When Sushi Yasuda in Manhattan recently announced that they would no longer accept gratuities, opting instead to raise prices slightly and pay all employees a living wage, both service staff and customers seemed to think it was a great idea. Cynics, however, suggested there was another motivation: the threat of a lawsuit from Maimon Kirschenbaum.
In a very short period of time, the 34 year-old attorney has struck fear into the hearts of just about every famous chef in New York City. He has filed dozens of lawsuits against high-profile restaurants for wage violations and won more than $40 million in damages. His targets have included Mario Batali, Smith & Wollensky, Nobu, Balthazar, Le Bernadin and Jean Georges. Joe Bastianich, Batali’s partner, has described Kirschnbaum as “shaking the very foundation of Manhattan’s restaurant industry.”
Kirschenbaum’s cases usually morph into class action lawsuits; when word of the litigation gets out, the ranks of the plaintiffs are swelled by servers who worked for the restaurant over a period of many years. He targets practices such as the manipulation of time cards to avoid paying overtime, and the most common practice of all—owners who require tipped employees to share their tips with other front of the house personnel and/or kitchen staff.
This last practice is almost universal in the restaurant business, and not just in Manhattan. Here’s how it works: Servers are told that they must kick back a percentage of their tips to support staff such as bus help or service bartenders. This allows management to hire employees, pay them next to nothing, and have their salary paid by other employees. While this is clearly illegal, it has become so universal that it is generally accepted as “the way things are.”
Kirschenbaum disagrees, and his lawsuits have changed the way many New York restaurants treat their employees. The changes are most apparent on the upper end of the scale. After all, it’s hard to strut your stuff on the Food Network or Iron Chef when headlines are broadcasting the fact that you’re cheating the folks who have made your fame possible by virtue of their hard work. And while some celebrity chefs are outraged, hopefully they’ll refrain from sticking their hands into the pockets of their employees.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to amazon.com