(From left) Marisa Mendoza, Ivette Vega, Flor Crisostomo and Maribel Hernandez at a protest of Calavera restaurant on April 1, 2016. Photo: Jenny Huang

On April 1, three former employees of the Uptown Oakland restaurant Calavera officially filed a class-action lawsuit against 15 Main, LLC, Calavera’s parent group.

The employees, along with the Bay Area Restaurant Worker’s Movement (BARWM), held a press conference in front of Calavera at noon Friday. That evening, during Oakland’s regular First Friday event, they participated in a protest against Calavera with a coalition of at least 110 restaurant workers, supporters and members of food justice and labor movement groups.

The employees filing suit, Flor Crisostomo, Sergio Esquivel and Maribel Hernandez, who were employed as, respectively, a prep cook, sous chef and dishwasher, allege that Calavera failed to pay minimum wages and overtime, provide meal breaks, indemnify employees for expenditures, and pay earned wages upon termination. They are seeking compensation for lost pay and penalties for violating the law.

Over 110 protesters converged on Calavera restaurant during a protest on April 1, 2016. Photo: Jenny Huang
Over 110 protesters converged on Calavera restaurant during a protest on April 1, 2016. Photo: Jenny Huang

In addition, Crisostomo, Esquivel and Hernandez allege that “serious racial discrimination exists at Calavera,” according to a prepared statement from BARWM. However, none of the former employees are, at this time, pursuing charges of discrimination in the suit.

The suit explicitly names Christian Irabien (former executive chef), Michael Iglesias (partner), Chris Pastena (partner) and Aledar Rogers (executive sous chef) as defendants who “actively violated or caused the violations alleged herein.”

The partners at Calavera, an upscale Mexican restaurant that opened at 2337 Broadway as part of the Hive complex in August 2015, declined to speak to Nosh, but they released the following statement on Monday:

“We believe these claims to be completely false. We are a diverse group of employees and owners at Calavera with a history of fair practices and creating a healthy, supportive restaurant culture, and we take pride in being Latino, African-American and female-owned. As longtime Oakland residents and restaurant owners, we have always been 100% committed to supporting our staff and treating every single member of our community fairly. We understand the importance of advocating for fair labor practices and equality, not only in the workplace, but in our communities as well, and the owners at Calavera have a long record of working with the community toward those goals. While we understand the need to bring attention to this important issue, this claim is misguided and untrue.”

Crisostomo said in a prepared statement that she regularly worked up to 12 hours per day without breaks or meals. She was “working non-stop and with the responsibility of implementing the work of both the executive chef and sous chef,” she said.

Crisostomo and Hernandez were both “terminated” in October 2015, according to the statement. Esquivel said in a prepared statement that he quit his job as sous chef around the same time “due to the abuses and wage theft he experienced and witnessed.”

“We are suing in the name of the 11 million restaurant workers that exist in this country,” said Crisostomo. “We are suing for the people working in the kitchen right now, who work their asses off in terrible conditions to be able to sustain their families.”

Former employee and lawsuit plaintiff Flor Crisostomo leading chants during a protest of Calavera restaurant on April 1, 2016. Photo: Jenny Huang
Former employee and lawsuit plaintiff Flor Crisostomo leading chants during a protest against Calavera restaurant on April 1. Photo: Jenny Huang

Oakland lawyer Hector Martinez, who is representing the plaintiffs, said that “the damages are probably going to be pretty substantial,” given the extent of the allegations. The specific amount will only become apparent once all potential class members are interviewed and document discovery is complete, he said.

“These types of cases are extremely important because the cost of living is so high here. Every dollar matters,” said Martinez. “A lot of [restaurant] workers don’t speak English, or even speak Spanish very well, so they don’t know their rights. They put up with conditions because they just need to make money to provide for their family.”

BARWM is also calling for a boycott of Calavera and promoting the boycott through a social media campaign. Ivette Vega, a representative for BARWM, said in a prepared statement that “even an allegation of wage theft, racial or gender discrimination, harassment or intimidation is enough to protest. Oakland will no longer tolerate the epidemic of abuse in the restaurant industry, and we won’t stop until these and all workers have justice.”

The coalition has also stated that it intends to reach out to other business at the Hive, the development in which Calavera is located.

According to BARWM, within 24 hours of the protest, there were thousands of new views and posts on Facebook regarding the BARWM campaign, including one post that has garnered nearly 800 shares on Facebook. BARWM also says that other employees at Calavera, and other restaurants owned by Chris Pastena, have reached out and may be interested in joining the suit. Other restaurants opened by Pastena include Lungomare and Chop Bar.

BARWM supporters at a protest of Calavera restaurant on April 1, 2016. Photo: Jenny Huang
BARWM supporters at a protest of Calavera restaurant on April 1. Photo: Jenny Huang

Calavera has made a name for itself in its six months of operation as a regional Mexican restaurant specializing in dishes from Oaxaca. Nosh visited the restaurant shortly after opening and sampled items like its house-nixtamaled tortillas, fried grasshopper-topped guacamole and chili-braised goat birria. It has received positive reviews from the East Bay Express, San Francisco Chronicle and SF Weekly.

Despite its early success, the restaurant has already seen a chef shuffle. Calavera announced last month that it had brought in chef Sophia Uong to replace opening chef Irabien, who was leaving to join the team at Cala in San Francisco.

This is the second high-profile lawsuit in the Bay Area restaurant community in the past month. On March 15, two lawsuits were filed against celebrity chef Michael Chiarello of Coqueta in San Francisco and Bottega Ristorante in Yountville. The first suit alleged sexual harassment and labor violations on the part of Chiarello, Coqueta executive chef Dominick Maietta, and other senior managers of the restaurant. A second suit was filed alleging that the restaurant failed to pay wages and overtime, manipulated clocks and time sheets, and forced front of the house employees to pool their tips with the kitchen staff.

Read the lawsuit in full.

Calavera is at 2337 Broadway (between 23rd and 24th streets), Oakland. Connect with the restaurant on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...