One of this summer’s buzziest dining destinations in NYC — a joint residency from acclaimed pop-ups Ha’s Đặc Biệt and Kreung Cambodia at East Williamsburg-wick backyard restaurant Outerspace — abruptly shut down on July 7, a day after the New York Times published a splashy review praising their efforts. Reservations were canceled, Outerspace went dark, and diners were left wondering: What happened?
Ha’s Đặc Biệt, a critically acclaimed, roving Vietnamese pop-up run by Anthony Ha and Sadie Mae Burns, and Kreung, an equally beloved Cambodian pop-up from Chinchakriya Un, terminated their residency months before they were originally scheduled to wrap up over Labor Day weekend. Outerspace’s website now displays a lone page that states: “The summer pop-up at Outerspace with Ha’s Đặc Biệt and Kreung Cambodia has officially come to an end.”
The collaboration, an instant success since launching over Memorial Day weekend, caught the attention of Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, who on July 6 published an enthusiastic review celebrating the team’s “seamlessly” incorporated joint menu, including its grilled fish paired with a pile of hard-to-source herbs like heartleaf and lemon balm, stir-fried lobster, and “exquisitely well-roasted” chicken. The review heralded the spot as “the restaurant of the summer.”
A day later, on July 7, the two pop-ups pulled out of the residency. “Ha’s X Kreung have made the difficult decision to no longer continue our residency at [Outerspace venue] 99 Scott,” a statement initially posted to both Ha’s Đặc Biệt’s and Kreung’s Instagram accounts reads. “We realize this is extremely short notice and we are tremendously grateful to our supporters and proud of our accomplishments — however, after a few days off, we were able to really think about our priorities and our urge to push this industry and ethos forward. That reflection directly led to this unfortunate decision.”
Outerspace’s co-owners Molly McIver and Wells Stellberger said in a follow-up Times report that there “were things we just weren’t able to see eye to eye on” but “we figured we could solve anything.” The story noted that the chefs behind the pop-ups hadn’t worked together previously and were regularly juggling a high volume of 200 to 300 diners per night.
Perhaps the only people in NYC who weren’t surprised by the news were former Outerspace staffers. The venue’s management troubles could be traced back to its launch last year, according to seven former Outerspace employees who spoke with Eater. Outerspace — which first launched as an outdoor restaurant at the height of the pandemic — has a track record of not offering the support needed for ambitious, high-volume projects to succeed, these former employees say.
Owners McIver and Stellberger say they intended Outerspace to be a fun, safe place to hang out during a bleak time when they opened it last summer. But it was not a well-run venue, according to a range of chefs, servers, and other staffers who worked with the pair in its first year. When staffers tried to express their concerns about working conditions, their voices were not valued, they claim, which was particularly frustrating for some after the industry’s pandemic collapse prompted a reckoning that seemed to centralize worker voices. Relaunching this year, McIver and Stellberger turned to a pop-up model, which had exploded in popularity during the pandemic — not just for offering up some of the best food in the city, but also because the people behind the pop-ups, often former restaurant staffers themselves, are deeply invested in creating a better future for restaurants, and take seriously the responsibility of establishing better working environments for restaurant staffers as compared to those of pre-pandemic times.
For the former employees at Outerspace who spoke for this story, including two chefs, three servers, a host, and a bar consultant, Ha’s Đặc Biệt and Kreung’s decision to end their residency at the restaurant blew the lid off of a shocking, stressful work experience that they thought would go unnoticed. “When we were all fired, we were livid, but there was nothing we could do,” Lucy, a former server who declined to give her last name, says. “Now, it’s getting all this attention.”
A few months after the citywide shutdown in March 2020, McIver and Stellberger started to discuss adding a restaurant to their events space 99 Scott. They had never run one before, but the events industry was at a standstill. And at a time when indoor dining was banned and restaurants were required to maintain six feet of distance between dining parties, among other health and safety regulations, turning their sprawling outdoor space into a restaurant seemed like a solid bet.
