Cafe Gratitude started as the brainchild of millionaires Terces and Matthew Engelhart and has since grown into a small but successful chain. But more than just another rawist eatery, it is an unique experience. This raw vegan1 cafe is dedicated to what the Engelhart’s call “Sacred Commerce” and they have described it as “a school of transformation disguised as a cafe.” What began as a single location in San Francisco has since expanded into to several locations in California along with a sister-restaurant called Gracias Madre2 serving up Latin American inspired dishes.
One of the quirks of Cafe Gratitude is that the names of all the dishes are various self-affirmations that you say out load and your server repeats back to you. It ends up making ordering feel like being on an episode of Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley. You can order the “I AM HAPPY” (a Mediterranean wrap with live falafels) or the “I AM PURE” (a Ginger-Tahini kale salad) and wash it down with a “I AM IMMORTAL” (an “immune system enhancing, consciousness expanding, ancient tonifying elixir made from Reishi, Shilajit and Ormus”) or the “I AM POWERFUL” (an “ancient alchemy of Chinese herbs that support digestion, spleen function and weight control”) all while playing their in house board game Abounding River. A bit strange and over priced, but “where’s the problem?” one may ask.
One problem3 is Cafe Gratitude’s enthusiasm for a self-help program known as Landmark Forum. According to former employees attending Landmark’s introductory seminar is a requirement for management and highly encouraged for employees. (The Engleharts say the majority of employees go through at least the first seminar, which at around $500 is not cheap.) It was this policy that caused a public stir in 2009 when it was reported on in the East Bay Express that Ash Ritter, a former manager had been demoted and then fired for refusing to attend a Landmark seminar,
After being promoted, Ritter says her first manager’s meeting involved managers sharing their experiences at Landmark — often emotionally explaining the ways in which it changed their lives. “It was the theme,” she said. “‘Landmark saved my life.'”
According to Ritter, the leaders of the meeting then asked every manager to enroll ten people to come to an introduction to Landmark. They didn’t say it was a required part of the job, but Ritter felt pressured to attend because they asked all managers to e-mail the district manager every time they spoke to an employee who had not attended Landmark about giving it a try. She said they encouraged managers to keep track of the people they talked to, even if they declined the invitation.
Other workers have come forward such as former employee Carina Lomeli who also refused Landmark and expressed other concerns over workers being pressured to take part in a “holotropic breathing” event designed to induce alter states of consciousness through hyperventilation. Even then-current general manager Paddy Smith, a grateful veteran of Landmark, was unable to deny a strong sense of pressure to attend,
“It is definitely a challenge for those people to stay comfortable saying no,” admitted Paddy Smith, general manager of the Berkeley Café Gratitude. Although Smith says she was initially “offended” by the invitation to attend one of the seminars, she eventually signed up and found it to be a “life-changing” experience. “I learned how to be empowered and creative, get the results I want,” she said. At Café Gratitude, she added, Landmark’s teachings manifest themselves in the form of better communication, honesty, openness, and a no-gossip policy, and are so ingrained into company culture that she has a hard time differentiating between the two. In fact, Café Gratitude wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Landmark.
So just what is Landmark exactly? Landmark describes themselves on their website,
The Landmark Forum is designed to bring about a transformation in what is possible in people’s lives. Grounded in a model of transformative learning, it gives participants an awareness of the basic structures in which we know, think, and act in the world. From that awareness comes a fundamental shift that leaves us more fully in accord with our own possibilities and those of others. This shift is not a one-time event, but an ongoing access to a previously untapped dimension of effectiveness and creativity. The Landmark Forum offers a practical methodology for producing breakthroughs—achievements that are extraordinary, outside the limits of what’s already predictable, attainable, or known. Participants find themselves able to think and act beyond existing views and limits—in their personal and professional lives, relationships, and wider communities of interest. Read the course syllabus for a day-by-day description.
Find out about transformative learning and Landmark’s breakthrough technology
Of course when you actually do click that hyperlink to learn more about Landmark’s “breakthrough technology” you are led to a page that repeats the same vague statements and buzzwords. If you are a bit confused about what Landmark is all about then you aren’t alone. As Padraig Reidy wrote in the New Humanist,
Well, that’s the problem. It’s not entirely clear what the message is. The programme seems to combine elements of pop psychology with an odd form of existentialism. At one point, I’m fairly sure, the assembled are collectively accused of ‘bad faith’, or what Landmark calls ‘inauthenticity’. A look through the course syllabus also dredges up concepts such as ‘dealing powerfully with breakdowns’, where we learn to welcome breakdowns [defined as ‘something that we shouldn’t be’] “as an occasion for leadership and accomplishment.” This deconstruction is intended to lead to some sort of ‘breakthrough’ after which, presumably, we all become better people. In reality, all that they seem to be promising is a little selfawareness.
