Current and former employees of One Off Hospitality, one of Chicago’s most successful restaurant groups, have voiced their frustrations in an open letter, posted to Instagram in English and Spanish, that details what workers describe as an unpredictable and unsafe working environment. In the letter, 68 workers specified several areas of issue.
“For many of us, this job is an absolute necessity, something we cannot live without,” the letter reads. “However, our long-awaited return to work was met with staff-wide pay cuts, reduced working hours, freezing of our benefits, inconsistent restaurant operating protocols, and understaffing while dining areas were filled to their legal — yet alarmingly full — capacity.”
The unrest led to four workers meeting with Kahan and other One Off partners. The letter was posted last week, and on Sunday, August 2 the company closed Big Star, its busy taco bar in Wicker Park, after a worker tested positive for COVID-19. It is tentatively set to reopen Friday.
Lead by chef Paul Kahan, One Off includes Fulton Market pioneer the Publican, Mediterranean-influenced West Loop spot Avec, and Pacific Standard Time, a California-cool River North restaurant that opened in 2018. Many of worker complaints regarded Pacific Standard Time, the first venture from chef Erling Wu-Bower and Josh Tilden’s new label Underscore Hospitality, which operated the restaurant with One Off in the role of co-operator and investor. Workers are confused about who was managing the restaurant, claiming that there was an absence of direction from both groups.
“The biggest issue wasn’t necessarily the money or whatever they were putting in place,” says Reed Palur, a kitchen supervisor who’s worked at Pacific Standard Time since 2018. “It’s that there was no communication to us. They still haven’t sat us down and talked to us about what’s going on. We understand the business motives, but the way they did it was the biggest problem for me.”
Adding to the stress, Palur and others describe aggressive and argumentative diners. One grabbed a worker, and another tried to cough on the general manager. He’s seen customers walk into Pacific Standard Time without masks, touching tables and furniture. Palur wants better direction from leadership about how to respond to those situations.
Problems with staffing complicate matters further, says former kitchen manager Brandon Chang. Working with a skeleton crew will be be made tougher when Pacific Standard Time restarts lunch and brunch. The abrupt departure of two chefs contributed to more behind-the-scenes chaos — existing staff were forced into bigger roles despite limited experience and guidance. The understaffing has impacted morale, which has led to staff contemplating walking out: “I started to gather the back-of-house staff to ask how people felt,” says Chang. “No one wanted to continue to work there.”
In Palur’s view, many of these decisions came from owners who were disconnected from the day-to-day realities of running a restaurant. “These corporate guys never spent any time at the restaurant; they never cared how we were doing,” he says. “No one other than [Kahan] introduced themselves to me — not Donnie [Madia], not Terry [Alexander]. Now that they’re losing money they’re going to come in and act like they care or they know how to run this restaurant. It was kind of disrespectful to us.”
Despite opening a dialogue with ownership, Chang doesn’t know if the confidence lost over the past few months can be recaptured. “I lost trust in One Off and the way they wanted to run the business,” says Chang. “The people I thought created this restaurant and made it what it is were pushed out in one way or another... I didn’t see anything they were doing to make things better.”
Palur adds: “Normally, [Kahan] sits down to talk to you. You’d be geeking out. But it was like, ‘I don’t want to be around this guy right now.’”
Former Pacific Standard Time line cook Tamara Zapata says she worked with Chang to make sure Spanish-speaking and undocumented workers were a part of the conversation as well; she’s the reason the letter was translated to Spanish. Zapata feels strongly about “making sure these people who are scared have a voice.”
Undocumented workers figured they’d be next to lose their jobs as fears ran rampant after the closure of Cafe Cancale in Wicker Park. Even Zapata says she was scared to post the letter, fearing that One Off would blacklist her. She doesn’t expect them to follow through on any of the letter’s demands, but feels an obligation to stay involved on behalf of undocumented workers who don’t have access to a financial safety net.
Workers also raised concerns in April when employees expressed concern when money collected in a GoFundMe campaign was used to buy Mariano’s gift cards for workers who were cut at the start of the pandemic shutdown, rather than providing a check that they could spend on rent or bills.
Pacific Standard Time is one of two One Off venues open for indoor dining; the Publican is the other. Ownership says the restaurants’ large dining rooms allow for safe social distancing, and both have windows that swing out. Workers would prefer One Off to serve outdoors only, but there’s doubt the state will allow outdoor dining to continue. Gov J.B. Pritzker warned he could reverse the state’s economic reopening if COVID-19 cases continue to surge.
Kahan said back in March he worried about jerk customers in outlining the reasons why One Off restaurants closed for takeout and delivery. On Friday, a One Off spokesperson provided a statement answering several questions.
When it comes to guests who behave poorly and ignore social-distancing rules, the company says it’s encouraged managers to ban customers and cancel reservations: “If there is an occurrence while dining, we have empowered our managers to take the necessary steps to maintain a safe working environment — in some cases this may mean asking a guest to leave the restaurant. If things escalate beyond a managers control, we have empowered managers to call the police as necessary.”
The company calls the pandemic “an impossibly difficult situation.” They feel safety policies “go beyond the city and state’s requirements.”
“Additionally, we are doing our best to provide more timely communication with our team,” the statement reads. “Beyond this, we have provided resources for our staff for those seeking unemployment (including webinars to support any questions) and made mental health resources available to all team members, understanding the mental toll that the pandemic is taking on many across the hospitality industry and otherwise.”