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Review: Casellula

December 3, 2017

 

[Ed. note: Owner Brian Keyser has read this review and prepared a response that is posted below. Tipped Off's interview with Brian can be read here. He will also be a panelist at Tipped Off's upcoming event THE TIPPING POINT: A CONVERSATION ON THE BEST WAY TO PAY IN THE INDUSTRY on 12/4 at 7pm at Scratch in Troy Hill, along with USBG  President Nicole Battle and Scratch owner Don Mahaney. Read more about the goals of this event here]. 

 

From their website: Casellula Cheese & Wine Café has been serving great food, wine, and artfully curated cheese plates in New York City since owner and fromager, Brian Keyser, opened its doors in 2007. After exercising his passion for the restaurant industry at some of New York’s most noted restaurants, including Union Square Café, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and The Modern, Brian foraged his own path and opened Casellula."

Casellula @ Alphabet City

40 W North Avenue

Pittsburgh, PA 15212

412-226-9740

 

Hours

Mon-Wed 5-10pm

Thu & Fri 5-12am

Sat 11-2, 5-12

Sun 11-2, 5-10

 

"Turmoil started when a new general manager came in on a power trip. Let me be honest and tell you that I'm biased. I quit this job because I was having panic attacks hours before my shift as a result of said gm and the owner was not helpful to the situation either. They continually did not take any responsibility for their own short comings while pointing the finger at the workers. The owner screamed in the dinning room in front of a well-known chef and food critic. It was directed at the bartender despite the fact the owner was the one hosting a cheese class. Mind you he had also been sitting around on his iPad for at least 45 minutes before this. The gm constantly would say snide remarks and have a condescending tone. All in the name of "I'm sorry, I'm just stressed out". Felt a lot like an abusive relationship than a place to work. As far as I know, this behavior has continued since I left. I know that another server quit without having financial stability. I could go on about this but, I think it can be best summed up in the fact that we were considering unionizing and the worker with the least to lose was considering delivering a document of grievances. The last thing that I want to point out is the "living wage" that we were given. It cannot technically be considered as such because servers were often (at least 1x/wk) being called off our shifts and being cut after only 3 or so hours. So, despite being paid a "living wage" it often didn't equate to much. These cuts became ever increased because of the gm's salary. Which was abundantly obvious in the face of the cuts and the stress produced by both the owner and the gm. As well as an insider source told me that she was being paid a hefty ton more than she the last place she was working. This was combined with the threat of firing if we accepted gratuity. Which is completely illegal, on a social level; anti-worker. If you want to work for a pro-gentrifying, anti-worker, old white men who think they're changing the service industry but, just actually perpetuating the cycles of poverty in the interest of their capitalistic goals then this is most definitely the place for you."

 

 

What do you/did you do there? Server

How long did you work there or how long have you currently been working there? 0-6m

Why did you leave? Quit

How are you paid before tips? $18/hr

How are tips handled? Gratuity was "included"

What do you make on average per shift, before tip out? $51-100

Who do you tip out to? I did not have to tip out.

What benefits do they offer?  None

Do you get a family meal? Yes

Do you have to take menu tests? Yes, weekly

How many servers work there? 1-5

Do you have to wear a uniform? Yes, but you need to purchase it or be provided by you

Describe your uniform: Casellula t-shirts with jeans, or black top with jeans, or all black.

How long is your average shift? 3-5 hours

How many managers work there? 3

Below is owner Brian Keyser's unedited response to the above review.

I’ll start by saying that this review gives me a lot to think about as there is truth to some of what is said. Opening a restaurant is hard, stressful, frustrating work, for owners, managers and staff and I don’t always handle it well. I’ve done it multiple times, both as an owner and as a server for some of the biggest and most respected names in the industry, and it is never smooth or easy. Even at its best, a restaurant opening can be awful. There will always be employees who choose not to stay. 

 

I opened Casellula @ Alphabet City with great optimism and high ideals. Unfortunately, those ideals bumped up against reality; my idealism turned into a simple fight for survival. The biggest issue is that Pittsburgh’s restaurant boom has thinned out the pool of experienced restaurant workers to the point that we could not attract good employees to our Northside location. Our opening staff was too small and had almost no fine-dining or casual-fine-dining experience. 

 

Worse, they were for the most part untrainable. With a few exceptions, they couldn’t follow directions, couldn’t learn menu items, couldn’t handle more than a couple tables at a time, didn’t understand the concept of multi-tasking, and moved at the pace of molasses going uphill in the wintertime. We had servers who bitched about coworkers to guests, talked to guests about their drug problems, and otherwise exercised horrible judgement. 

 

Multiple servers, including, the server I believe wrote this, called off from work because of “anxiety.” I don’t want to be insensitive to real mental health issues, and I have worked with multiple employees to get them through their real issues while also keeping their jobs, but in the real world “anxiety” isn’t a get-out-of-work-free card. You either put your anxiety aside and work, or you don’t get to keep your job. It was impossible, early on, to run this restaurant as I wanted to because we didn’t have the right people. 

