Late last summer, Hot and Crusty, New York’s most disgustingly named bakery chain, got exactly the wrong kind of attention. Instead of letting 23 mostly undocumented workers at the chain’s Upper East Side location unionize, then-owner Mark Samson decided to behave like a petty jerk and just shut the store down. With a little help from Occupy Wall Street, 12 workers briefly took over the store, then picketed the place and ran a “street café” for a full 55 days afterward. It was pretty embarrassing for Samson. When new owners took over the location that September, they signed an agreement agreeing to re-open, rehire the staff, and recognize their union.
Now, a documentary about the workers and their amazing strike is close to completion, after getting a major cash infusion from the Sundance Institute.
Filmmakers Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears have been working on a documentary about the Hot and Crusty crew since last year, when it was tentatively titled Cafe Wars. It’s since been dubbed The Hand That Feeds, and recently received a grant from the Sundance Institute to help pay for production and post-production. It was also recently featured in the New York Times as part of the paper’s “Op-Doc” series.
In the meantime, though, the Hot and Crusty workers didn’t actually get to work in a union shop until January of this year, a full 12 months after they first took the story public. First, they learned that the building’s landlord, a Manhattan property management company, was considering leasing the space to Pax Wholesome Foods, a non-union chain. The employees, along with the Laundry Workers Center (LWCU), who helped them organize, warned that decision would lead to more protests. Then, the new owners started leaning on union members to reconsider some of its demands, which they refused to do. (The filmmakers say those disputes have been resolved.)
These days, theoretically, the location is fully unionized and nobody’s rights are being trampled. (We’ve contacted the union and LWCU, and will update when we hear back.) As longtime Hot and Crusty employee Mahoma Lopez said in a press release when the union decision was finalized, “This is a victory for all immigrant workers. We did this together, and this wouldn’t have been possible without the community support. When workers come together, anything is possible. The union gives us power.”
The documentary is set for release in 2014. Grab some tissues before you watch the trailer above. It’s about to get dusty.
Corrections: An earlier version of this post indicated that the filmmakers had received $550,000 from Sundance. In fact, that’s the total amount 29 documentaries received from the institute. An incorrect report from another publication that the new owners of the chain had been considering leasing to Pax Wholesome Foods has been removed; in fact, it was the building’s management company who had been considering leasing the space to the non-union Pax.
Send story tips to the author, Anna Merlan