to truly carve the path they wish, through hard work, determination, and being open to feedback and accountability. This is very similar to life from my viewpoint, and I recognize it isn’t for everyone.”
He closed by saying there would be no ill comments or feelings. “I know you tried to make it work, but it just wasn’t a match,” he wrote.
Our culture here is to foster and empower fully-formed adults.
The experience stayed with Nugent. She started a small building management company where, most of the time, she worked alone and had plenty of time to ruminate on her time with Fiasco.
“I was hurt, and my confidence was incredibly shaken,” said Nugent. “It makes me angry to admit it—that he had the power to affect me that much—but my confidence was really destroyed.”
Numerous former employees say they are still afraid of Boettcher, given his influence in Calgary’s food and business scenes.
“If you're Mayor Nenshi and if you're rich, or if you're famous, or if you're someone, he's a charming, wonderful person,” said Nugent. “They just can't believe that James would act like that.”
“But if he considers you nothing… you know, you're not an influencer—then he can get away with chewing you up and spitting you out. What are you going to do?”
After the Black Lives Matter debacle in June, Nugent posted her resignation letter on Instagram, along with her story about folk fest.
“If people felt that, I would sincerely say sorry,” said Boettcher when asked about Nugent’s post. “If somebody said, ‘Hey, when you said that, I felt belittled,’ I'd be like, ‘I'm sorry.’ That would never be my MO.”
At times, employees were asked to single out their worst co-workers.
“My call to action would be, if you're in a spot where you're feeling that... raise the concern with someone that can assist you with that in that moment. Because then you allow the opportunity to get clarity on what was meant by it or how it was going or what's real.”
“And if you don't, then you're going to carry luggage for far too long of a time unnecessarily—and then at some point, like right now, the piling on was activated by being in the spotlight.”
Not just a job, but a new life
Boettcher is clear with all his new hires at Righteous: this is not just a job.
“The true responsibility of an employer,” he told Avenue magazine in 2013, “is to create an environment that allows people to feel like it’s less of a job and more like a part of their life.”
He refers not to work-life balance, but work-life blend, a place where co-workers are like family. And he speaks to employees often of the importance of being an eagle—someone who soars, rather than a duck waddling on the ground, waiting to be told what to do.
“People don’t come here for the paycheque or because it’s easy,” reads the company’s culture book, which is given to all new employees. “They come here because it’s worth it. They want their work to be a part of building something. Something that matters.”
The true responsibility of an employer is to create an environment that allows people to feel like it’s less of a job and more like a part of their life.
Robyn Marler started working for Fiasco in 2017, heading up the accounting department.
“When you start there, it's amazing,” Marler said. “You're full of all of these ideas, and oh my God, people love Fiasco—and they love where you work, and it's so great.”
“And then if you’re a little bit more rational about it, you can kind of sit back and be like, ‘Oh, this doesn't seem right to me.’”
At company-wide Monday “mojo” meetings, workers would be called on to admit their mistakes in front of the rest of the staff. Employees say they were asked to single out their worst co-workers. Boettcher disputes this. “We do not, nor have ever, asked people to publicly call out others or name their worst colleagues,” he said.
Another time, a warehouse employee accidentally spilled vanilla paste, a costly error. Marler said he stood up at a meeting and admitted his mistake, and paid back what his blunder cost the company. Another former employee confirmed the story.
“I still see the look on this guy’s face,” said Marler, who still owns shares in the company. “He was mortified.”
Boettcher emphasizes the importance of having courage to own up to your mistakes and learn from them—one of Righteous’s core values.
“The premise is that I'm owning my fault,” Boettcher said. “More often than not, it's put to the team to say: Is this something you feel comfortable sharing with everybody else?”
If people didn’t do the dishes, they would be shamed on the app.
Alberta labour laws forbid employers from deducting employees' pay for faulty work. Boettcher says he doesn't force employees to cover damaged company goods, but some step up of their own accord.
“I think that if we were in front of a judge and someone said, ‘I offered to pay for it in writing and it's done,’ the judge is going to say, ‘Great. Good on you for being an adult,’” Boettcher said.
'Slack shaming' and in-house reviews
Marler and other former employees also described “Slack shaming,” referring to the workplace chat app. Righteous calls it Slack sharing—a way of holding people accountable—but numerous people said it created constant anxiety.
“If people didn't do the dishes they would be shamed on the app, where it was company-wide,” said Marler.
