In December, Bonchon’s Uptown location had a mea culpa moment on Facebook. Management of the Asian fusion fried chicken restaurant admitted that they had been withholding “30 percent” of servers’ tips and giving it to the cooking staff.
This, it should be noted, is textbook wage theft under Minnesota law. You can’t mess with servers’ tips, even if you’re using them to pay other staff. Bonchon management said it was a “mistake,” offered “the sincerest of apologies,” and said the servers would be reimbursed.
But some employees say that’s not the end of the story. According to them and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota – a nonprofit advocating for better job conditions – Bonchon didn’t pay the servers everything they were owed. They say the owners kept 5 percent of those tips for “credit card processing fees.”
On top of that, they contend Bonchon has been paying workers below the minimum wage. (In Minneapolis, franchises are required to pay at least $11.25 an hour.) And on top of that, they also say the workers who started blowing the whistle took a “retaliatory” hit in the form of severely reduced hours and shifts.
Serena Boyle, a server at the time, remembers not being scheduled for two weeks after news of the tip theft broke. “After that, they’d schedule me for four hours a week.”
She eventually quit. But that was her first serving job. When management told her they’d be taking tips to pay kitchen staff – she claims it was 50 percent, not 30 percent – she had no idea it was illegal.
She was one of several workers who took to Lake Street on Tuesday afternoon to protest “unjust treatment and labor malpractice.” They chanted and cheered while waving signs that said “The REAL chickens are in the manager’s office” and held gigantic papier mache drumsticks covered in caution tape.
Their demands are these: They want their tip money, reimbursement for the work they lost, and a public apology.
“Wage theft is a really big issue in our industry,” the Center's Eli Edleson-Stein says. A lot of workers don’t even realize when it’s happening, and have too much to lose if they speak out. For servers like Mya Bradford – a young mother from Minneapolis who worked at Bonchon for three months – the consequences were dire. “This [job] was what I needed to get an apartment.”
At the time, her son, Khalil, was three months old, and she wanted them to have a place of their own so they wouldn’t end up in a homeless shelter. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Khalil is nine months old now, and they still live there. Bradford quit her job in December after deciding she could no longer handle the copious stress and the low pay.
She’s hopeful the rally will sway management, but so far, there doesn’t seem to be much persuasion going on. A manager at Bonchon declined to comment, except to say the restaurant had already paid what it owed, and that continuing to rail only served to be “insulting” and “hurt” the restaurant’s reputation. Bonchon corporate didn’t respond to interview requests.
The workers have also filed a complaint with Minnesota’s Office of Civil Rights. It will take a while to hear back, Edleson-Stein says, and the results might not be as favorable as the workers hope.
“Typically, in my experience, those negotiations happen in private, and the owners fight for nondisclosure,” he says.
Until the verdict comes down, all they can do is march, chant, and wait.