 

This server complains that I was not helpful with the situation, but I don’’t remember being made aware of the situation until the day they quit. I made a point of meeting with them a week or so later because I cared about this person personally and wanted to hear what was wrong with the work environment. While this person made a couple of valid points about the GM and his attitude, my takeaway was that they just didn’t want to take on the responsibilities of having a real job. It was like talking to a seventh grader who just didn’t want to do their homework.

 

Did I yell at a bartender in front of guests? Absolutely. Am I proud of that? Absolutely not. I should lead by example and be professional no matter how much stress I am under. That bartender, however, was amongst the worst employees I’ve ever worked with. He never once did all of his setup work correctly and on the night in question, I discovered fifteen minutes before a tasting class that the rosé wine that he was supposed to keep stocked in the refrigerator was at room temp in storage. I was livid, for good reason, but that isn’t an excuse for losing my temper in public. I’m sorry for that. 

 

I don’t understand what the problem is with me sitting on my iPad. I am running two restaurants in different cities. I am on my iPad working any time I can be. 

 

The living wage experiment was intended to make servers’ lives better, not worse. In this location at this time it was a failure. I accepted that and changed the way we pay our servers. But to call me a “pro-gentrifying, anti-worker, old white (man) who thinks they're changing the service industry but, just actually perpetuating the cycles of poverty in the interest of their capitalistic goals” is insulting and ridiculous (except for the old, white man part, which I have no control over). I have spent years working to improve the lives of workers. I regularly lobby lawmakers in DC and at statehouses in an effort to increase both the minimum wage and the tipped employee sub-minimum wage. I hire inexperienced people and train them so that they can move up in this industry. I wish I could hire an ethnically diverse staff, but we get almost no applicants of color. I’m working to change that, but I can’t hire people who don’t apply. I welcome any advice on the topic. 

 

I have studied tipping for years and the no-tipping model is part of a larger effort to eliminate workplace harassment, poverty, and segregation. (That’s a whole other essay.) But the model works only if you have hard-working, smart, motivated workers. What we had for the first several months that we were open was a bunch of lazy corner-cutters who milked the clock because they were making $17 to $22 an hour instead of $2.63. Had we been a tipping restaurant at that time, the servers would have made far less, as none of them could handle enough tables to make a living. 

 

A server was considering giving me a document of grievances. Well, I wish they had, because I can’t fix problems that I’m not aware of. Several months ago, two staff members sat with me for an hour or two sharing their grievances and it was a relief to finally know how they felt. I addressed the issues they brought up, successfully, for the most part. It made us a better restaurant and workplace. Unfortunately, most employees would rather complain amongst themselves and write angry letters to Tipped Off than talk to their supervisors. I regularly tell my staff to share these kinds of issues with us. They almost never do; martyrdom is so much more fun. 

 

There is much in this review that is either nonsensical or untrue. I don’t know who was a being paid a “hefty amount more,” nor do I understand what the point of that is. Wouldn’t that be a good thing, to pay my employees well? No one was ever told they would be fired for accepting a tip. Servers were told to tell guests that we were a no-tipping restaurant, but that if someone left cash they could keep it. There’s no way for us to stop someone from leaving a $10 bill on the bar. The GM’s salary had nothing to do with cutting servers. The GM was paid what I had to pay to get an experienced GM. The truth is that we have lost money every day since we opened, largely because of my commitment to pay the staff, including management, fairly. 

 

There are many former employees of mine who love me and many who think I am a world-class asshole. The common thread is that good employees, who show up on time, do their job well and with a good attitude think I am the best boss they’ve ever had; bad employees who take no responsibility for their own actions, come to work late with a bad attitude, and are unable or unwilling to learn think I am a horrible person. I can live with that. I do not suffer fools. Multiple people who have left my employ, in NYC and in Pittsburgh, have returned because they realized how good they had it at my restaurant. I’m not perfect, by a long shot, but I care about my staff and care for them and the ones who are willing to work hard do well. 

 

I take responsibility for being imperfect. I was not at my best in the early months of being open and I never figured out a way to get our early employees to succeed. Maybe that’s because they were untrainable, but maybe it’s because I failed in some ways. I acknowledge that I am not a good teacher of bad students. I hate having to tell someone something three times. Some people are good at that and I admire them. The bottom line is that the server who wrote this (I’m pretty sure I know who it is, but I could be wrong) is someone I liked personally, but who was a horrible employee. Our early staff was full of lazy, entitled, whining, manipulative, time-clock milkers who never took responsibility for their own actions. This review is a reflection of that attitude.

 

Luckily, we finally have a staff of committed, competent employees and Casellula has become a great place to work. I’m sorry it took so long, but I am reminded of a lesson I learned years ago on the opening staff of Danny Meyer’s The Modern. I went to Danny with complaints that sounded very much like those in this review and Danny said to me, “Brian, it takes two years. I know you want everything to be perfect right away, but it never is. It takes two years.” I hate it, because those two years are always painful, but he’s right and I’ve learned to accept it. 

 

Thanks for the opportunity to respond.

 

Best,

Brian

 

 

 

 

 

 

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