Controversy, calls for boycott surround temporary closure of Firecreek Coffee | Local

Controversy, calls for boycott surround temporary closure of Firecreek Coffee | Local

On March 24, the Firecreek Coffee café and venue on Route 66 was closed by Coconino County Health and Human Services (CCHHS) due to a health code violation. The business soon found itself at the center of a social media firestorm that called for boycott and alleged unsafe working conditions and incidences of transphobia on behalf of the owner Mike Funk.

County records show that a mouse infestation was the reason for Firecreek’s closure. The March 24 inspector report described the coffee shop’s “gross unsanitary conditions of mice feces throughout.” This closure made Firecreek one of five downtown Flagstaff businesses closed by the CCHHS between November 2021 and March 2022 due to rodent infestation. They have since been cleared by CCHHS and plan to reopen the week of April 4.

Almost as soon as the closure was official, people were taking pictures of the red posted “closed” sign. “The health inspector said it felt like the paparazzi,” Funk said. “Like they were waiting around the corner.”

By the next day, the internet was ablaze with social media posts showing pictures of the health department sign, advocating a boycott, and sharing employee and customer testimonials about poor experiences with the business. Those dozens of posts, which were shared and viewed hundreds of times, primarily originated on the social media account of recently terminated Firecreek employee Jade Price.

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Across the social media conflagration, two consistent messages prevailed, best summarized beneath a posted image that solicited a boycott: “The establishment has a mice infestation,” and “The owner of this establishment is openly transphobic to his queer employees.”

Mouse infestations are “one of our most common reasons to ask a facility to close,” said CCHHS division manager Elizabeth Richardson. “And I think that especially this year, it’s been difficult.”

Richardson speculated that this year’s warm winter resulted in a higher mouse population and more frequent infestations within downtown Flagstaff. It’s a serious health concern because mouse feces can spread hantaviruses. This family of viruses can cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), has a mortality rate of 38%.

Northern Arizona Healthcare told the Arizona Daily Sun that it’s been five years since Flagstaff Medical Center has confirmed a hantavirus patient. Richardson hopes to keep up the healthy streak.

“We certainly would not want anyone to be exposed to that,” she said.

Hantavirus concerns were shared by Price, who claimed that the mouse infestation was a known problem at Firecreek for months prior to their termination and the March 24 closing.

“It was a daily occurrence in the cafe to see a mouse,” Price said.

The mouse problem was also known by CCHHS, which mandated a “partial closure” of Firecreek’s kitchen and bakery following a November 2021 inspection that found traces of infestation similar to the March 24 inspection. At the time, CCHHS allowed the café to continue serving coffee from unaffected areas, but mandated that the health code violations be addressed immediately and that “a licensed pest control operator shall be contacted to ensure the issue has been appropriately handled — work closely with pest control operator to ensure a long-term control of rodent issue.”

A week later, a health inspector returned to Firecreek and cleared it fully, writing in the report that “imminent health hazard and priority foundation items have been corrected. Facility may now re-open the back bakery kitchen and operate.”

But Price said the problem persisted and employees continued to see evidence of mice, including feces. Price described it as too much to keep up with, and claimed staff on hand did not amount to “a viable crew to run a cafe and then also do all this maintenance at the same time.”

Fearing a more permanent shutdown by the health department, Price said they pleaded with Funk to hire professional help and supply employees with proper training and cleaning materials. Price claims their requests were declined. At that point, Price said they felt the need to work overtime and perform deep cleans that would address the problem.

“The entire staff and crew decided to take it upon ourselves to do some renovations and cleaning because we couldn’t afford to lose our jobs,” they said. “And it was clear that management and Mike Funk, the owner, was not going to do anything to rectify these issues.”

Funk found these claims surprising. According to Funk, the CDC recommended cleaning supplies for rodent feces — rubber gloves, bleach and masks — had always been on hand at Firecreek, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. Funk also hired professional help. He followed the CCHHS direction and contracted Atomic Pest Control the day after the initial failed inspection. Invoices shared with the Daily Sun show that Atomic Pest control visited Firecreek three times between Nov. 30 and Dec. 6, then proceeded to visit once a month, with the last visit before the shutdown occurring on March 9.

Outside of these efforts, Funk said employee reports of infestation and necessary cleaning were taken seriously and “addressed, as far as I know, extremely quickly by the managers.”

