The saga surrounding Tank Noodle just took another twist as state officials say they’ve reached out to the owners of the Uptown restaurant to determine if they need to give back a $150,000 Business Interruption Grant (BIG) awarded in September. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Labor revealed that Tank had violated federal laws and owed 60 workers nearly $700,000 in back pay.
The Labor Department said it investigated Tank Noodle over the fall — after the restaurant received the grant — and found that Tank’s management engaged in wage theft by withholding overtime and garnishing tips; management illegally kept shares from tip pools for themselves.
Those violations would make Tank, one of the most popular stops for pho in Chicago, ineligible for the grant — recipients are required to “continue to comply with all relevant laws, regulations, and executive orders from the state and federal government, including the social distancing guidelines as promulgated by the executive orders of the Illinois governor.”
Tank Noodle, open for two decades, has had a tumultuous 2021. In January, members of Tank Noodle’s ownership attended the January 6 rally in Washington, D.C. supporting former President Donald Trump’s lies that he did not lose the election. An owner posted a selfie on Facebook showing himself on a plane to D.C. Another member posted photos of past protests in D.C. using the hashtag “#StopTheSteal.”
Federal authorities say Tank Noodle’s ownership withheld $697,295 in wages to 60 workers — or $11,621 per employee. Ownership signed a document in December in which it agreed to pay their workers that amount, according to the Labor Department.
The Vietnamese restaurant’s ownership has until March 11 to respond to the state’s inquiry regarding ineligibility, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO). The state’s BIG program was designed to help small businesses harmed by the pandemic. The state reports that 48 percent (3,747) of the 8,325 grants awarded by the state went to restaurants and bars. Fitness centers, event and indoor recreation venues were among other businesses that received the $290 million in funds. Money was given out in two waves last year, and restaurant owners who didn’t get grants remain peeved about how the money was distributed.
Grant applicants like Tank Noodle were required to certify compliance with city, state, and federal laws. They’re also required to disclose any ongoing lawsuits, claims, and investigations that they know about. Applicants are informed that violations would place their grants in jeopardy.
As responsible restaurant owners saw counterparts who ignored COVID-19 safety measures received money, they were disgusted. Earlier this month, the state admitted that it had not recovered funds from those who challenged Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s indoor dining bans. The DCEO says it’s raised eligibility issues to 66 businesses, and those matters remain under review. Compliance concerns include violations of public health orders.
For Tank Noodle, the state is taking a hard look at clawing back funds. The DCEO provided the following statement in regards to the violations detailed by the Labor Department:
Upon learning of this violation, DCEO reached out to the owners of Tank Noodle to learn more about the circumstances related to this incident and to notify them of a potential ineligibility for funds under the terms of their grant award agreement. We expect all BIG recipients to maintain full compliance with state and federal laws, as outlined in their agreement, and this matter is currently under review.
Tank Noodle was open Thursday, but workers declined comment only saying that a manager would be available on Saturday. Its social media pages remain deactivated.