Terminations and failed union negotiations lead to closures of Nashville coffee shops

By: - July 5, 2023 6:00 am
Barista Parlor, Nashville, Tenn. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Barista Parlor, Nashville, Tenn. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The futures of two popular Nashville coffee shops are uncertain as multiple Barista Parlor locations and Three Brothers Coffee remain closed after weeks of failed union negotiation efforts and unexplained terminations. Employees at both companies say baristas have major concerns about the coffee industry in Nashville because of multiple closures, terminations and low or stolen wages.

Golden Sound, a Barista Parlor location in the Gulch, closed almost two months ago. Some employees transferred to the Germantown location before all but three staff were fired without warning June 14. A Barista Parlor worker said management attempted to have one-on-one meetings with staff in order to terminate them, but the group demanded to meet together. Three staff members who were not terminated quit in solidarity. 

The entire staff of the Hillsboro Village location also walked out, citing similar concerns about working conditions, understaffing, wages and job security. Katte Noel, who has worked at Barista Parlor for a year and a half, said workers have experienced hundreds of dollars in wage theft in the last few months. Noel said management has promised to repay those wages but This was in addition to hours being cut and company favorites being given better shift times and assignments, which Noel says puts stress on baristas trying to make ends meet; shorter shifts mean slimmer pay checks.

In Nashville you work somewhere for a while until you can’t stand the conditions and you move on. ut somebody has to take that spot, and they’re going to be treated bad — if not a lot of times, worse. We have to stop doing that. . . We need to be paid better as an industry.

– Katte Noel, former barista at Barista Parlor

“They haven’t been forthright,” Noel said of the decision to terminate workers suddenly. “This is our rent money. Every day until that Wednesday, the schedule was changed with less than 24 hours notice. We can’t do our jobs properly; we barely had enough people to stay afloat. [A female manager] would be very aggressive. She made a couple people cry on shift, would regularly call employees off the clock to complain about other employees.”

Three Brothers Coffee closed June 13, the same day Coffee Workers of the South United posted their decision to strike to the union’s Instagram page. All five employees are union members, and they say management has not negotiated in good faith and will not increase wages to the requested $16 per hour. They have also been picketing outside the shop. 

Paige Lemon, a Three Brothers barista for more than a year, said paying $1,200 per month has always been hard, but is even more difficult while going more than two weeks without pay while on strike.

The current living hourly wage for single adults in Nashville is around $18. 

Noel said she made $13 as a shift leader, but starting wages at Barista Parlor are $11, which is also what job postings on Indeed show for the company. Three Brothers starting wages are $9.50 per hour — just about half of Davidson County’s living wage. Some coffee shops in Nashville have job listings around between $16 and $25 per hour on Indeed, but workers at both closed locations say the industry is bleak and that they hope to improve conditions for everyone.

“In Nashville you work somewhere for a while until you can’t stand the conditions and you move on,” Lemon said. “But somebody has to take that spot, and they’re going to be treated bad — if not a lot of times, worse. We have to stop doing that. It’s not about me, actually. That’s why we’re striking. We need to be paid better as an industry.”

In addition, Lemon says third wave coffee is a disjointed concept in Nashville. “Third wave” often means specialty coffee drinks, latte art and an attention to detail that prompted managers at Three Brothers to only hire baristas with experience despite the low wages. 

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Lemon says third wave shops offer an elevated aesthetic and workers who focus on getting a perfectly tamped espresso shot, the right percentages of caffeine and creating an elevated atmosphere that’s attractive to visitors and college students. These specialty concepts cost more, and baristas often ring up drinks that cost $10 or more, rivaling hourly wages. Lemon says owners should stop chasing an unsustainable third wave aesthetic if they aren’t willing to properly invest into their businesses.

“There’s a whole science behind it,” Lemon said. “There are people who are interested in that artisan work, but the owners are more interested in the popularity. You want a good cup of coffee but don’t want to give us training on how to do that. It’s not third wave coffee anymore. It is confusing. If you want the product, like some of the other chain-style shops are, make that clear — you’re just churning out lattes.”

While the union has gotten some negative comments online, both Noel and Lemon say regulars at both shops are supportive. Angus Purdy, a regular of Three Brothers for about a year and a half, said he started visiting the shop because of the union. He also said he’s disappointed that Barista Parlor owner Andy Mumma has forgotten his own working class roots, and he no longer supports the second business Three Brothers owner TJ Wilt runs.

“I was hired as a barista at Fido 24 years ago,” Purdy said in a direct message. “ I trained [Mumma] on the coffee side. I fully support the strike and am boycotting Cumberland Transit (Wilt’s other business) in solidarity with the workers. Their demands are reasonable and frankly they deserve more than they’re asking.”

Barista Parlor management offered a statement via email claiming that employees are lying about wage theft, mismanagement and other complaints.

“Barista Parlor vehemently denies any claim that the company tolerated or condoned abusive working conditions, withheld tips, or stole wages from its employees. We are disappointed by the false and unjustified narrative that a few former employees have perpetuated,” Mumma said. “Barista Parlor prides itself on its community roots, ethical products, and culture. We offer competitive wages (among the top of our industry peers), as well as attractive benefits, including 401(k) match, health insurance, free coffee, and PTO potential.”

Noel said she has never received paid time off. Management did not answer follow up questions about that portion of their statement. Management at Three Brothers did not respond to two requests for comment.



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Lonnie Lee Hood
Lonnie Lee Hood

Lonnie Lee Hood is a queer Nashville-based writer covering justice, LGBTQ issues and more. They are an amateur roller-skater and live with their hedgehog, Noodle, and three-legged cat, Tom. They are writing a debut novel and have published poetry and sci-fi/fantasy short stories.