Feds Investigating Alleged Wage Theft at Stephen Starr Restaurant

Former employees at Talula's Garden say line cooks routinely worked without pay.
L: Stephen Starr (Photo by Jacqueline Larma/AP) R: The interior of Talula's Garden (Photo via Starr Restaurants)

Left: Stephen Starr (photo by Jacqueline Larma/AP). Center: The interior of Talula’s Garden (photo via Starr Restaurants). Right: Aimee Olexy (photo by HughE Dillon).

The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating a cook’s claim that he and other employees at a Stephen Starr restaurant were forced to work without pay, Philadelphia magazine has learned. The scheme allegedly cost each of them thousands of dollars in lost wages.

Robert Fitz, a line cook at Talula’s Garden from 2015 through early 2016, filed a federal complaint in August. Fitz says he told officials that line cooks at the farm-to-table restaurant on Washington Square were expected to start work between roughly 11 a.m. and noon each day, but weren’t allowed to clock in until 3 p.m. The employees spent the off-the-clock hours preparing to begin serving dinner at 5 p.m., he says.

If a cook refused to go along with the program, he would be “shunned” by his colleagues, according to Fitz. “They’d be like, ‘I’ve been running around, and now two chefs have to help you. This is why we come in at 11.'”

Fitz says he first learned about the policy when a chef interviewed him for the job. “He said that there was an extensive amount of prep work to do, so the majority of line cooks come in at 11. He said, ‘We’re not obligated to tell you this, by law we can’t tell you this, but it’s highly recommended that you do it. And clock-in time is at 3.'”

At first, Fitz says, it didn’t bother him much: “We were learning a lot, and becoming chefs.” But eventually it took a toll. The job’s long hours — he often worked from 11 a.m. to midnight — meant that he barely got to see his family or friends. And because he wasn’t getting paid for four of those hours each day, he says, he had little to show for it.

“I could pay my bills, but if I wanted to do something else in the week, like drive out to Niagara Falls, I didn’t have enough money for that,” he says. He quit in March.

In an email last Friday evening, Talula’s Garden co-owner Aimee Olexy said that she’d had no knowledge of the claims before being contacted by Philadelphia magazine.

“We take compliance very seriously and are diligent with operating within those parameters,” she said. “As soon as we received your email, we immediately began investigating the alleged issue. Employee happiness and fairness is a primary concern to the restaurant. If you have any further information about this individual’s concern that we can use in our investigation, please let us know.”

Fitz says a Department of Labor investigator told him he visited Talula’s Garden on Friday, however. Olexy did not reply to several follow-up questions, including how she could have been previously unaware of Fitz’s allegations even though a investigator was looking into them at the restaurant.

Joanna Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, confirmed that its Wage and Hour Division has opened an investigation. She declined to say whether an official was at Talula’s Garden last week.

Reached by phone yesterday, Starr said, “We do everything to make sure our employees are taken care of. … I honestly don’t know who [Fitz] is, and we are looking into it. We make every effort to abide by all the labor laws. So if anything did happen, I didn’t know about it, and we are looking into it. … I assure you we are doing everything we’re supposed to do.”

Five people who worked at Talula’s Garden, including two former line cooks who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed Fitz’s claims. The illegal practice of not paying employees for all of their labor is commonly referred to as “wage theft.”

Meghann Altomare, a pastry chef at Talula’s Garden from 2014 to 2015, says she didn’t experience wage theft personally. But she saw it happen repeatedly to line cooks, she says.

“During my interview process with the chef, he flat out told me that they believed in ‘French-style overtime,'” she says. “It was framed as ‘you come in and you clock in at 3. If you can get it done in that time, that’s great. But if you can’t, then you are expected to come in early.’ … But in practice, everyone has to come early.”

Constance de Uriarte, another former pastry chef at the restaurant, says working without pay was baked into the restaurant’s culture. “[Line cooks] believed that not clocking in was for the good of the job, that it showed elevated character. I remember thinking, ‘you working for free is the definition of slave labor.’”

Sheila Maddali, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, says wage theft is common in Philadelphia. In the group’s 2012 survey of nearly 600 restaurant workers in the city, 40 percent said they were being forced to work without pay.

This isn’t the first time Starr’s workers have accused him of wage theft. In 2012, a cook filed a class-action lawsuit in Florida against Starr Restaurants Hotel Group, claiming that employees weren’t paid for all of the overtime hours they worked and routinely had 30-minute lunch breaks deducted from their paychecks, even though they didn’t use them.

“There is absolutely no basis for any of these claims,” a spokesperson said at the time. The case was later withdrawn by the plaintiff and refiled against another entity, unaffiliated with Starr, that settled the case.

Eight employees also sued Stephen Starr Events in New York last year, alleging that the company kept their tips after billing venues for gratuity. Starr told Philly.com, “What’s alleged in this action is not true.” A Starr spokesperson would not comment on the current status of the suit.

For months, current and past employees of Talula’s Garden say they have been organizing with the Restaurant Opportunities Center in hopes of improving working conditions in Philadelphia. They say this is just the beginning of their fight.

Mariel Cohn, a former food runner at Talula’s Garden, is leading the effort. She says she has spoken to more than 40 people who have experienced or witnessed line cooks regularly working without pay at the restaurant. The cooks have lost thousands of dollars each, she claims.

Cohn says the employees are thinking about filing a lawsuit against the restaurant. In the meantime, they’ve drafted a list of demands for Talula’s Garden: They not only want to be compensated for the time in the past they’ve allegedly worked off the clock, but also a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for tipped employees, mandatory sexual harassment training, and an extra bathroom for workers, among other things.

“Part of what we’re interested in doing here is making this a better workplace in general, not just seeking justice for people who have been taken advantage of,” she says.

According to Cohn, the employees have already gotten results: After raising concerns this summer, Talula’s Garden started letting line cooks clock in as soon as they showed up for work, she says.

Because Starr is a bold-faced named in Philadelphia, Cohn hopes any change that happens at Talula’s Garden trickles down to other restaurants. “If you are trying to hold someone accountable who sets an industry standard in Philadelphia and, in some ways, along the entire East Coast,” she says, “it sends a message to smaller restaurateurs that wage theft is no longer an acceptable industry standard, and that everyone needs to be paying their workers.”

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