Fort Worth

Former employees sue well-known Watauga restaurant over pay

Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison

Three former employees of Chef Point Cafe have sued the popular restaurant, claiming they were not paid what they were owed and that some tips were withheld and replaced with IOUs.

The gas station-based restaurant has achieved national attention because of its unique location and five-star food, from lobster bisque to stuffed pork chops to the signature bread pudding with cognac sauce. It has been featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and has appeared in numerous newspaper articles, including in the Star-Telegram, USA Today and The New York Times.

Chef Point part-owner Franson Nwaeze, a Nigerian immigrant who came to this country in 1981 and opened the restaurant at 5901 Watauga Road years later, said he had not seen the lawsuit.

“I don’t know of any lawsuit,” Nwaeze said. “We don’t have a clue so I can’t comment. I don’t know of anyone who has ever been forced to work off the clock.”

Nwaeze, his wife, Paula Merrell, and his daughter, Hope, the other two restaurant part-owners, are named in the lawsuit.

Former employees Pamela Eliopoulos, Gregory Rutledge and Lisa Mullins filed the lawsuit Monday. Other former Chef Point employees, such as Edward Aitcheson, are interested in joining the lawsuit, said Drew Herrmann, the attorney representing the former employees.

Aitcheson, who said he worked as a manager at the restaurant for 10 weeks, told the Star-Telegram that bartenders and wait staff often came to him at the end of their shifts and complained about not getting paid. Aitcheson said he also received a short paycheck.

Aitcheson said that one of the owners told him that money had been deducted from his paycheck but that no specific reasons for the deductions were given.

“What sucked for me was it seemed like there was no one who could help me,” Aitcheson said. “They are millionaires and they were stealing from us who make nothing.”

Pay problems

The lawsuit states that employees agreed to oral contracts on pay but were often paid at different rates.

Former employees claimed that Chef Point owners clocked them out while they were still working and refused to pay them overtime when they worked more than 40 hours a week. The owners also required employees to attend events on behalf of the restaurant, attend training sessions and decorate the store for the holidays — none of which they compensated for, the lawsuit said.

When a customer returned food without paying or there was a cash register shortage, employees were forced to pay for those shortages out of their own pockets, the lawsuit stated.

“A guy ordered a Cowboy steak medium rare and they overcooked it and I had to pay for it,” said Rutledge, who said he worked as a Chef Point waiter for 18 months. “It’s a $44 steak.”

The Cowboy steak is no longer on the menu, according to the Chef Point website.

And instead of giving wait staff their credit card tips at the end of the shift, the restaurant would give employees IOUs that would not be paid for days or even weeks, Herrmann said.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the pay is based on a combination of minimum wage and tips, Herrmann said.

“Most of these employees work paycheck-to-paycheck and depend on that money to pay their bills and take care of their children,” Herrmann said. “If they do not receive their money, then they are unable to pay their bills.”

‘Incubator for abuse’

Texas restaurants are required to pay their employees the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and if an employee’s tips and hourly wages do not at least equal that amount, the restaurant is required to make up the difference.

The Texas Workforce Commission, which investigates wage and hour claims along with the U.S. Department of Labor, reported that it received nearly 14,000 complaints in fiscal year 2014, compared to nearly 17,000 in 2013. Workforce commission officials said they did not keep figures on the number of employees in the industry.

The former Chef Point employees said they did not file a complaint with the workforce commission.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president for the Economic Policy Institute, which studies economic issues facing low- and middle-income workers, said many employees and employers in the restaurant industry don’t fully understand the laws.

He and other industry watchers say some employees do not complain because they are afraid they will lose their jobs, while others keep quiet because of their status as illegal immigrants.

“The way the system is set up is an incubator for abuse,” said Maria Myotte, a spokeswoman for Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, a restaurant employee advocacy group. “…I think it’s something that gets swept under the rug because they have a low-wage workforce that does not speak up for itself.”

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752

Twitter: @mitchmitchel3

If you need help

Those wanting to file a complaint with state or local wage and hour investigators can call the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division at 817-861-2160 or call the Texas Workforce Commission at 800-832-9243. Information is also available on the U.S. Department of Labor and Texas Workforce Commission websites.