The fall of fancy toast restaurant Sqirl, and what it says about credit and gentrification

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Burnt brioche toast, house ricotta, and seasonal jam at Sqirl. Photo credit: T.Tseng/CC BY 2.0

The East Hollywood restaurant Sqirl is famous for its jam and bespoke toast. Founded by Jessica Koslow, it became a symbol of millennial foodie-obsessed gentrification. Now the restaurant faces allegations of health code violations and recipes that were developed without credit to their creators. 

Farley Elliott, senior editor at Eater, explains that chefs Ria Dolly Barbosa and Javier Ramos say they helped create iconic dishes at Sqirl, but Koslow took credit for their work. 

“They say that often — and this is a role that food media has to play in all this — those recipes were co-opted and put into, say, Food and Wine magazine. And they were attributed directly to Koslow even though she wasn't the person who’d actually written the recipe or performed the task of creating [them].”

Elliott says Koslow is leaning into the idea that credit is nebulous in the restaurant world, where techniques, information, and entire dishes bubble up from people working under the head chef. 

He adds that Koslow says she’s credited people for particular dishes on digital and print media, though she acknowledges that she can do better. “But it's not enough for some of the folks who say they've been unheralded for years.” 

Moldy jam 

Sqirl is known for jam that doesn’t contain preservatives. How common is it for jam to have mold that can be scraped off and still used? 

“There is a certain amount of fungal occurrence that can happen with things like this, particularly dependent on how the stuff is processed, if you're hot packing versus cold packing and things like that,” says Elliott. “Koslow is pretty adamant that the glass jars that she uses to sell for retail are handled and packaged in an entirely different way than the large format buckets of jam that are used in the restaurant.”

He continues, “The issue with mold I guess specifically comes from the buckets being put into a cooler space that did not have proper ventilation, and that those buckets themselves were not properly stored or covered. So according to her, you scrape off some of the mold on top, you dig down a few inches, and you're safe. Some of the microbiologists and preservationists say that's not necessarily the case.”

Gentrification 

Some Angelenos have painted Jessica Koslow as the face of gentrification in LA’s Virgil Village. Have they been waiting to bring her down? 

“I think that there are people online who are seeing this as a moment to take down a place that they've always had a problem with. But I also think some of it is just that internet narrative where you say, ‘Hey, you know the thing that everyone says is cool? Actually, it's not cool and here's why.’ And then you wrap all of that around very real issues of equity and credit and health and safety. And it becomes absolutely understandable that this thing would trend across America,” says Elliott. 

What does all this mean for Koslow’s career? She’s earned several James Beard Award nominations, and she recently opened a big restaurant in Santa Monica.

“There's been various levels of … cancel culture in the past few years. And some folks are made to go away forever. … And other folks are left to stand, and try to do the best they can to repair relationships, to build back trust,” says Elliott. 

He adds, “Jessica Koslow is a star and one of the most recognizable faces in Los Angeles dining. She's got two cookbooks under her belt, James Beard nominations, all this sort of important stuff. But this is definitely a tarnish. And I think she's taking the time right now to figure out how she wants to express herself, and more importantly, the actions that she wants to take moving forward.”

In response to the allegations, Koslow sent KCRW a statement on the jam: 

“To my customers and my employees, I want to start by saying that I am sorry.

Before I address my many mistakes and outline the changes we have made, I want to first make clear that the photo being circulated is not a container we ever served jam from. It is a photo of a discard (garbage) bucket that was taken several years ago by a former employee. The notion we would serve food from that is upsetting, but I understand how my wrong decisions and our old practices would lead some people to believe this. But it is not true.

Sqirl was built with a vision in my mind and the little money I had saved. We started with boxes as tables and crates for chairs. Like any business, as we started to grow, we needed more space, so in 2013, I acquired a secondary kitchen in the space that is now Sqirl Away (directly next door to Sqirl) and it was permitted to operate as a kitchen. I filed paperwork and proactively contacted the Health Department to request an inspection in 2013. 

The truth is that at the time I thought I could update the additional space with the little funds I had saved. But the job ended up being bigger than I could afford and my bank would not give me a loan. Around that time, our secondary kitchen fell off the radar of the Health Department, despite the fact that Sqirl’s main kitchen received regular inspections. Ashamedly, I took advantage of their oversight and did the best we could as we used Sqirl’s main kitchen for all our restaurant orders including jam, and used the secondary kitchen primarily for baking and food prep. 

We were at risk of being shut down, but in our industry, this is common and I was just focused on keeping the lights on and keeping my team employed.

Until June of this year, our jam was always made in our kitchen at Sqirl after hours, when the restaurant was closed and then cooled and moved to the secondary kitchen for storage. To be clear: No jam was ever made in the secondary kitchen. Since 2018, the Health Department has known about our secondary kitchen and has worked constructively with us as we modernized our secondary kitchen which has now earned an “A” grade from the Health Department. Today, each of the three kitchens I own and operate—Sqirl, the secondary kitchen, and our catering kitchen—have an “A” grade. 

I take the safety and health of my staff and customers seriously. All of the retail jam we have ever sold—which is to say the jam in jars that is bought from us and at stores—is pasteurized and canned with the “hot pack” method that makes the growth of mold basically impossible. That same recipe is used in the restaurant, but because the jam is low in sugar and we don’t use chemicals or preservatives there were occasional instances where mold would develop on the surface.

When this happened we would remove it. To guide this practice I relied on the research and guidance of health experts and to my knowledge thought it was safe.