The Daily Sun could not reach a manager to confirm this.

Employee cleaning efforts continued until about the third week of February, at which point there was an incident that Price said “demoralized” the staff. During a shift change, Funk witnessed an employee clocking out behind the counter wearing a sweater that read “<expletive> Your Binary.”

The message disturbed Funk. He explained that the profanity went against the values he hoped to cultivate within the business.

“I was very upset,” he said, “It’s incredibly important that we have gracious hospitality, and that everyone is accepted. Was it frustrating to find somebody wearing a shirt that said ‘<expletive> You’ spelled out? Absolutely. It goes against everything we stand for. It’s a message of hate.”

What followed was some form of public discipline in which Funk confronted the employee wearing the sweatshirt in front of café customers.

“I reacted emotionally,” Funk said. “I’m not excusing that.”

Funk’s emotional reaction was apparently substantial enough to impact the disciplined employee, Price and other members of the staff.

“It was really appalling and horrifying,” Price said, and added that it made them feel “unsafe” and “completely demoralized.”

The confronted employee wearing the sweatshirt did not respond to requests for comment.

This “sweatshirt incident” is central to the social media posts that allege Funk is “openly transphobic to his queer employees.” Price said it was not the only incident of its kind. Price, and the testimonies they collected on social media, recounted micro-aggressions from Funk such as using incorrect pronouns, referring to trans employees by their “deadnames” and the censoring of art hung in the café.

After this incident, Price said they and other employees “decided to stop putting personal health and safety at risk and they ceased putting extra effort into cleaning up after the rodent problem at large.

“That was the day we stopped doing deep cleans,” Price said.

From then on, the rodent problem accelerated. By the second week of March, Price said the infestation had become “intense,” with mouse feces seemingly throughout the café.

“You have two weeks of this buildup because every day it’s finding new droppings,” Price said. “It’s seeing mice behind the espresso machine.”

During in this period, concerns of hantavirus infection reached a fever point. Price reported that every staff member experienced symptoms. Employee Sprout Perez became sick enough to return home to Phoenix. Perez sought medical attention and was confirmed to have influenza. They were provided with the professional opinion that it was “extremely unlikely” they had contracted hantavirus.

Price was terminated on March 19 for reasons that Funk said “had nothing to do with” the infestation and allegations of transphobia. He alluded to interpersonal conflict among the staff and an employee who resigned after being turned down for a promotion, but declined to explain further.

“All I can do is talk about my behavior,” he said. “I’m not going to sling mud and talk about somebody else’s behavior.”

Funk noted that this was the time he became aware of staff concerns within the café.

“None of this came up until someone was terminated,” he said.

Perez resigned following Price’s termination.

“I decided to put my two weeks in because I didn’t feel comfortable working in an environment where someone was terminated for, like, absolutely no reason,” they said.

Shortly after the departure of Perez and Price, they called CCHHS to file a complaint about Firecreek’s rodent problem and request an inspection.

Calls to CCHHS from staff — or, in this case, former staff — are “fairly common,” according to Richardson.

“We take it very seriously,” she said. “And we come out generally the next day and do an inspection. And that is what happened in this case.”

As previously noted, the March 24 inspection confirmed an infestation and identified a probable port of entry for the mice. The report described it as a “large gap of light shining through the back entry door into the facility along the bottom sweep.”

CCHHS mandated a closure until the violations could be fixed and directed continued monthly visits from an exterminator. CCHHS returned on Monday, confirmed that the imminent health hazards were corrected and cleared Firecreek for reopening.

However, Funk said he decided to keep the café closed to complete other renovations, and continued to work with Atomic Pest Control to make sure the rodent problem was under control.

A March 31 service report from Atomic Pest Control said the problem was resolved.

In the meantime, Price has continued to feed a social media story calling for the boycott of Firecreek. The public outcry has caused several artistic entities to distance themselves from the business by canceling scheduled shows or relocating to different venues.

Price also organized a “virtual tip jar,” for “Flagstaff baristas out of work due to unsafe and transphobic employer.”

Funk has issued a public apology in the form of a letter to the employees of Firecreek. Within this letter he “sincerely apologizes,” for transphobic micro-aggressions and “not living up to the ideals and levels of empathy I expect from our workers.”

Sean Golightly can be reached at sgolightly@azdailysun.com


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