The owners of Punch House, the Pilsen basement bar inside music venue Thalia Hall, have fired its general manager after what ownership calls “very serious” and “extremely upsetting” claims made by an ex-employee. On Sunday, three days after she was fired, server Sarah Joanou published a blog post detailing unverified claims of sanitary problems, concerns with security, detrimental staffing shortages, and allegations of sexual misconduct at Punch House. The claims have spread high and wide via social media. Joanou also alleged in her post that co-owner Bruce Finkelman, who co-founded Chicago hospitality giant 16” on Center, creates an “environment of fear and arbitrary punishment.” Her blog included allegations that Finkelman would “corner” servers to “accost” them.
The server’s post caused such fervor this week across Chicago that Finkelman sent an email to employees on Wednesday reassuring them that the company is taking the claims seriously by starting an “immediate investigation.” In a statement shared Thursday with Eater Chicago, the company said the investigation is ongoing and they’ve hired outside counsel to assist. In both the message to employees and in its statement, the company stressed it had an open-door HR policy so workers could come forward with concerns.
“16” On Center does not take these claims lightly, as they are directly against the core values of our organization. Although it is disheartening to read these allegations, it is the responsibility of the company to gather the facts by interviewing everyone who may have information, including the person who initiated the claims,” a company statement read.
That investigation has already led them to fire the general manager of Punch House and Michelin-starred Dusek’s on Tuesday for “violation of company policy.” While the company didn’t specify, Joanou’s blog contained an assortment of allegations against the fired general manager. Joanou said on Thursday that 16” on Center contacted her hoping she could answer questions for its investigation. She said she took great care in writing her blog post and doesn’t feel the need to repeat the claims, especially if it’s in front of Finkelman.
The circumstances of her dismissal on Sunday are unclear as the company’s statement only read it fired Joanou for “multiple incidents that infringed upon company policy.” Joanou explained she was fired after trying to apologize to customers who were displeased after a credit card mistake. The couple wanted to pay in cash instead of having their card on deposit charged. Joanou said she offered to void the charge as they were leaving. Management, according to Joanou, viewed her as a server angrily chasing after a customer and Finkelman and partner/beverage director Will Duncan said they were “not happy with how the situation was handled, and I could no longer work here,” Joanou’s blog read.
Joanou told Eater she took pride in good service after spending almost two years working at Punch House and Dusek’s, the Michelin-starred restaurant also inside Thalia Hall, which are both owned by the same company. The job started off well but frustrations mounted for her, including interactions with Finkelman which she described as anxiety inducing. She said that working in that stressful environment kept her from sleeping. At the same time she didn’t quit because she felt she could make a difference.
“I used to joke working for Punch House was like being in an abusive relationship, not a joke I take lightly — I have survived one,” Joanou told Eater. “But there are kind of some darkly humorous parallels, I thought I could change it, I thought I could make her better.”
So why didn’t Joanou take advantage of the open-door policy at 16” on Center’s HR department? She worried about retaliation. Also, she said that the company’s reluctance to deal with things like drainage odors didn’t give her much faith in their ability to deal with potential misconduct claims. Working in a stressful environment also pushes workers into survival mode, Joanou said: “You’re willing to work through three, four terrible-shitty things because 17 medium-shitty things happened.”
Since the publication of the blog, five 16” on Center employees have separately contacted Eater with allegations similar to Joanou’s. In a semi-related note, a dishwasher at Dusek’s who no-showed during the Day Without Immigrants protests, claimed racism when he was fired.
16” on Center responsed to the outcry in another statement:
“With many of these complaints on social media, it’s the first time they have ever been brought to our attention. As part of the investigation, we’re actively reaching out to these individuals one by one. It’s our responsibility to not only address their concerns directly, but to ensure them that we take their statements extremely seriously. Our intention is to get to the bottom of each and every claim.”
Besides the Pilsen spots, the company also runs Revival Food Hall in the Loop; The Ruin Daily, MONEYGUN, and Saint Lou’s Assembly in the West Loop; Empty Bottle and Bite Cafe in Ukrainian Village; Beauty Bar in West Town; and Promontory in Hyde Park. Finkelman and developer Craig Golden — who also co-founded Sterling Bay, the parent company of Four Corners restaurants — founded 16” on Center.
Read 16” on Center’s letter to workers below.