Marler questioned the culture and was eventually fired; her daughter still works there. Afterward, she reviewed the company on indeed.com, giving it one star (“horrible place to work,” she wrote).
She recalled how employees were “voluntold” to work events like Love YYC Day and Doors Open, “except it can’t be called work since you don’t get paid and if you don’t sign up for a position, you get called out in front of everyone and shamed for it.”
I was taking a fistful of anxiety meds to go to work every day.
Other reviewers mention similar issues.
“They celebrate the fact they pay you a living wage, however after all the mandatory overtime and weekend events, it comes out to less than minimum wage,” reads one review. “They celebrate AMAZING vacation policies, but you can't actually get vacation because they're understaffed.”
On paper, Righteous has an unlimited vacation policy—a factor in the company’s many accolades. Earlier this year, Righteous was named as one of Alberta’s Top 75 Employers.
But if you do take vacation, former employees say, you are still expected to work and be responsive to Boettcher—which contravenes Alberta’s labour laws.
“If you were expected to join a call, you had to join a call,” said a former HR staffer. “If he were to email you while you were on vacation and not get back to him, you can expect public callout or arbitrary write-ups.”
Boettcher disputes this. “When people are on holidays we do not require them to be on call or available," he said. "Likewise, no one has been written up or called out for such a thing.”
Other employees also said the line between volunteerism and work was blurred, and the company put workers on salary to avoid paying overtime for the extra weekend events.
“To be clear, my expectation has never been that people must do these things,” Boettcher said. “I just have created the platform and the opportunity for those things to occur.”
“If people wanted to say no, they could say no. But most of the people here, in terms of value set, are awesome.”
After Marler posted her review on Indeed in January, Boettcher threatened her with legal action by email. “Please have this review removed immediately, and out of respect for your daughter who still enjoys working for our company, start acting professionally,” he wrote, cc'ing Marler's husband.
Later that month, a batch of positive reviews appeared on Indeed. Numerous former employees said they were asked to write positive reviews about Righteous online—on Indeed, Facebook and Google.
Top management made that decision, and no one knew about it until it came out.
Boettcher is forthcoming when asked about positive reviews being written in-house. “There's no mandate of it," he said. "It's just like: Who wants to do this?”
For her part, Marler was glad to be out.
“I was taking a fistful of anxiety meds to go to work every day,” she said. “I was shitty to my family, I was shitty to my husband. It was horrible.”
“The idea of the culture and all of that is so amazing, but then you ruin it by shaming people and making them pay the company back if they make a mistake and belittling them and making them feel small.”
A rough time to be Righteous
Like many companies right now, Righteous is struggling. The company employs about 45 people. Earlier this year, Fiasco rebranded because it has expanded into the U.S., where there’s already a company called Gelato Fiasco.
But between the economic recession, COVID-19 and the fallout from the Black Lives Matter pints, it’s been a rocky time.
David Guillen has been with the company since May 2019. When he first came on as a brand ambassador, it was for the same reason as others before him—he was drawn to the fun, energizing environment.
But the Black Lives Matter incident made him question the company and his place there.
It is a really great place to work… Overall my experience has been really good.
“I needed to hear more of where that decision came from,” Guillen said. “Top management made that decision, and no one knew about it until it came out... we weren't able to give our feedback.”
Boettcher held individual meetings with all staff after the BLM incident. After Guillen’s one-on-one with the CEO, he decided to stay on at the company.
“It is a really great place to work,” he said. “There are a lot of things circulating about it right now, and I do think that those things that are circulating are very serious—and it has questioned my place in the company and my loyalty to the company.”
“But overall my experience has been really good.”
Among the many commonalities the ex-employees who spoke to The Sprawl share, they all grappled with moments in which their optimism was replaced with the reality of working at Righteous.
For those who stay and stick it out, it can be a close-knit place of belonging.
“The work culture is intoxicating, because you're put in with a group of people—and if they like you and things are going well, it’s like you have a bunch of best friends,” said one former employee. “It's like this crazy high when everything's going super well.”
“But when you fuck up, or when James decides that you're not good enough anymore, everyone will publicly shit on you and basically disown you.”
Jeremy Klaszus is the founder and editor of The Sprawl. Hadeel Abdel-Nabi is The Sprawl’s staff writer intern.
CORRECTION 07/25/2020: This story originally identified David Guillen as a brand manager for Righteous; his title is brand ambassador.
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