That June, the duo brought eight-year Roberta’s bar veteran Nicol Leddington, who tells Eater he believed he was hired to lead front-of-house operations, onto the project. Leddington connected McIver and Stellberger with Conner Updegrave, formerly a chef de cuisine at Blanca, Roberta’s two-Michelin-starred tasting menu spot. Updegrave and former Blanca colleague and Cosme alum Luis Herrera were hired as Outerspace’s full-time chefs.
Leddington’s official title was never ironed out and he never received a formal job contract from 99 Scott, but he brushed it aside at the time, he says, because the owners seemed so enthusiastic about working with him. After the first few months of the pandemic, with the restaurant industry in collapse, Leddington saw Outerspace as an opportunity to try and build a restaurant that prioritized pay equity and equal team collaboration. He wasn’t sure exactly what the business model would be, but he was excited to build something from the ground up. “I wanted to get with people who felt the exact same way as I did and figure it out together,” Leddington says. “I thought that this was the right group to do that.”
When Leddington showed up for his first day on June 20, he says that he was surprised to find that actually his role appeared to be building the bar program and that there was someone else overseeing front-of-house operations: Adrianna Varedi, an industry veteran who previously worked at chef Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food — where she was named in a 2017 lawsuit alleging that the restaurant’s managers fostered a toxic, racially discriminatory work environment.
Leddington knew of the lawsuit but wanted to give Varedi the benefit of the doubt, he says. Almost immediately, though, he started to have concerns with her management style: She siloed him from McIver and Stellberger, he says, and discouraged him and Updegrave from talking with the owners directly about Outerspace plans. Varedi also didn’t seem to be interested in building a more sustainable restaurant, Leddington says, but rather getting this one open as quickly as possible. “We’re going to end up with the same, terrible display of pretty white servers that make a fuckload of money, some Puerto Rican and Mexican dishwashers and Black overnight porters. And cooks working their asses off making absolutely nothing,” he thought. In late June, he was told that the initial target opening date was July 4, even though the restaurant didn’t yet have tables or a functioning kitchen.
Leddington says that when he raised concerns about the unrealistic opening deadlines and Varedi’s work history “in passing” to the owners, nothing changed, so he decided to take more drastic measures. On July 4, he sent an email to six members of 99 Scott’s team, including McIver, Stellberger, and Updegrave, outlining his concerns with Varedi and the management of Outerspace. “I am not willing to go back to work and assist in the regurgitation of the same broken restaurant system that we have become accustomed to,” Leddington wrote in the email, which Eater has reviewed. “I stated my case and yet we continue to barrel towards an unrealistic ridiculous opening date with a completely incapable individual at the reigns [sic]. I am speaking about Adrianna.”
Afterward, the owners told Leddington and Updegrave in a phone call that “we’re with you” and “we hear you 100 percent,” Leddington says. McIver and Stellberger say that by the end of the phone call, the group had agreed to keep working with Varedi. McIver also met with Leddington in person to discuss the email. (Varedi declined to comment for this story.)
Following the interaction, Leddington wrapped up a bar menu for Outerspace and then the owners “ghosted” him, he says. He didn’t return to work, and never received subsequent communication about his employment status, he says. He finally assumed that he had been fired when another staff member contacted him to ask if he was still working on the bar program because they had just been asked to take it over.
McIver and Stellberger said in an email that “different roles were discussed in the beginning, but Nicol was ultimately brought in to develop a bar menu. Nicol was never officially hired as an employee but was compensated for the work he did.” According to them, Leddington “understood that our engagement had ceased.”
The owners directed Eater to speak with team member Greg Elliott, who also did not have an official title with the restaurant, but helped with the buildout and operations last year. Elliott agreed that the opening was happening quickly, but the timeline seemed “normal” as compared to other restaurant openings he had worked on. He also had “no issues” with Varedi’s management, he says. Other floor managers were brought on later in the summer, and a general manager was eventually hired, while Varedi continued to work at Outerspace in a “non-managerial role,” according to the owners. Like Elliott, she was brought on again this year to help the restaurant reopen as a pop-up residency.
