After 30 Years, Darwin’s Will Shut Its Doors

Jeremiah Barron, Around School Editor

A barista yells out a name, placing coffee on the countertop. Other workers shuffle between crafting and toasting sandwiches, trying to clear the line that has built up at rush hour. One wipes the floor. Another resupplies deli meat that the sandwich makers have worked through. For employees like David Cervantes, it is business as usual at the Cambridge Street Darwin’s Ltd., even in its final days. 

In early November, founders and owners, Steven and Isabel Darwin, announced that they would close their shops by the end of their year, telling social media: “Upon further reflection we have decided to retire from this line of work,” an announcement saddening much of the Cambridge community.

The coffee and sandwich shop has been a cornerstone of Cambridge’s food industry for nearly three decades and a staple of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin community for half that.”

The decision came after a year-long negotiation with the Darwin’s workers’ union, Darwin’s UNITED. Among the union’s demands were a $24/hour starting salary, three weeks of paid time off, and greater healthcare benefits. However, they had not yet settled on a contract before the owners’ announcement. Although not explicitly stated by the owners, Cervantes, a member of the union himself, told the Register Forum that their decision was “mainly caused” by the union’s pressure. He continues, “Dealing with all of the bargaining sessions got really stressful for the [owners]… [they] just didn’t want to deal with it anymore.” While Cervantes says, “the union was too ambitious.” Darwin’s UNITED justifies their demands, tweeting, “[These] are workers who have shown up everyday through the pandemic with no hazard pay… who faced harassment… and whose labor sustained a sense of normalcy as the world turned upside down.” And all the while, they continue “relying on tips to pay rent.” 

Bargaining tensions peaked last month when workers gathered outside the Darwin household and read out their demands. Cervantes believes, “it probably would have helped if [the march] didn’t happen, but it’s a part of the negotiations process and we need some kind of leverage.” 

The coffee and sandwich shop has been a cornerstone of Cambridge’s food industry for nearly three decades and a staple of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin community for half that. Joseph Betancourt ’23 tells the Register Forum, “I’m very sad that Darwin’s [is closing]… I love that place; it’s a real institution of CRLS.” Just a month ago, pizza shop Mona Lisa’s closed its doors. Now, Darwin’s, just a store over, is also closing. What were once stores central to the Rindge student body are now gone. Other students are less sympathetic. James Rochberg ’24 tells the Register Forum that he hopes a “local business” with “reasonable prices” opens at 1629 Cambridge Street. Darwin’s is notorious for its hefty prices, a grievance that would only be amplified by increased wages. 

The decision to close Darwin’s in the process of a contract debate is one that has received scrutiny from union advocates. Most concerning is the message this sends to other local unions. Sylvia van Praagh ’24 says that unions in “places like Starbucks shouldn’t be discouraged.” Darwin’s UNITED, in their final statement, asserts, “We hope our story and experience encourage workers at other food establishments [to unionize].” For now, as they await its closure, Cervantes and his coworkers will carry on, business as usual.

This article also appears in our December 2022 print edition.