By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Pure Food and Wine owner Sarma Melngailis has mastered the art of “ghosting.”
The slang term has come to refer to one half of a romantic couple that breaks off the relationship by disappearing with no explanation, turning into a “ghost.” But while the practice is seen as rude and disrespectful in those cases, in Melngailis’s case it includes alleged wage theft.
The owner of the raw food restaurant on Irving Place vanished once before, with employees saying that she had not paid them for almost a month at the beginning of the year. Employees said at the time that no one had been able to contact Melngailis and when workers held a rally outside the restaurant last Thursday with some not being paid for the last two weeks, the owner and raw food mogul was similarly missing. Bartender and representative for the employees’ newly-formed union Kevin Woods said on Monday that she hasn’t even been in touch with her lawyer recently.
Town & Village reported at the beginning of the year that workers at the restaurant sued Melngailis because of the missed wages in January but this is actually the third time the restaurant has missed payroll. Woods said that the first time was during a month last summer but none of the workers went public with the information at that point. Bartender Daniel Schubmehl said they had communication from Melngailis that it was a bank issue and were assured it would be fine. Gothamist noted that the employees ended up being paid gradually from the restaurant’s petty cash and there were no more payroll problems until the issues in the winter.
The workers settled that issue out of court and after the restaurant was closed for three months, Melngailis worked with creditors and even a started GoFundMe page that was supposed to raise money for back-wages.
“She admitted that she made huge mistakes and I met with her before returning to work,” Schubmehl said. “I was given assurances about financial transparency. I felt good about it and I believed her. Everything was really good for a couple months but then she vanished again.”
Woods said that none of the employees have seen any of that cash for back-wages.
The lack of payment this time was not just limited to the employees staffing the restaurant. Members of the staff said that the rent is also past due and vendors had not been paid either.
“We all had to go out and get things like toilet paper. We were going to the farmers’ market in Union Square just to have enough vegetables,” Schubmehl said. “(Employees) were like jazz musicians, coming up with creative solutions for the sangria, while the customers had no idea.”
Woods expressed incredulity about why employees wouldn’t be paid, since he noted that the restaurant was busy nearly every night, and was especially baffled after speaking with an accountant who said that the restaurant should have been making money. He said that the new general manager, who had been hired in March but who resigned at the beginning of this month, was just as confused as the employees about why they weren’t getting paid.
“He was pretty forthright with us about what was happening,” Woods said. “He noticed that funds were just disappearing. Checks would bounce and then after a certain point he just wouldn’t write them because he knew they weren’t good.”
Employees at the peaceful rally held in front of the restaurant last week were hesitant to share their negative experiences with the restaurant. Surprisingly, despite what many of the workers referred to as blatant wage theft by the owner, most of the same workers said they had overwhelmingly positive experiences working at Pure Food and Wine and were determined to remain working there.
Woods said that he made the somewhat questionable decision of quitting a second job he had at the popular Italian restaurant Rosemary’s in the West Village so he could devote all of his time to Pure Food and Wine and despite the current situation, he said that the community there was worth all the other problems.
“Even after the fog of what happened before (in January), I thought it was still worth taking a chance,” he said. “It proved to be a bad decision but I still wouldn’t change a minute of it.”
Another employee who spoke at the rally said that she used to be an enthusiastic patron of the restaurant when Melngailis encouraged her to join the staff.
“I went to culinary school because of this place,” she said. “For me it’s a really personal thing. This place means so much to raw food.”
Schubmehl said that his goal for the rally was to remain peaceful and positive while fighting for what they’re owed.
“This is a community that we want to go back to and work under the right conditions,” he said. “Some of us have families that are in real trouble and we want to focus on getting paid and getting back to work. We’re just trying to stand in solidarity.”
Melngailis could not be reached by phone or email this week for comment.