Labor Disputes

Inside the Pure Food & Wine Workers’ Strike: ‘I’ve Never Seen Anything Like This’

“Our goal is not to take this to court. We just want to get paid.” Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

On Monday, news broke that the staff at Pure Food & Wine had banded together and walked out of the raw-vegan restaurant over a labor dispute. The restaurant has remained closed for the entire week, as front- and back-of-house employees have picketed, protested, and claimed that owner Sarma Melngailis hasn’t paid them in weeks — and has also withheld tips. We reached out to Gabrielle Badawy, a Pure Food & Wine waitress who has worked there since April, to find out exactly what’s going on. (We also contacted Melngailis, but she hasn’t responded.) Here’s what Badawy had to say:

The last time I got my paycheck, my co-worker was bitching about how the accountant said to wait a couple of days to deposit the checks because he wasn’t sure if there was money in the account. I said, “That’s fine. I can wait until Monday.” I showed up to work on Monday, and people were upset. They were talking about how checks weren’t going through, and some people weren’t getting the checks, and shit was hitting the fan. No one knew what was going on, and we weren’t getting answers.

I started working there in April. Around July, something similar happened. We used to get checks every week. But then Sarma switched it to every two weeks, which people were annoyed about. There was a good two-to-three-week period when people were like, “When are we getting our paychecks? What’s the deal?” It was the first time something like that had happened, but it got resolved quickly. People have been working at the restaurant for eight or so years. We’re a family, and we respect Sarma. Still, I thought, This is weird — I’ve never seen anything like this. They told me, “Don’t worry.”

The last check I received covered December 26 and two weeks before that. The next check is supposed to be from December 26 to two weeks after that. Those are the checks that they’re no longer writing. I waited until Monday to deposit the check, and I haven’t heard yet if it went through or if it bounced — I think it takes a few days. But we are owed checks for this week, and they’re not even writing them.

It was on Monday that the kitchen staffers announced they were no longer working. We started hearing that none of them had been paid for longer periods of time. So we stopped setting up, and we all sat down and started talking. People were getting really heated, and the accountant couldn’t give us any more information. So we banded together. Most of the kitchen staffers have kids, and they can’t be working for free. They work every single day. This is only my part-time job. They’re the ones who said, “We can’t do this anymore.”

Another issue is we don’t get to take home our tips because we pool [them], and they get put into our salaries. So we don’t even have our tips, which is fucked up. That money shouldn’t even be fully separate. I haven’t gotten my tips since December 26.

We consulted a lawyer who’s handled similar cases to figure out our next step. He said that we needed to become a collective unit and do something to show the owner that we weren’t kidding. In the summer, after the money thing was an issue, Sarma was at least around, once a week or so. But recently, she’s been in Europe — apparently traveling for business. She hasn’t been around for months. She hasn’t even sent an email to us explaining what’s going on.

A few leftover signs from the protest.
A few leftover signs from the protest. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

But on Monday, I suppose she sent an email to the managers when she realized the restaurant was going to close down. She gave some excuse, like, “We’re changing banks.” Something super-halfhearted. Nothing sentimental about the fact that she’s putting all these people out.

Also, all these vendors were calling on Monday, saying they haven’t gotten paid, so they weren’t going to bring produce. Nobody knows where the money has gone. Ultimately, everyone really loves working there, and we love the people we work with. The lawyer advised us to write a letter to him with our demands. We want to get paid. We want to go back to work and have it be a safe environment.

That’s why the restaurant has been closed since Monday. It’s fucked up, too, because all this food’s probably going to waste. Apparently Sarma is supposed to come back soon and resolve things. I have no idea. Our goal is not to take this to court. We just want to get paid. But now there’s all this fear that the restaurant is going bankrupt, even though it’s been busy every night.

It has all just happened so quickly. There are people who’ve worked there for eight to ten years and know Sarma well, and are holding onto — at this point, I want to call it a pipe dream — that the restaurant will come back and be fully functional, and that Sarma will get it together. But it’s like, who’s this woman that’s never around, fucking everything up for people who work for her? I feel like if it were plausible that we could take over the restaurant and run it, people would be gung-ho about that.

We don’t want this to be malicious. One of the managers said that we should stay open so that we could generate money for the restaurant. And everyone else was like, “We’ve been doing that for three weeks, and where’s the money?” You can’t work for free for that long.

Notice of Legal Claims [PDF]

Pure Food & Wine Waitress Speaks Out