Former staffers of Alinea’s NYC upscale cocktail bars say they were blindsided by the news of its closure — a move that hit especially hard as the staffers were already anxious over their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis in the city, multiple employees tell Eater.
Last week, owner Nick Kokonas confirmed that the acclaimed Chicago restaurant group was cutting ties with the Mandarin Oriental in New York, the hotel where the Aviary and the Office had prime space with views of Central Park. According to the restaurateur, the decision to end the partnership was made before the pandemic hit the city. The bars, though splashy entries to the scene, were not well-reviewed.
But when the bars’ employees were furloughed in late March along with the rest of the hotel staff, they weren’t told about the change, five staffers tell Eater. Because of the way that Alinea’s operating partnership is set up with the Mandarin Oriental, Aviary and the Office staffers are unionized Mandarin Oriental hotel employees — not Alinea employees.
Still, the bars’ employees interviewed extensively with Alinea management in order to secure positions at the Aviary and the Office, and some felt that Alinea should have notified them that the bars were going to shut down permanently in April. Many of the furloughed bar staffers, who were already unsure of their employment status given the ongoing pandemic, had taken jobs at the hotel in order to work with the Chicago-based company.
“Everything is already in the shit,” one staffer says of the situation. “And then we got shit on on top of that.”
Kokonas confirms that Alinea was “definitely involved” with hiring and managing operations at the Aviary and the Office — but says that the ultimate decisions around winding down the bars and handling staffer communication were out of his hands. “The Alinea Group ceased having any influence on operations in February when we signed a separation agreement,” Kokonas tells Eater.
Some employees were also caught off guard by the fact that the hotel union was not notified beforehand of the decision either, even though the union doesn’t technically have to be involved, they say, as their jobs are theoretically still intact. The bar staffers remain employed at the hotel; the space is just no longer associated with Alinea.
But for several employees, that’s a sticking point. They were drawn to work at the Mandarin Oriental because of Alinea’s Michelin-starred reputation — not because they’d be on the hotel’s payroll. “I definitely came here specifically to work on this project,” a staffer tells Eater. “I was never aiming to be a hotel bartender.”
Employees say that the hotel has not communicated with them since the Alinea news was made public, and they are unsure what the Mandarin Oriental plans to do with the space next.
“Right now, everybody is freaking out because of the COVID situation,” another staffer says. “Everyone’s very nervous at the moment. Then on top of it, to get news like that, that wasn’t conveyed to us — it shook everyone.”
The Mandarin Oriental did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
As of now, most bar staffers who spoke to Eater plan to stay with the hotel if they are called back from the furlough. Working under the assurances of union pay and benefits is a rare luxury in the restaurant industry, they say. Plus, it’s unclear what other jobs will be open as the city emerges from the pandemic. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” one staffer says.