Amy Casales says it took a while for her to process why she was fired from her job as a server assistant at Itoko, a Japanese restaurant run by James Beard Award-winning Boka Restaurant Group. “Maybe I didn’t accept that at first because I really liked working here,” Casales recalls, pausing and she stood in front of her former workplace at 3325 N. Southport Avenue.
Casales was one of five server assistants let go in September. She served water to customers and helped clear, clean, and reset tables. She says she did more than her job description, helping to polish silverware and even doing liquor counts, a task normally reserved for managers. She read bartending books with dreams of advancing her career at one of Chicago’s most successful restaurant companies.
But now, she says feels “so disposable” after a restaurant manager told her and her colleagues that they were fired due to the City Council’s decision to abolish the tipped minimum wage, a move that will increase labor costs for restaurants while bringing pay closer in step with the rate of inflation. Furthermore, Casales points out that she’s part of a group of five workers who all identify as Latino. They marched in front of the restaurant on Tuesday, October 24, in a protest organized by One Fair Wage, the group that pushed the City Council to eliminate the tipped minimum wage earlier this month. The former workers and One Fair Wage claim that the firings were both racially motivated and violated the National Labor Relations Act.
The city’s new ordinance is set to begin taking effect starting in July 2024. Over five years, the tipped minimum wage will be phased out incrementally until it reaches the standard hourly rate which currently sits at $15.80.
Casales says those conversations where a manager, Mason Gutierrez, blamed the tipped minimum wage ordinance happened in early September before the City Council took its vote on the measure on October 5. A Boka spokesperson writes no manager ever blamed the layoffs on the ordinance. Boka’s staff, like other managers within Chicago’s restaurant industry, have discussed the ordinance internally, but “there were many other factors that directly led to the changes in the service model at Itoko,” a statement sent to Eater from the company reads. Furthermore, Boka says Casales was laid off due to an economic downturn, but she was offered a job as a barback at Itoko.
In a letter delivered to Itoko managers on Tuesday afternoon, One Fair Wage claims that Boka’s “recent termination of all of the Server Assistants was both retaliation for collective protected activity in violation of the National Labor Relations Act and racially inequitable, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.”
There’s a clause in that federal law that refers to “concerted activity for mutual aid and protection” that covers both unionized workplaces and non-unionized environments, such as Itoko. The act protects groups of workers who may protest wages, hours, or conditions.
Additionally, One Fair Wage’s letter states: “The workers who still work at the restaurant have tried to meet with you to demand transparency regarding this situation. However, the management’s strategy has been ‘divide and conquer.’”
A group of about 18 marched a few blocks on Tuesday afternoon, wearing One Fair Wage shirts and hats and carrying a banner, to deliver the letter. Rally organizers vowed to shut the restaurant down and file lawsuits if Boka didn’t resolve the issues by Tuesday, October 31.
Boka responded in a statement to Eater writing that the dismissals happened “due to lower-than-expected business levels” and that “discrimination in any form is not practiced or tolerated.” The reductions were made with winter’s arrival in mind and the eventual closing of a sidewalk patio, the company added. A Boka spokesperson adds that while they did honor requests to meet to talk about the dismissals, management has no record of missing any request for a meeting, which would be contrary to what’s stated in One Fair Wage’s letter.
Patricia Jakob, a former Itoka server, didn’t buy Boka’s explanation. Jakob quit last month in solidarity after Casales’ dismissal: “I didn’t feel right — it didn’t feel good,” Jakob says. “It didn’t align with my morals.”
Jakob says server assistants were “cast as scapegoats” as they’re among the “most marginalized front-of-house” group of workers at Itoko. For some reason, neither Jakob nor Casales could answer — the positions have been exclusively filled by Spanish speakers. In some cases, they didn’t know English: “That’s the only front-of-house position that’s like that,” Jakob says. Casales adds that she translated work documents for one of her colleagues as Itoko management relied on Google Translate to communicate with them and answer questions.
When asked about the practices behind hiring server assistants, a Boka spokesperson writes “We hire individuals from diverse identities in every position and department throughout our company. 45 percent of Boka Restaurant Group employees identify as Latino across all job codes, and there are people who identify as Latino represented in all positions, including leadership at Itoko and across our entire organization.”
In the wake of the five dismissals, other workers have joined Jakob in quitting. Boka declined to comment about any staff departures. The Michelin Guide earlier this month touted Itoko and made it eligible for Bib Gourmand and star status, which are considered markers of quality among many within the restaurant industry. Itoko opened in February, one of three Boka restaurants that share a roof inside the historic former home of Southport Lanes.
A Boka spokesperson says Casales was offered to remain with Itoko as a barback. Casales says she didn’t trust the offer. She mentioned a situation earlier in the year when a person applied for a food runner job and was trained for the position. But that colleague never worked as a food runner and instead worked at Itoko as a server's assistant without much of an explanation.
Upon hearing management’s explanation, Casales says a bartender — who has also since left the restaurant — encouraged her to contact One Fair Wage. Organizers advised Chicago workers to reach out if they find themselves victims of retaliation. A spokesperson for One Fair Wage tells Eater Chicago that they haven’t seen such behavior in other markets where the organization has worked to remove the tipped minimum wage.
Read Boka’s full statement below.
As a 20-year-old Chicago-based company, we understand the importance of adapting to the ever-evolving climate of the industry we operate in.
Due to lower-than-expected business levels, the onset of the slower winter season, and necessary adjustments to a service model better suited for a smaller restaurant footprint, Boka Restaurant Group made the decision to discontinue the Server Assistant position at Itoko. This change was made specifically for Itoko’s service model given its business conditions, and we continue to operate with a Server Assistant service model at many of our other restaurants. The five former Itoko Server Assistants were offered the opportunity to explore other employment options within BRG.
Discrimination in any form is not practiced or tolerated at Boka Restaurant Group and we continue to be a workplace that honors diversity, practices equity, and encourages inclusion across every department in each of our restaurant outlets.