Multiple employees of high-end downtown steakhouse La Queue de Cheval say that they have not been paid wages or tips from shifts they worked in early March.
Queue de Cheval’s owners notified staff via letter in mid-March that they would not be paid until a later date, because the restaurant was under too much financial stress and had other financial obligations.
A month later, a few staff have received paychecks, while others haven’t seen any of their missing pay — but those who have received checks say they were asked not to deposit them until next week. Meanwhile, the restaurant is still open every day for takeout, with a menu featuring steaks that range from $36 to $191, and to-go bottles of wine priced up to $155 each.
The steakhouse on de la Montagne Street — one of Montreal’s priciest establishments — voluntarily closed its dining room on Monday, March 16, a few days before Quebec premier Francois Legault ordered all restaurants to close dining rooms in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Queue de Cheval employees told Eater that they were summoned to the restaurant on the Friday after the closure, and gave identical accounts of what happened next. When they arrived, they were not allowed in, and the owners and managers were not present. Another employee, a chef, handed each worker an envelope — but instead of a paycheck, it contained documents that staff would need to apply for government assistance. It also contained a letter explaining the closure, stating that “all salaries for the [two] weeks ending March 15th 2020 cannot be issued”.
The letter stated that the owed wages would be issued as soon as the federal government issued financial compensation for employers, or when the restaurant returned to regular business at a later date. Queue de Cheval likely won’t be able to claim this money from the Canadian government’s new wage subsidy program, as it only covers wages lost after the mass shutdown of businesses due to COVID-19, from March 15 onward.
“We wish you the best of health,” the letter signed off.
“I was shocked,” said one server who spoke to Eater, but requested that his name be withheld to protect his identity. ”Are you kidding me? You’re going to screw me now of all times?”
“It was a horrible scene, all these families being left in limbo,” said another server. He said that one worker with children burst into tears on the spot after realizing that they were not receiving paychecks.
Speaking to Eater, Queue de Cheval owner Peter Morentzos said that he and his management were “caught off guard” by the sudden need to close due to the novel coronavirus. He explained that the restaurant continued to do business as normal (for example, paying for a large wine order in early March).
“It happened that it was all mixed together with other obligations at that particular time,” he said. “When [the pandemic] started in early March, we didn’t have a crystal ball to see what would happen on the 15th.”
“We were already obligated to suppliers, we already bought food, and payments were made, what can I possibly say? It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.”
An email obtained by Eater that Morentzos sent to staff offered a similar explanation.
The first three months of the year in Montreal , and in most provinces are the worst three months of the year. We budget to lose money traditionally, so when this disaster hit, coupled with the three weakest months…we find [ourselves] in a situation where we need to work with everyone to see this [through].
One employee who spoke to Eater said that he understood this to mean that the restaurant had used wages to cover other expenses.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m coming over tonight, I’m just gonna grab some cash off your night table and pay some bills, is that okay?’”
Some employees have filed complaints with Quebec’s labour board, the Normes de Travail (CNESST) — a letter from the CNESST obtained by Eater states that it is proceeding with an investigation into the situation, although no decision has been reached.
A few staff members started to be issued the missing pay around April 22, and Morentzos said he expected all of them to be paid by the end of the month. But at the time of writing, only a handful (including the two who were asked to bring their uniforms) had been called to collect their cheques and to sign a form confirming receipt of their pay. Some were asked to not cash their cheques until a week in the future, although one reportedly deposited his pay successfully; another worker said that his pay was missing some tips and a number of hours.
Morentzos seemed upset with staff taking the issue to the media or CNESST. Minutes after Eater contacted the restaurant, Morentzos texted one server, accusing him of “complaining and fabricating bullshit” and telling him to “look for another career in your future.”
But speaking to Eater, Morentzos took on a much more conciliatory tone.
“I’m just sorry to everybody, I know why I’m sorry, I’m sorry to our guests, I’m sorry to everybody… I assure you a million percent that [COVID-19] is the number-one reason that I’m speaking [about this] right now.”
When asked about the text message sent to an employee, Morentzos explained his stance, and why he was upset at the employee who he believed spoke to Eater.
“People make their own decisions in what they want to do, you don’t come and take from the hand that feeds you as an employer. It’s pretty clear, you made a decision, you don’t want to be part of this company, so good luck in your future.’”
Morentzos apparently followed through on that statement: This week, two staff were called to collect their checks and were asked to bring their uniforms with them to give back to the restaurant. One of them told Eater that Morentzos had an aggressive demeanour, telling him to find a job in another field, and saying that (Morentzos) “wasn’t done with [the employee].”
In an email, Morentzos called this account “nonsense” and accused the staff of harassing his business.
“All employees were given termination notices when we closed… how can I fire someone who is already terminated?”
It isn’t just wages that are owed — some staff requested vacation pay that had been banked up over extended periods and said they were unable to collect it. The restaurant allegedly hasn’t paid out tips from the final days before it closed due to COVID-19, either. As servers explained to Eater, tip payments at the restaurant are issued alongside paychecks.
One server who spoke to Eater estimated that he was owed around $3,000, and that the total debts owed to employees likely add up to tens of thousands of dollars (others also stated to Eater that they were owed more than $2,000 each.) Much of the owed money is tips, because even though the weeks leading up to the closure were quieter than normal, Queue de Cheval’s wealthy clientele tend to run up big tabs that draw large tips, as one server explained.
“You took our tips to pay your bills — you know that people go to jail for that? You do not steal from your employees like that,” said one employee.
There were signs that the restaurant was trying to get the money together. On March 26, employees received another email from Morentzos, obtained by Eater, in which he outlined the steps he was taking to pay them.
“We haven’t forgotten our staff, and we haven’t forgotten how we got here,” he wrote.
The email announced that Morentzos had created an “Employee Rescue Fund” — customers would be encouraged to purchase Queue de Cheval gift certificates, and 100 percent of money spent on those would then go to that fund, where it would presumably be passed on to employees; this campaign was also posted to social media.
But speaking to Eater, some staff were skeptical about the gift card system (one called it a “bullshit excuse”).
One server questioned Morentzos’ priorities, noting that in the weeks that he had been waiting for pay, the restaurant managed to put together a slick video advertising its takeout menu
“He made a video and all that crap, how is he spending money to make a video?” the server said.
Ultimately, the whole situation has left multiple staff feeling betrayed.
“So many companies and so many other firms taking care of their employees while us, we just got nailed to the cross — and I want Peter to hear that,” said one employee.