Late-night revelers party at Heaven, the rooftop nightclub above Much on South Elm Street in more prosperous times. (file photo)
It was a Friday night nearing 11 p.m., and bar manager Brian Hernandez could see groups of employees huddled and discussing what to do. That night, March 25, almost every bouncer and a number of other employees walked off the job in the middle of the shift. They said they couldn’t take it anymore.
“I pretty much had to beg my waitresses to stay,” Hernandez said.
“I already knew that that was going to be my last night there. I had already written them a letter.”
He quit the next day. It was the largest wave of employees to quit from Much, Heaven and Level 2, but it wasn’t the only one recently. Head bartender Kyle Price quit with three other employees a little over a month ago.
Owner and general manager Joe Eugene says nobody has really quit. He has run the connected businesses since early 2011, with Much located on the first floor, Level 2 as a restaurant in the middle and Heaven on the rooftop.
A March 30 post on the Much Facebook page by a site administrator said they were hiring new people but made no comment about employees quitting.
Keck Enterprises was hired to help run the day-to-day operations of the venues in 2009, but according to a spokesperson their contract was not renewed in January. Owner Lenny Peters, who is Eugene’s uncle, turned the operation over to his nephew.
Comparing the situation to 10th grade high school students talking about girls, Eugene said people liked to talk but that what they were saying was “silly” and “basically nonsense.”
His former employees offer a different perspective. Citing various specific grievances including unpaid back wages, sexism and a hostile work environment, the numerous employees who quit recently all said that Eugene was the source of their frustrations and grievances.
Jamie Culler was the head server and quit the Friday night her coworkers walked out. She agreed to stay and finish her shift after Hernandez asked her because she thought highly of him, but it was her last night on the job. Culler says that night 40 customers walked out on their tabs after they complained about the food and Eugene refused to speak with them.
“He still has two of my paychecks,” Culler said. “He quit paying people. He called me a drunk, a whore, all sorts of names.”
One former employee said she didn’t have any trouble being paid on time or in full, but understood why people were quitting.
“He won’t pay a proper kitchen wage,” she said. “Nobody wants to work for nothing. The restaurant is falling apart.”
When asked about former employees complaints around pay, Eugene said, “I pay all of my employees very well.”
Culler disagrees, saying he kept hundreds of dollars of their tips and that one night he kept at least $300 that was intended for cocktail waitresses.
“It’s like a 5-year-old whose parents just bought him a toy store,” Culler said. “He has a problem with me because I’m a strong willed woman.”
Aimee Pellitteri was hired in February and even though she hasn’t formally quit, she doesn’t plan to go back. As a shooter girl who also worked VIP cocktail, Pellitteri was never on payroll and wasn’t paid hourly, instead making all her money off of tips.
“I did nothing but help that man,” Pellitteri said of Eugene. “I stuck around when everybody else left and I helped as much as I could and I was still threatened, yelled at and disrespected very much.”
A number of former employees, both male and female, said Eugene was looking for a certain body type in female employees and once sent out an e-mail with pictures, one titled “prep school delinquent” of how female employees should dress on college night.
Carmen Vaquera was one of the employees who ignored his dress code requests and later quit. She worked at Level 2 and bartended but said she couldn’t take the “disrespect” anymore. She says one night after she quit, Eugene texted her around 5 a.m. and said, “Are you up?” Vaquera didn’t respond.
She also said Eugene told them to clock out at 10 p.m. and keep working to finish up off the clock.
One current employee said Eugene repeatedly asked him to find girls for him to “fool around with like Charlie’s Angels.” The employee said he found this very disrespectful and ignored the request.
Former bartender Kyle Price said Eugene was very sexist and asked for lap dances from at least two female employees and that one quit immediately following his request. Eugene allegedly said female employees should look “sluttier.”
A number of former employees, both male and female, said they didn’t feel Eugene was particularly sexist and never experienced or witnessed inappropriate behavior in this regard.
Price also said Eugene wanted mostly female bartenders, a move that the 80 percent male bartending staff — including Price — didn’t appreciate.
After Eugene tried to make Price pay for a customer’s $100 tab after their credit card was declined, Price says, he quit.
