July 10, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Workers at the trouble-plagued Pure Food And Wine restaurant on Irving Place in Manhattan found themselves in a very familiar spot this week — on the sidewalk outside the popular vegan eatery demanding unpaid wages and wondering where owner Sarma Melngailis has disappeared to this time.
“Sarma’s not saying anything,” bartender and employee organizer Daniel Schubmehl told LaborPress on Thursday. “We don’t know if she plans on paying us and getting this thing back up and running. At this point, we just don’t know.”
Melngailis last pulled her disappearing act back in January after payroll checks began bouncing without explanation, forcing workers to take to the streets in protest. The job action also involved workers at Melngailis’ One Lucky Duck establishment in Brooklyn.
A class action lawsuit on behalf of all of Melngailis’ unpaid workers was subsequently filed last winter, and ultimately settled out of court. Staffers happily returned to work until this month when paychecks began bouncing all over again.
“Some of us have families who are in real trouble right now,” Schubmehl said.
Those with more than one family member working for Melngailis find themselves in even more desperate circumstances. In all, Melngailis’ shenanigans are impacting more than 100 workers.
Despite this, Pure Food and Wine workers who are attracted to the establishment’s culinary ethos as much as its handsome tips, say that conditions at the restaurant have always been great, and they can’t wait to return to their jobs once more.
Melngailis, however, has never offered any explanation for the previous debacle that forced staffers to walk off the job, nor has she been forthcoming during this current crisis.
"The owner is so intent upon animal rights and cruelty-free products and this moral high ground, which we appreciate, but I find it rather ironic that she doesn't support her workers in any way," bartender Kevin Woods said in a statement.
In February, Melngailis told wellandgood.com that she has a tendency to “hide” when faced with challenges.
“It’s painful for me every day knowing that they’re all waiting on me,” MeIngailis is quoted as saying. “That hurts me every day. I get that people don’t understand—I don’t expect them to—and at some point I can explain it more, once the dust settles, and more importantly, once they’re paid. It’s heartbreaking to me.”
But workers never got that promised explanation, according to Schubmehl.
“She never had much to say about exactly what happened, if anything,” Schubmehl said. “It was about as nebulous and inarticulate as one could be.”
While the staff was continually kept in the dark about the restaurant’s finances, Schubmehl says that revenues, including tipped wages and monies raised through a GoFundMe.com campaign to help save the restaurant, were consistently “siphoned out of the business.”
The restaurant workers have now officially taken steps to form their own union in an effort to recover their backpay. Meanwhile, they vow to continue to demonstrate until Melngailis resurfaces.
Said Schubmehl, “One of the weirdest things about this whole process is the continued statement from Sarma — this happened the last time we closed down as well — where she said, ‘Hey, guys. Just keep working. Because if we make that money, then we can pay you next week.’ Obviously, that doesn’t make any sense legally or morally.”