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As dinner service neared its peak last Friday, more than 15 servers, bartenders and food runners walked out of the back entrance of ABC Cocina, Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Flatiron District restaurant, to protest what they said is mistreatment by management.
The coordinated walkout stunned the restaurant's managers, workers told The Chief on Monday, and forced several to step into service roles while they scrambled to replace the striking workers with staff from two other neighboring Jean-Georges restaurants, ABCV and ABC Kitchen.
Workers said the collective action ballooned wait times for tables and food at ABC Cocina, resulted in management paying out more than $5,000 to frustrated guests and caught the attention of a company that has consistently failed to listen to or acknowledge the concerns of its workforce. “We are constantly making complaints to managers and Human Resources with no replies,” said Bishop Warner, a back waiter at ABC Cocina who joined the walkout. “Our concerns are treated with disregard or complete disdain. [Walking out] is one of the very few ways to get attention and get seen.”
The complaints that ABC Cocina employees have made about the restaurant’s working conditions are numerous, and many were laid out in a letter that workers sent to managers and HR during the walkout. They include not having a clear path to promotion, not having consistent schedules, micromanaging by inexperienced managers and a feeling among the workforce that management does not trust or respect workers.
“Even if Cocina will not treat us like the family that we feel we are, we have each other's backs,” the letter reads. “Our demands aren’t anything outside the realm of possibility: we only want to be treated like the experienced professionals that we are. We’re not disposable.”
Many of the issues have been going on for months, Warner said, and what sparked the walkout was the firing of two longtime employees on Nov. 2 and the demotion, the following day, of a sous-chef who had previously made complaints to HR about working conditions in the kitchen. The workers wrote that the firings were a “betrayal” that especially stung since staff consider themselves part of a family.
Tia Adinolfi, a server who walked out on Friday, said that what drew her to ABC Cocina was the promise of a fast promotional structure and the fact that there were so many employees who had worked there for so long. Nearly three years on, Adinolfi has yet to be promoted and many longtime employees who were there when she started have been fired or quit because of the disrespect they’ve faced from bosses and the lack of promotions, she said.
“I’ve seen so many people leave in the last three years for these reasons,” Adinolfi said. “When you work in service, you really have to be a family and it doesn’t work if we’re not being listened to.”
‘We have each other’s backs’
Workers who walked out were initially locked out of the website they use to schedule shifts, leading to fears that they had been fired, but staff were able to log in the next day and at least seven employees who had walked out have since returned to ABC Cocina. Warner and Adinolfi said they won’t return until management formally responds to the complaints laid out in the letter
One of the employees who returned to the restaurant in the days after the walkout, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from management, said that there’s been little response from managers and that the atmosphere has been tense and fraught.
“Whatever happens from this we made the statement, and we made it together,” the employee said, adding that some workers at the neighboring Jean-Georges restaurant gave messages of support to the returning workers in the days since the walkout. “This wasn’t just children throwing a fit. It was us doing this walkout in solidarity with each other to stand up and show that we have each other's backs.”
The employee said one frustration, besides what was expressed in the letter, is that ABC Cocina is the only restaurant they’ve worked at in more than a decade in the service industry that doesn’t supply staff with a meal.
A representative for Jean-Georges Restaurants did not respond to a request for comment.
The French chef has 12 restaurants in New York City and dozens more worldwide. His restaurants have faced revolts from dissatisfied employees in the past, including in 2008 when a group of staffers at his New York restaurants negotiated a $1.75 million settlement after workers accused management of paying them subminimum wages, depriving them of tips and not paying them for all the hours worked or overtime.
Monday evening the human resources manager for ABC restaurants, the parent company of ABC Cocina ABCV and ABC Kitchen, invited the workers who walked out to attend individual meetings to “review the concerns in greater detail,” and “begin the dialogue,” workers told The Chief.
Adinolfi said that workers preferred to meet with management as a group and will respond by requesting a single in-person meeting that includes all the workers who walked out. “I don't think that anyone is comfortable doing [individual meetings],” she added. “We have to stick together.”
Both Warner and the employee who returned to ABC Cocina following the walkout said that staff’s close interpersonal bonds as well as their mutual frustration with managers made it easier to organize and conduct the walkout. They added that the difficulty that management had running the restaurant without them, and the solidarity they displayed by walking out, convinced them of the power they can wield when they’re united in purpose.
“We were all very fed up with the way we were being treated by management, which is a group of people that we saw couldn’t do the jobs we were doing, who were telling us to do our jobs better while also not acknowledging any of the concerns or grievances we had,” Warner said. "In many restaurants in New York City, the only thing that ever gets anyone's attention is loss of profits, so we brought that to management and showed them the power that we hold there."
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