Updegrave and Herrera kept pushing toward the opening, which was now set for mid-July. The pair had about two weeks to oversee the buildout of Outerspace’s outdoor kitchen and flesh out the opening menu, Updegrave and Herrera said in separate interviews. According to Updegrave, the restaurant conducted its preview dinners while construction was still taking place, like the installation of a corrugated steel roof on top of the outdoor kitchen. “It was just utter nonsense,” Updegrave says.
McIver and Stellberger agree that they were rushing the opening. Employees were on payroll, funds were “limited,” and they only had the summer to see if they could make the outdoor restaurant work, so they felt under pressure to move quickly, they say. “We knew that we were pushing, and we were trying to do it within reason,” Stellberger says.
Outerspace officially opened to the public on July 23. The breezy backyard restaurant, flush with plants and picnic tables, attracted crowds shortly after opening its doors. Updegrave, Herrera, and the small kitchen staff were cranking out sourdough pizzas, rotisserie chicken with mole verde, scallops with aguachile, and a cast of other dishes that highlighted in-season produce. The space would regularly host 60 to 200-plus diners over the course of one night, depending on weather conditions, according to McIver and Stellberger.
Behind the scenes, ownership’s lack of restaurant know-how, which was first made apparent in the pre-opening days, bloomed under the pressure of running the crowd-favorite establishment. The outdoor restaurant provided little support to staff working through heat waves and thunderstorms, four former front-of-house staffers say. There was no predetermined rain cancellation policy at the restaurant; decisions on whether or not to close due to weather were made either day of or during dinner. During one brutal summer thunderstorm, Outerspace called it quits halfway through service. Managers, including Varedi, did not communicate the closure to customers, according to the four front-of-house staffers, leaving the servers and host to handle the irate, hungry diners. The next day, Varedi and McIver turned around and reprimanded the front-of-house staff in individual meetings over the negative customer feedback that the restaurant received after that night.
“It was an incredibly difficult job from day one,” Jacob Dorman, a former server who worked at Outerspace from July to November 2020, says. “There was just no one there who knew how to run a restaurant.”
According to McIver and Stellberger, the restaurant was “subject to disruption when it rains” but “the goal was to keep it open as much as possible to keep people working during the pandemic.” In the day-after meetings, they “discussed customer complaints with our staff to determine the best way to address those complaints moving forward.”
Outerspace also hosted a handful of restaurant buyouts over the summer that front-of-house staffers say were mismanaged and felt unsafe from a public health perspective. Staffers were not told beforehand that they were working an event when the buyouts first started, leaving them unable to decide whether or not they were comfortable working in that type of environment. The events did not go well: Many customers didn’t tip because it wasn’t made clear that they were expected to, food kept getting sent back, people did not keep masks on when not eating or drinking, and did not remain socially distant, staffers say. “If [the Department of Health] had walked into that, we would have been shut down immediately,” says Jael, a former Outerspace server who declined to give her last name.
The first event was run so poorly that McIver called staffers individually afterward to apologize. Each of the four front-of-house staffers said that they gave McIver suggestions on what needed to change in order to safely run events. She listened to them, they said, and then the buyouts continued with diners still not tipping or following health safety protocols. Outerspace hosted three buyouts in total, according to McIver and Stellberger. “We attempted to do restaurant buyouts to support the business and they didn’t work so we stopped scheduling them,” McIver says.
In later comments, McIver and Stellberger told Eater that the events were not “traditional ‘buyouts’” but “invitation-only nights where each table paid for their meal the same as when the restaurant was open to the public.” They also said that there were gratuity lines on every check, customers “did tip,” and that the restaurant “followed all relevant health and safety protocols, including COVID-19 protocols, and we advised our guests of these protocols.”
The back of the house was not spared from disruption, either. The outdoor kitchen was not properly built to withstand the elements, Updegrave and Herrera say. The corrugated steel roof did not cover the wood-fired pizza oven, which would expand and crack amid the alternating extreme heat and rainy weather, according to Updegrave. (The owners say that the outdoor kitchen “was equipped with an outdoor oven designed specifically to operate outdoors” and only the area “over the oven’s flue” was not covered.) The restaurant used disposable tableware, but the kitchen’s dishwashing staff were not equipped with a dishwasher until October, according to Herrera.
In the fall, Outerspace started to offer indoor dining as temperatures dropped. Updegrave and Herrera say they were promised a full indoor kitchen that never materialized; instead, the kitchen team continued to work service outdoors through the cold weather in October until the space was insulated at the end of the month. “We were scared we were going to get sick,” Herrera says.
“We did our best to equip our chefs with all of the tools they needed to succeed, but unfortunately our efforts were often inhibited by COVID-19 restrictions and business stability,” McIver and Stellberger said. Former team member Elliott disagreed with the assessment that owners did not offer enough support to staff, saying that, in his view, concerns raised in meetings were “addressed right away,” like stopping the restaurant buyouts.
The chefs, who both say that they had agreed to below-market pay when they came onboard at Outerspace, tried to negotiate with the owners for pay raises as they juggled 15-to-16-hour days in the stressful kitchen environment. (The chefs set their own schedule, but the amount of work demanded those hours, Herrera says.) The raises were denied. Instead, McIver and Stellberger offered the duo a bonus structure where they could keep a percentage of revenue if they kept food and labor costs below a set bar. Herrera had seen this pay structure implemented before in restaurants and sometimes it works, but the goals set at Outerspace were unrealistic, he says.
The chefs started to prioritize cost-cutting measures like sourcing some ingredients from restaurant wholesaler Baldor instead of farmers markets, but nothing resulted in noticeable pay increases, they say. To Herrera, it felt like “they just wanted to shut us up,” he says.
McIver and Stellberger declined to comment on details of the chefs’ pay, but said that “the chefs negotiated and selected their own bonus and compensation structure and were paid fairly.”
Also in the fall, McIver and Stellberger stopped paying Outerspace’s food purveyors on time, which further stressed kitchen relations. “We had a very long spree of, like, dealing with trying to communicate to our purveyors,” Updegrave says. “If we can’t pay these people, then we need to end it.”
McIver and Stellberger confirmed that they stopped paying vendors while juggling payroll, insurance, and other bills amid declining revenue as diners dropped off. “During the pandemic, we prioritized paying our staff,” McIver and Stellberger said in an email. “All vendors were eventually paid in full.”
The owners finally closed Outerspace for two weeks in early November and furloughed employees in order to renovate the space and build a fully heated outdoor dining area, they told staff. “As soon as the buildout is complete we will reach out to you,” read an all-staff email detailing the plans.
Two weeks later, when the furlough was supposed to end, the majority of Outerspace’s staff members were fired with individual email notices. “During the course of us doing the buildout, we realized that it wasn’t going to be sustainable financially,” McIver says. “The ongoing operations of the restaurant had to be drastically minimized. And that’s what happened.”
On December 12, the restaurant fully closed. Business had slowed down too much, McIver and Stellberger say, and indoor dining had just been banned again amid a second wave of rising coronavirus cases. “As first-time restaurant owners setting up during the time of COVID, we will be the first to admit that there were many lessons learned last summer – better ways to manage, better ways to communicate, better ways to do business,” McIver and Stellberger said in an email. The pair stressed that they were “able to give hospitality workers jobs, and were told by many diners that Outerspace was the first meal outside of their homes, with family or friends, that they had experienced in months. We are proud that we were able to offer that during such a dark time and we are proud of the many employees that worked hard to make that happen (all of them).”
As spring 2021 rolled around, McIver and Stellberger were faced with the same economic environment that first prompted them to open Outerspace. Events were still banned. 99 Scott was still not bringing in revenue. Indoor dining was only trickling back. They decided to give the restaurant another go, but this time, in light of what had happened last year, they wanted less control over the restaurant’s operations.
They turned an eye toward two buzzy pop-ups, and pitched them on the idea of a joint summer residency where the chefs staffed and ran the kitchen and McIver and Stellberger staffed the front-of-house. In May, the teams announced plans to pop-up all summer at Outerspace.
News of the collaboration came as a surprise to former Outerspace employees who had assumed the restaurant had permanently closed. “I never thought they were going to open again,” Herrera says. “With these new chefs, I saw they opened, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, here we go again.’”
Although the operation was different, Outerspace’s workplace issues appeared to have continued into this year. In a lengthy follow-up to their initial post on Instagram announcing the closure of the residency, Kreung alleged a range of disagreements with 99 Scott and the management of the restaurant, including the way that revenue was split, and how they “continued to stay inflexible with our consistent warnings, concerns.”
Kreung, who indicated on Instagram they may speak in more detail on the residency at a later date, declined to comment for this story. Kreung’s follow-up Instagram post alleges that the owners were “unqualified” to make decisions about food and labor costs, that “small business vendors” were not “able to collect their outstanding balances,” and that the owners are the “crème de la crème at gaslighting.”
Chefs Anthony Ha and Sadie Mae Burns of Ha’s Đặc Biệt sent the following statement to Eater:
We are so excited that Luis and Conner get a chance to speak, we completely corroborate their experience and had an unfortunately similar one. 99 Scott is not an anomaly, in fact they are the norm. Sadly, the restaurant industry is built off exploitation. That’s what we, as a group and as individuals, are focused on at the moment. How this experience perfectly encapsulates the industry as a whole. How owners with money try desperately to maintain control and convince you that you are lucky enough to be in their space, to put your head down and keep working through it. We’re thankful to everyone who has come to us and shared similar experiences and hope that this means that things are shifting. We will continue to act as one small part of this change.
The chefs weren’t speaking out against McIver and Stellberger because their alleged actions were abnormal, in other words; they shut the residency down because they felt all too familiar. Hunky Dory owner Claire Sprouse, who has hosted over 30 pop-ups during the pandemic at her spacious Crown Heights outdoor bar, posted on Instagram that the situation had made her consider how Hunky Dory’s pop-up program had kept the bar afloat in the pandemic’s earlier days while the small business owners hustled through backbreaking days to set up, put out deeply personal food for four to seven hours, and then break everything down to do it again in another unfamiliar kitchen the next day. “All of this surmounts to a different kind of perseverance and desire to exist within this industry — to provide hospitality and nourishment — that should not be understated or undervalued,” Sprouse wrote on Instagram.
McIver and Stellberger have since hired high-profile Washington, D.C.-based crisis-management firm Trident DMG, whose clients include private equity firms, technology companies, and politicians, to manage communications for the Brooklyn restaurant in the wake of its closure. In a statement, the pair said that it is “not appropriate to characterize Outerspace’s shortcomings as emblematic of the restaurant industry. Our goal was always to operate a temporary restaurant in order to reinvigorate our struggling business and provide job opportunities in our community during a trying time. We always tried to hear our staff’s concerns and respond to them. While we acknowledge we could have done better, we gave our chefs substantial control over their projects and their own compensation agreements, and any assertion to the contrary is not true.”
The residency’s implosion indicated to Outerspace’s former employees that the issues that had been raised to McIver and Stellberger and continued last summer and fall had now been passed on to Ha’s Đặc Biệt and Kreung. “I don’t know if it’s because [McIver and Stellberger] have never run a restaurant before, but there was a lack of compassion and understanding about how the restaurant works,” Herrera says. “The restaurant is about the staff. That should be your priority.”
Ha’s Đặc Biệt and Kreung have already found at least one new location for their joint pop-up: Brooklyn brewery Grimm Artisanal Ales, which will be hosting the chefs on July 16 and 17. Outerspace, however, will remain shuttered for now. McIver and Stellberger aren’t quite sure what they’ll do next with the space, but one thing is for certain: They will “not open a restaurant,” McIver says.
Additional reporting by Luke Fortney
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