Workers at Pacific Standard Time have wondered who was managing the restaurant for weeks. As new personnel began working at the kitchen, ownership has evaded answering questions when it came to who is in charge. Frustration mounted during the pandemic with questions about pandemic safety and pay. Workers finally received an answer as partners Josh Tilden and chef Erling Wu-Bower announced their departures from the trendy River North restaurant. The move happened more than a month ago, but employees were left in limbo until last week when ownership at One Off Hospitality Group made the announcement.
Chef Perry Hendrix, who ran the kitchen at Mediterranean-influenced restaurant Avec for seven years, has replaced Wu-Bower. Wu-Bower and Tilden, who are both One Off alums, collaborated with their former bosses in opening Pacific Standard Time in 2018. The created their own company, Underscore Hospitality. But after two years, they’ve left. The pandemic and a desire to spend more time with family instigated the move which they say happened June 26. Wu-Bower has a new son, Miles.
“We’d be lying if we said that COVID did not play a role in our departure, as the whole restaurant world has been affected,” says Wu-Bower, pointing to the financial devastation the pandemic and shutdown efforts have wrought on the hospitality industry.
Tilden adds: “The world has been turned upside down since March, and especially our industry has been greatly affected by what’s going on.”
Their exits add a new layer to an already complex series of internal conflicts that became public with the posting of an open letter from workers late last month. In the letter, 68 current and former One Off workers expressed frustration with what they describe as inconsistent and even alarming working conditions during the pandemic. These include, they write, staff-wide pay cuts, reduced working hours, benefits freezes, understaffing, and more.
Workers were stunned last week after the Tribune reported Wu-Bower and Tilden’s departure on Friday. One Off’s Paul Kahan told the paper that the “breakup” happened in late March — a stark contrast from the June date cited by Underscore.
The news and disparity in timelines was striking to former restaurant workers who contributed to the open letter. One Off management told Pacific Standard Time workers that Wu-Bower and Tilden were absent due to vacations and a family emergency. Kahan also told the Tribune that the group didn’t tell employees what was happening because of an unspecified legal agreement. Tilden and Wu-Bower acknowledged that legal agreement.
Former Pacific Pacific Standard Time kitchen manager Brandon Chang felt blindsided by the One Off’s announcement: “Given the nature of conversations we were having before the shutdown, I never got the idea that Erling was going to step away,” Chang says “... A month is far too long for literally nobody to address the staff about possible head management changes.”
Chang left Pacific Standard Time after seeing staff morale plummet. He lost confidence that One Off would properly address the concerns. He says staff spent months managing confusion about who was managing the restaurant. There was an absence of direction from One Off and Underscore, he adds.
Tamara Zapata, a former Pacific Standard Time line cook, was stunned by news, saying: “[Wu-Bower] always looked forward to the future of Pacific Standard Time, always committed to be better and push forward.”
Like Chang, Zapata helped organize Pacific Standard Time. She translated the workers’ open letter from English to Spanish. She adds that legality issues may be preventing Wu-Bower and Tilden from disclosing what took place.
Wu-Bower says he wants his former staff to know that “we still care about them a ton, and want them to know we are incredibly proud of them.” Once he and Tilden were no longer co-operators at Pacific Standard Time or rooftop restaurant the Laurel Room, they didn’t feel they were in a position to speak to workers on behalf of One Off. “It wasn’t Underscore’s place to say what was going on at all,” Wu-Bower says.
As for Hendrix, Wu-Bower says “the restaurant as a whole — from top to bottom — is in incredible hands.”
Tilden and Wu-Bower worked at One Off before forming Underscore and opening Pacific Standard Time with One Off. One Off partner Two years later, Wu-Bower and Tilden have left the nest, leaving Pacific Standard Time in their mentors’ hands. Underscore Hospitality still exists, but any plans are in the distant future. Underscore’s partners declined to go into detail about their future relationship with One Off.
“I think it’s important for us to utilize this time to try to refresh and recharge our batteries, so to speak, to make sure we know what the next steps are,” Tilden says.
Hendrix’s move opened up a spot for Avec chef Dylan Patel to be promoted to the role of chef de cuisine. Raised in Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs, Patel studied culinary arts at Kendall College. During that time he was tapped for an internship at Avec, where he secured a position in 2015 first as kitchen manger and then sous chef under Hendrix. Patel told the Tribune that though a pandemic is a “weird” time to start a new position, he’s trying to make the best of the moment. He helped launch Avec Rotisserie, a to-go only operation, and plans to further develop the restaurant’s takeout options during the winter.
One Off Hospitality has faced criticism for a lack of diversity among its leadership staff. In early June, the group posted a public apology on Instagram that included a commitment to developing an internal diversity, equity, and inclusion committee “in order to create a safer, more inclusive, and equitable environment,” in addition to company-wide training and educational opportunities for employees.