I eat the same jam I serve my customers, family and friends and would never knowingly serve any food that would put their health at risk. I realize that I was wrong and I am sorry. 

We have already thrown out any jam with mold on it and will continue to do so moving forward. Jam with mold will not be permitted in any of our kitchens or our restaurant. We are implementing the same “hot pack” method which is a commercial industry standard that involves pasteurizing all the jam used in the restaurant and storing it in smaller glass containers–just like we always have done with our retail products. We are also submitting samples of our jam to an independent lab, Certified Laboratories, Inc., for testing to ensure its safety and longevity.

I know I have lost the trust of our loyal customers, partners, and jam subscribers and hope that my sincere regret and these changes demonstrate that I have learned from my mistake and are enough to earn a second chance from them.”

Jessica Koslow sent KCRW a statement on giving employees credit: 

"As Sqirl has grown, I have had to acknowledge and confront my shortcomings, mistakes and failings as its founder, chef and owner. I am sorry that decisions I made have hurt the very people I wake up every day wanting to do right by: our customers and my team at Sqirl. Owning up to my mistakes and facing this reality has led me to listen and reflect on how I got here but I believe it will help me and Sqirl emerge better and stronger. 

Sqirl didn’t start with investors’ capital and a fully built-out restaurant concept. It began with a binder of recipes I had toiled over for years and the little savings I had scraped together in one of the only spaces I could afford.

As I look back, in those early days, I wanted to do something meaningful that left a mark, but was unsure of if I would even make it past the first year. People forget that the restaurant industry is an unforgiving world. There is a lot you can’t control, the margins are thin, and you are rolling the dice on your ability to connect with people through food so that they will come back and encourage their friends and family to come back. Succeeding is far from guaranteed, and most days (even now) I am just focused on getting through the next day. 

In short, starting a restaurant was bigger and more complex than I understood.  I was green, and I wanted to make it work. My background is in pastry and jam and while I had a lot of ideas for the food I wanted at Sqirl, I knew I needed to hire creative people to transform my vision into reality. I wanted to build a space where creative talents had the room to experiment, make mistakes, grow and create delicious food.

To me, the heart and soul of a successful restaurant are the innovative talents that for a time join a restaurant and devise, and tinker and perfect recipes–giving a part of themselves to the place and its customers. Very few chefs stay at one place for their career, but rather try to find a fit, grow, and then move on to another kitchen.

I have never claimed to be the creator and sole perfecter of Sqirl’s recipes, but I understand completely how it may look that way. The truth is far more complicated and nuanced. Many recipes are original creations of our incredible cast of Chefs De Cuisine, Sous Chefs, and Pastry Chefs, (and me), while others are collaborations or iterations of another idea or inspiration. These individuals, in addition to the front-line, front of the house staff who make Sqirl a pleasant place to gather, are the bedrock of our success and why it has resonated with people.

Since the beginning, I have attempted to acknowledge, both privately and publicly, individuals and their contributions to who and what are behind the reviews, loyal repeat customers and destination diners. In 2013, in response to a glowing 4-star review in LA Weekly, I wrote the following on Sqirl’s website:

“Taking this time to reflect, Sqirl is a team of significant talent and it’s the support that we have given to each other over the last year that has allowed this place to blossom into an electrifying food experience. I can take pride in bringing heart and imagination to the space. But as we’ve evolved over the year, the Sqirl team has too, and now we’re really started to hum like a band in a serious groove. So maybe that leaves me in more of a conductor seat. Perhaps a Gustavo Dudamel (minus the hair). If I could only be that good!”

I went on to specifically name each individual with dishes they created and the personality and soul that they gave to the place I started. I closed by saying this: 

There’s others. On both the Kitchen and Coffee/Tea side of things. And everyone of us keeps this place humming. And at this very moment, the hum is a really sweet, sweet tune.

This practice of recognizing our team publicly also lived regularly on our social media, and we have worked to nominate our chefs for awards and recognition in an effort to help our cooks get wherever they want to go. Could have I done more? Always. Am I so delusional to think that Sqirl’s success is all my own? Absolutely not. In fact, some of the very same people claiming they never received credit are prominently featured on our social media posts, in Sqirl’s cookbook and in awards they earned during their time here.

I am imperfect and I have made mistakes, and I am deeply sorry. There is an existing structure in our industry for how restaurants retain the creative recipes and techniques that many chefs contribute to the place during their employment and I will consider my part in this system as we move forward. I am profoundly grateful for their creations and talent and love that go into Sqirl’s menu and I can apologize for and fix my own mistakes, but I am not in a position, standing alone, to apologize for a business structure that is foundational to the entire service industry and the majority of American businesses.

In regards to my management of Sqirl, there is no doubt that it took us too long to put the systems in place to effectively manage the operations of a restaurant and effectively manage a team—particularly in how to best support our staff and make sure they can grow. That is on me. Those systems are in place, and have been, and I have prioritized continuing to improve that part of the business.

I want everyone who comes to eat at Sqirl to love it and everyone who works here to feel invested in, supported and seen. It hurts to think that some haven’t felt that way and it is my hope that our incredible management team and new processes can help with that as well.

I will continue to do my best to make this a place that our team can be proud of and customers can have faith in. I hope that people will not take out their disappointment with me on our staff and remember that these are incredible people that are working hard in an industry that has been decimated.

Together, I think we’ll find a way to get back to the place where we all get to hear that “really sweet, sweet tune” I wrote about when it all began."

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson