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Cecil Steakhouse in Harlem Faces Class Action Lawsuit Over Allegations of Wage Theft

A former employee alleges the well-regarded restaurant engaged in illegal practices that shortchanged staffers’ pay

A curved brown building in a residential area boasts a blue sign with neon lettering that reads “Cecil”
The Cecil in Harlem, which now operates under the name the Cecil Steakhouse.
Enid Alvarez/Getty Images

Former employees of the Cecil Steakhouse allege the popular Harlem restaurant engaged in wage theft and other illegal practices that shortchanged staffers’ pay. The allegations, which surfaced as part of a class-action lawsuit filed with the New York Supreme Court on August 11, date back to March 2021 and involve approximately 50 current and former employees of the restaurant.

The suit was filed against the Cecil Steakhouse’s parent company, Arts in Common LLC, on behalf of Elijah Hardwell, an employee who worked at the restaurant from March to June 2021. He and other employees allege the restaurant engaged in illegal payment practices over the course of his employment, including time shaving, in which the restaurant reportedly deducted an hour from employee time cards for a lunch break, regardless of whether workers took less or no time off; paying workers below New York City’s tipped minimum wage of $10 per hour; and failing to provide staff with proper documentation of their hourly and overtime pay rates when they started working for the restaurant.

Additionally, the suit alleges that Hardwell was illegally paid on a bi-weekly basis. The suit argues that Hardwell is technically a “manual laborer” who must be paid weekly in accordance with New York State Labor Laws because he spent at least 25 percent of his shift performing “physical tasks.” Eater has reached out to the Cecil Steakhouse for comment.

The class-action suit seeks “an amount to be determined at trial, plus interest, attorneys’ fees, and cost.” As many as 50 employees may have been affected by the alleged incidents, according to Lawrence Spasojevich, an attorney with Aidala, Bertuna and Kamins who is representing Hardwell. He estimates that certain workers may be entitled to as much as $10,000 each, not including delayed payments and other damages.

The Cecil Steakhouse comes from Richard Parsons, a former chairman and CEO of Time Warner Cable, who opened the establishment under the name the Cecil with restaurateur Alexander Smalls in 2013. (Smalls departed from the restaurant in 2016.) Helmed by then-up-and-coming chef JJ Johnson, the Harlem restaurant received nearly unceasing praise in its first three years of business. But despite the early acclaim, the Cecil closed its doors in 2016 as part of a consolidation that turned Minton’s, a jazz club from the same team located next door, into a restaurant of its own.

Johnson — who now owns and operates three locations of FieldTrip, his hit fast-casual rice bowl restaurant — departed from the Harlem establishment before it opened under the name the Cecil Steakhouse in 2017.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.