By Sabina Mollot
It’s the mystery of the disappearing restaurant owner.
The owner of Pure Food & Wine, an upscale vegan restaurant on Irving Place, as well as two local juice bars, has been stiffing her employees for nearly a month, employees said, and on top of that — she can’t be reached by anyone.
The restaurant’s owner and founder, Sarma Melngaillis, has been out of town, supposedly traveling for business. Employees also said last week they haven’t had any contact from anyone from management. That would be an LLC owned by China Grill Management as well as shareholders.
Melngaillis also didn’t respond to T&V’s emailed requests for comment. Calls to the various business locations (including the juice bars, one in Gramercy, the other in Chelsea), went unanswered due to no one staffing the places.
“The owner has not communicated with anyone,” said Allie Coltelli, a line cook. “They’re ghosts. It’s very suspicious.”
Last week, Coltelli, along with one of her coworkers, hired an attorney, and on Tuesday, he filed a lawsuit.
Employees have been told they’re finally getting paid this week, but Coltelli doubts it.
“I’m 99 percent certain that’s not going to happen.”
Additionally, along with wages — which were last paid in late December with checks that bounced — tips for the servers have also not been paid. Tips are pooled and paid evenly to front-house employees with each two-week pay-cycle. The company’s bills have also not been paid nor has the rent, and Coltelli said she heard the restaurant “may be shuttered as early as this week.”
At Pure Food & Wine, which boasts celebrity clientele, appetizers cost an average of $19 and entrees $26. According to Coltelli, the place has been busy until closing last Monday – when employees finally walked out on the job. So the reason for the nonpayments is a mystery.
“In January, we had a New Year’s rush; we were busy running around,” she said. “People from Gramercy Park come all the time. It’s a small niche market so we have a loyal following.”
Coltelli and many of her coworkers picketed in front of the restaurant last week for three days, where neighbors expressed shock at the news — and the irony.
“The restaurant is about ethical food, an ethical environment,” said Coltelli. “Then something like this happens where there’s no ethics to the labor. It’s kind of befuddling.”
There are over 75 employees at the restaurant and juice bars, most of whom work full-time. For many of the workers, “It’s a paycheck to paycheck situation,” said Coltelli. “We actively helped other employees, the Spanish speaking employees, find jobs. These are people with families. Two spouses who are employees are not getting paid and it’s coming on four weeks now. It’s a big deal when you have a little kid.”
Most employees are single and young though like Coltelli who’s 21, and who’s last rent check naturally bounced.
She added that the worst part of the situation was the lack of an explanation.
“It’s more of a stab in the back,” she said. “It would be great to get a response even if it’s, ‘Screw you guys, we’re taking the money and running.’ But there’s zero acknowledgment.”
Benjamin Dictor, the attorney representing employees, said on Martin Luther King Day that while there had been some “talk” about paying the employees back over time, he’d still be filing as planned.
His firm has represented similar cases, and he noted that in the restaurant industry, wage theft has become so common it’s almost routine.
“It’s becoming more and more a part of every worker’s job,” he said. While tip theft can often be attributed to greed, he said that with total wage nonpayment like in this case, “it’s often attributed to financial problems of the owner.
“The business is continuing on for a month and workers are not being paid but money is being transacted. If we litigate, we’ll be able to discover where the money is going.”
He believes the amount owed over the past few weeks is in the six figures.