When Rachel Hite-Smaka started serving at Pat's Tap in June, she only knew owner Kim Bartmann by reputation.
She'd had a couple friends work at the south Minneapolis bar/restaurant, one of seven owned by the Bartmann Group, and liked that things there seemed a little freer than at other, more "corporate" establishments.
"We were pretty busy, and I was making good money," Hite-Smaka says. "At the beginning, things were good. We had a really good manager, and business was great in the summer."
Conditions "deteriorated" slightly when that manager was moved to another of Bartmann's restaurants, and was not replaced, Hite-Smaka says. But she not only stayed on, she started picking up hours at Gigi's Cafe, another of Bartmann's restaurants. Some days she'd work a lunchtime shift at Gigi's, then serve until bar close at Pat's Tap.
She saw Bartmann occasionally, but the owner never introduced herself. Hite-Smaka's first real personal impression of the local restaurant mogul came last week, when she and nearly 200 other workers got an email saying their final paychecks weren't coming.
(UPDATE: On Friday, Attorney General Keith Ellison's office opened an investigation into Bartmann's restaurants, asking for financial details and employee records from multiple businesses after reports of not issuing paychecks.)
"I definitely lost a little respect for her as a business owner," Hite-Smaka says. "And that's hard to say, especially because I want to support all female business owners in the community. This came as such a shock."
Employees at Bartmann Group businesses are paid weekly, though Bartmann's email alluded "trying to honor any un-cashed checks" from previous weeks. She blamed the shortfall on a slow last weekend and "a sudden, steep drop in sales" caused by coronavirus fears.
"I've applied for unemployment," Bartmann wrote to employees, "and I hope you have too. I'm hoping that when we re-open, our sales will be strong and we can all get back to work. I'm literally begging you to stick with us; your job will be there when we re-open."
Speaking to City Pages earlier this week, Bartmann said she'd applied for an emergency loan from the Small Business Administration. Only one of her restaurants, Barbette, is open for takeout, and Bartmann said she hoped to "try to become financially viable and earn the money to pay that payroll."
Between hourly wages and credit card tips, Hite-Smaka was hoping her checks from Pat's and Gigi's would combine for upwards of $850. Instead, she found herself applying for unemployment.
A petition she and other Bartmann Group employees started calling on Bartmann to pay up has more than 2,500 signatures as of Thursday morning. The petition labels Bartmann not paying workers as "theft," and cites a state law that entitles employees to owed wages within 24 hours of the time they demand it. Another line cites a federal statute prohibiting retaliation against an employee for making a "wage-related complaint."
One section reads:
"Most of us, as bartenders, cooks, dishwashers, and servers in the industry, live from paycheck to paycheck. These paychecks are for hours ALREADY worked during a time that should have been considered hazardous to our health, exposing us to large amounts of people, and we deserve to be paid."
Signers get the option to tweet the petition at Bartmann, and some have; she hasn't replied.
Naomi Hornstein, who also worked at Pat's Tap and says she's owed "over $600," says these last checks are "extra important" to service industry workers who don't expect to return to normal work any time soon. (An executive order from Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday extended the mandatory closure of dining-in services through May 1.)
"A lot of people are worried about paying rent, or providing for families," Hornstein says. "They might have a little savings, but who knows what next few months will look like?"
Hornstein stressed the petition's call for the state to implement 15 days paid leave for workers affected by coronavirus, to be paid for through "a separate tax on the largest businesses in the state including Amazon, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, Target, Ecolab, and others."
The petition organizing has impressed Clara Schultz, who worked at Bartmann's restaurant Tiny Diner for about a year. It wasn't always easy. Because Tiny Diner was behind on liquor taxes—one of several Bartmann restaurants that have recently appeared on the delinquency list—the business was barred from receiving new deliveries. That meant handing out beer and wine lists that were "inaccurate," Schultz says, frustrating both her and the customers.
"That impacts my tip money, and sales," she says. "I can confidently say every shift I worked the last couple months, except for a few, I had to turn away at least 10 people from alcohol they were wanting to buy."
Schultz is getting by on a full-time day job, but would've put the $279 she says Bartmann owes her—"and two-thirds of that is straight tips," she adds—toward birthday presents for her siblings. (Instead, she had to borrow money from a friend.) She says the situation should affect Bartmann's public image.
"She has this persona of being a hippe-dippie, pro-worker type person, when she's clearly not," Schultz says. "This is the time to prove to the world who you really are... and she's going to push the burden onto those least fortunate."
Both Schultz and the petition pointed out that some workers, particularly those in kitchens, are worried about speaking up.
"The people making the most noise about this are going to be people like me, who are privileged and confident in our status as an American citizen," Schultz says. "But so many people impacted even more have uncertain immigration status."
Hornstein says employees' push to get paid "could include" filing a lawsuit, eventually, though she's hoping it doesn't come to that.
"We want to give Kim an opportunity to do the right thing," Hornstein says. "If not, we have to take more steps."