Landmark is actually the descendant of another popular 1970’s large group awareness organization, originally developed by Werner Erhard (an assumed name). Erhard took his inspiration from various sources in the burgeoning human potential movement and called his program “est“. Perhaps the most striking thing about est was its use of a controlling atmosphere and a problematic technique known as attack therapy, in which participants are psychologically attacked and verbally abused until the subject has a “breakthrough”. est soon became the subject of much controversy and eventually worried mental health professionals enough to make it (as well as Landmark) the subject of a number of psychological studies. Charlotte Faltermayer, writing for Time Magazine, had this to say about Erhard and est,
Erhard’s 60-hour seminars were strenuous ordeals, complete with “body catchers” and barf bags for the weak of mind and stomach. Trainers applauded bladder control and cursed those who didn’t get it. Still, Erhard and his message proved popular, even winning celebrity advocates.
est quickly grew in popularity and it wasn’t long before it held a significant share of the large group awareness training/self-help market. In conference rooms across the world veterans and new recruits forked over hundreds of dollars to be torn down and (hopefully) built back up. It continued on like that for years. Both the money and the critical reports kept piling up. But then the controversy reached a climax in 1991 when CBS aired a shocking 60 Minutes expose of Erhard and his organization. Surrounded by a host of devastating allegations4, Erhard left the US, conveniently selling the rights to the est “technology” to his brother Harry Rosenberg only just before the airing of the 60 Minutes program.
After this passing off the mantle the new organization took on the name Landmark Education Corporation and began offering its own seminars. Like its predecessor Landmark was steep in controversy5 from the very beginning. Participants in these seminars are encouraged to be “coachable”, ie accepting and pliable. They are told that they must remain in the room for all the sessions and follow all the “agreements” or they will not get the desired result. They are encouraged to see how their own “inauthenticity” is holding them back and then to create new possibilities. A repeated theme is that participants are “assholes”, that their beliefs systems are “worthless”, and that their lives are “meaningless”. But Landmark can help, rest assured.
Participants are led through a variety of exercises. At one point they may be asked to dredge up past hurts and traumas, exposing them to the group, to be met not with compassion and empathy but blame and derision. The core message of Landmark, that we are ultimately responsible for our lives, may be an empowering kick-in-the-butt for some. But for others, especially survivors of abuse and rape, it is a distressing or even devastating message. It is probably this aspect that I find most troubling. Along with all the many positive testimonials, the internet is filled with horror stories. Sarah Fazeli described one such experience,
I nearly walked out so many times, usually during the abusive interactions between the leader and whatever emotionally wracked person onstage. These were serious emotional breakdowns being handled in five-minute increments by this Landmark leader. Not a well-trained, experienced therapist in a safe environment but an arrogant, would-be dictator who egged on these breakdowns, gave them a quickie “tool” to get over their childhood trauma, and moved right along to the next person.
There were first-time revelations of childhood molestations, my-father-murdered-my-mother divulgements, I-think-I’m-gay moments. The words that best sum up Landmark’s catch-and-release handling of these fragile situations are dangerous and irresponsible.
One could spend many hours reading similar experiences. I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface here. Instead I’ll direct interested readers to the links below which offer at least a starting point.
1. While they bill themselves as vegan some of their dishes do contain honey.
2. Serving pricey, less-than-authentic Latin American food in the Mission district has won Gracias Madre its own share of detractors.
3. Additionally there have been past allegations of labor issues. See more here.
4. These allegations included abuse and incest (later recanted), as well as tax fraud. However, Erhard it appears was never convicted of a crime based on these allegations. To add an interesting twist, his supporters sometimes claim that these allegations and other troubles Erhard encountered are simply a part of a larger attack orchestrated by the Church of Scientology . You can get some more details here.
Now that’s a Celebrity Death Match I would watch, Werner Erhard vs. L. Ron Hubbard.
5. Another side of the controversy is Landmarks labor practices. Interested readers can find out more about this issue from the excellent “Background Briefing” documentary on Landmark Education from ABC Radio National.
I am Annoyed and Disappointed by Sam Levin
Landmark Forum on The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Landmark Education on Cult Education.com (contains an extensive collection of documents regarding Landmark)
The Landmark Forum: 42 Hours, $500, 65 Breakdowns by Laura McClure in Mother Jones
est, Werner Erhard, and the corporatization of Self-Help by Suzanna Snider
Attack therapy and the Landmark Forum by Jules Evans
Drive-thru Deliverance By Amanda Scioscia
It Happens by Steve Jackson
We’re Gonna Tear You Down and Put You Back Together by Mark Brewer in Psychology Today
Pay Money, Be Happy by Vanessa Grigoriadis