Four former employees are claiming that Michelin-starred Chelsea restaurant Rouge Tomate didn’t pay them enough before permanently closing its doors last month — alleging that owners and managers stole tips, didn’t pay overtime, and sometimes didn’t pay them at all, according to a new lawsuit.
The suit was filed last month on behalf of front-of-house staffers with hopes of being a collective action. Prudente Ramirez Cornelio, a former busboy and food runner, claims he is missing three weeks’ worth of pay. Food runner Jose Ubaldo Roman Maria, assistant server Nelson Javier Vasquez Rodriguez, and bartender David Bentzler make similar claims in the suit.
The ownership team, which includes Emmanuel Verstraeten, allegedly used shady tactics like “disguising” actual employee duties in payroll records to “avoid paying plaintiffs at the minimum wage rate,” according to the lawsuit. Update: Former restaurant managers Cristian Molina and Hartley Parish were also named as defendants, as well as former employee Grigorii Guliaev, although Parish has clarified that they were not part of the restaurant’s ownership team. Update, 03/03/2020: Guliaev and Parish were dismissed from the case as defendants.
The suit states that people were hired as tipped employees and given titles like busboy, food runner, or bartender, which allowed the restaurant to pay them the lower tipped minimum wage. But former staffers allege that in reality, their jobs required hours of work that didn’t garner any tips, such as cleaning or overseeing the restaurant’s out-of-state food production.
Cornelio also claims that money was taken out of his paycheck on a weekly basis for meals he never ate. And the suit alleges that a portion of workers’ tips were routinely stolen and used to pay Guliaev.
Parish, a manager named in the suit, tells Eater the allegations came as a “shock” and that she too was owed money as the restaurant struggled financially. “Every claim that the lawsuit cites can be proved null in a legal investigation,” she writes via email, adding that her, Molina, and Guliaev — the other employees named as defendants — are victims of the same “unfortunate circumstances” as the employees who filed the lawsuit.
Verstraeten, the restaurant owner, recently told Eater Rouge Tomate shut its doors in response to chef Matt Aita’s departure.
While he confirms that a “couple of checks” bounced following a sluggish September, he claims he secured a loan to pay those employees back. Verstraeten denies the claims within the lawsuit, saying he has always followed correct employment and pay practices. (He hasn’t been served the suit yet, he says.)
“If it’s what I think, I find it very sad that a few unhappy employees felt they had to take this action now that the restaurant has closed, without voicing their concerns prior to the closing,” Verstraeten writes to Eater via email.
Employees are demanding $5,000 each, in addition to legal fees, according to the suit.
Despite the legal troubles, the restaurateur says he’s ready to revive the old Rouge Tomate: He has plans to return to the UES and reopen the restaurant in its “former format” before next summer. As for the shuttered Chelsea space, Verstraeten says he’s in talks with a Belgian chef who may take it over.