“I couldn’t stand by and watch while he, for all intensive purposes, robbed me,” Price said. “He still has my last check.”
Price and another former employee said they were asked to continue serving alcohol after 2 a.m., which is against state law.
Former Level 2 dishwasher Adrien Rogers did not receive two checks in a row preceding Eugene’s arrival. With new management in place, Rogers said he brought his concern twice to Eugene, who eventually told Rogers that it wasn’t his problem because it predated his ownership. After Rogers filed a complaint with the Department of Labor he was removed from the schedule, which he felt was a direct retaliation for filing the complaint. He is in the process of hiring a lawyer to fight for his back wages.
Hernandez, who one coworker described as a “father figure” at the businesses, says he was told he was receiving a pay raise but never did.
“I was training somebody new almost every shift,” he said. “I left to keep my sanity. I was really blessed to have such a great staff. It just changed so much from what it used to be.”
Hernandez, who is a full-time student and has a daughter, said there was almost no turnaround before Eugene took over.
Jeremy Harris was one of the bouncers who walked out that Friday night because, he said, the working environment was an uncomfortable. The bouncers were paid a nightly flat fee regardless of how busy the clubs were, but Harris said they were repeatedly paid less than what they had been told.
Amanda Nazario’s last shift was April 1, a week after many of her co-workers left. She worked various jobs at the businesses and said Eugene kept $100 that he owed her.
“He treats people like scum and it shouldn’t be like that,” Nazario said. “I can’t put up with him.”
Many former employees lamented what they described as a significant turn in the atmosphere and working conditions when Eugene took over a few months ago.
“This [place] becomes your life and we all wanted it to do well,” Price said. “It was a very good club. He changed so many things so fast that the club wasn’t going to survive from the get go. I really liked this job.”
Vaquera, Hernandez and Culler spoke highly of what their jobs used to mean to them as well.
“He destroyed a place that I loved very much,” Culler said. “He pushed me to the point of tears plenty of times, which doesn’t happen often.”
Bartender Anthony Castillero, who quit Saturday, agreed.
“Everyone there was happy. As soon as he took over it was like a disease,” said Castillero. “It’s kind of sad because it was a good place and he ruined it.”
A number of the employees who quit have found work at Eugene’s competitors. General manager Grady Green left in January after conflicts with the owner having worked
there full-time since 2004. He now works at Allure. A number of others have since joined him there. Hernandez started working at Venue last week.
Some former employees think Much and Heaven will close soon, at least temporarily, because, they said, the liquor license needs to be adjusted and re-approved.
“His club’s going to be inoperable if he’s not able to buy liquor,” said Price.
Other former employees said they heard rumors Eugene would not be able to open for the weekend of April 8. Indeed, the businesses were all closed Friday but were open the following night. Eugene acknowledged that they were closed for a night and said it was for “remodeling.” He refused to answer further questions.
Friday is payday for Eugene’s employees, and while many complain that he wouldn’t pay them until after banks closed for the weekend, the club closing Friday night raised concerns.
“I don’t know if I still have a job or not,” a current employee said the following day. Castillero said when he worked Saturday, no remodeling had been done and it was clear that wasn’t the reason the club closed Friday. Other former employees like Pellitteri agreed, saying the reason for the closure was a lack of employees.
Concerns were heightened by the fact that Dragan Iveljic, the operations manager, allegedly quit April 7 after Eugene kept him and a number of employees until 5 a.m. Iveljic would not comment for this article and said there was a lot going on that he needed to deal with. Eugene had previously directed questions to Iveljic.
Numerous former employees said Eugene sent them what felt like an endless stream of text messages: some threatening or harassing, some inappropriate and most incoherent and unprofessional. One even said that after receiving unprofessional texts on her day off, she wrote back to Eugene and told him she quit.
Most former employees seem happy to be moving on and don’t plan to return. Culler said Eugene banned her and some other former employees for the next three months, which will also help keep them away.
But Pelletteri offered a different solution to the situation.
“That place is going down and I hate to see that happen, but what can you do?” she said. “Help us get rid of this owner and buy us out and make a good club.”