Food safety inspectors with the state Department of Agriculture and Markets found “mold-like material” inside the ice machine at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Chelsea last week — and issued the upscale cafe a failing inspection report. 

Two days later, Starbucks denied there was moldy ice in a letter to the union representing striking workers and declared: “We are confident the Department’s report will confirm what we already know – the Roastery meets the safety and health standards.”

The Roastery’s baristas, bartenders and bakers have been on strike since Oct. 25 following staff sightings of bedbugs in the breakroom and mold in the ice machines.

During a Nov. 9 visit, state inspectors identified “mold-like material” in the ice machine and identified “several critical violations,” according to Department of Agriculture spokesperson Jola Szubielski. 

On Nov. 11, Starbucks labor relations director Andria Kelly wrote in a letter to the union: “There is no pest infestation or moldy ice at the Roastery — when the strike started or now — and we don’t understand why the union continues to assert falsely otherwise.”

Starbucks Reserve Roastery workers in Chelsea went on strike to protest unsanitary conditions. Credit: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Agency inspectors, responding to worker complaints, twice descended on the swanky flagship Meatpacking District store, which boasts $17 cold brews

Following an initial visit on Nov. 4, state officials followed up with the full inspection on Nov. 9, said Szubielski. “The NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets takes the safety of the food supply very seriously and upon receiving several complaints about this particular location, visited the facility and found numerous violations,” she said. 

“The ice affected was destroyed and immediate correction actions were enforced during the inspection. A reinspection is planned to ensure no additional deficiencies are found.”

Workers on the picket line said they would return to work if Starbucks submitted proof, such as a full exterminator report, that the mold and bedbug issues had been remedied. The workers learned of the failing state food safety inspection when THE CITY informed them on Monday evening.

“The health and well-being of our partners and customers are our highest priorities,” Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull said in a statement to THE CITY. “All Starbucks equipment and maintenance procedures are designed to meet rigorous standards — as evidenced by our history of above-standard health ratings and a recent OSHA investigation.” 

Trull added: “We are actively working to respond to recent findings issued by the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets and are confident that re-inspection will show that our New York Roastery has been in full compliance with all health and safety regulations.”

‘Gaslighting Us’

In a statement to THE CITY, the union said it is “vindicated” by the state’s findings as workers entered their third week on strike, displaying picket signs with photos from inside the store that include what workers said appear to be mold inside ice cubes, as well as bedbugs.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery workers held signs showing hazards at the store. Credit: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

“The statement from the Department of Agriculture concerning its inspection affirms what the workers already knew — mold is a serious issue at the NYC Roastery,” Starbucks Workers United of NY/NJ spokesperson Leanne Tory-Murphy said. “Meanwhile, workers have been repeatedly told by management that there is nothing to worry about, and have been denied access to inspection reports regarding the mold, as well as reports relating the inspection of the premises for bedbugs. The failed Department of Agriculture and Markets inspection vindicates the workers’ claims.”

In an Oct. 27 statement shared on its website, Starbucks said it hired a “vendor” to inspect and service a unit after an employee “brought to our attention that an ice machine at our New York Roastery needed additional servicing,” and claims that vendor “found no noted operational or cleanliness concerns.” The company added it “made the decision to proactively upgrade and replace the machine with new equipment to improve the partner experience.”

Workers say Starbucks has never provided a copy of the vendor’s findings. Two weeks later, state inspectors found the mold-like substance in one of the ice machines.

“We hope to sit down with Starbucks as soon as possible to discuss these urgent health and safety issues, as well as bargain for a contract,” Tory-Murphy added. “We are waiting.”

Barista Ley Kido, who has worked at the Ninth Avenue roastery for more than three years, accused the company of deception. 

“They’ve tried lying to us and gaslighting us time and time again on this issue,” Kido said. “I’ve watched at least three or four coworkers be told to clean mold or mold-like substances out of the ice machine and the milk fridges, and then for the next three weeks get really sick.”

He added: “It’s really shameful that the company can turn around and say ‘No that didn’t happen to you.’”

Workers at the New York City Starbucks Reserve Roastery became the first Starbucks employees in the city to unionize, on April 2 — one day after workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island won their own historic union election

The 103 workers at the Reserve Roastery joined Starbucks Workers United, which has successfully organized more than 6,500 workers in 250 locations across the nation since Dec. 2021, when a Starbucks in Buffalo became the first company outpost in the country to win a union election. 

Last Thursday, workers were supported on the picket line by fellow union members with Teamsters Local 804, which represents UPS workers, and Communication Workers of America Local 1, as well as elected officials including state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), Assemblymember Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani (D-Queens).

“We love our store — otherwise, we wouldn’t be working so hard to fix the conditions inside,” one worker read in a statement at the rally. 

Nearly 50 workers and supporters chanted along a call-and-response: “What does management tell us? Don’t think! Make drink!”