Salt Bae's Meat Empire Is Rife With Labor Problems

The viral chef is faced with lawsuits over sex discrimination and wage theft, NLRB complaints, and a giant inflatable rat.
February 3, 2020, 9:02pm
Scabby the Rat is After Salt Bae
Left: Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images | Right: Photo by The Washington Post/Getty Images

Three years ago, Salt Bae became a living meme for flamboyantly sprinkling salt on meat. Since he first went viral in early 2017, he’s added some new moves to his repertoire: spanking and lubricating the meat, seasoning the meat with a comically oversized pepper grinder, and ostentatiously wrapping the meat in edible gold, as well as allegedly not paying waiters overtime, stealing their tips, preventing women from working as servers, and union busting.

That last claim was the subject of a protest last week near Union Square in New York. Salt Bae, whose name is Nusret Gökçe, has a second New York City restaurant opening soon on Park Avenue, and is using scab labor to build it. On Thursday, dozens of people, along with the giant inflatable rat Scabby, showed up to draw attention to the hiring of a non-union company, Alba Services, to build the new restaurant, which is called #saltbae. A video posted by Tafadar Sourov, a rep for labor union Local 79, showed protestors wearing fake Salt Bae-esque mustaches and sprinkling salt on the sidewalk. They chanted, “No way Salt Bae, union wage, we will pay” and “Keep your steak we don’t care, workers just want our fair share.” (Alba Services, which did not respond to messages, was sued in 2017 under the Fair Labor Standards Act for failing to pay overtime and furnish workers with wage statements; the case is ongoing. One of Gökçe’s lawyers said, “Chef Nusret was not involving in hiring Alba Services and neither he nor the company were aware of any labor issues that Alba Services may be having with its employees.”)

Scabby made an appearance outside Salt Bae's second, still-unopened restaurant in New York City.

Whether Salt Bae hired the company or not, this is just the latest in a long list of claims that he and his business have treated workers poorly—a list so extensive his own lawyers learned about the existence of some of the claims from VICE.

Gökçe and his business, Nusr-Et Steakhouse, are facing two lawsuits over wage theft, filed last year in New York and Miami. (The one filed in New York is approaching a settlement, according to Salt Bae’s lawyers.) Additionally, in November his company paid $230,000 to four waiters from Salt Bae’s midtown steakhouse to settle a National Labor Relations Board complaint. He’s accumulated quite a collection of NLRB complaints, including three that were filed last week alleging unfair labor practices. And just recently, a woman who used to work at the chef’s Miami steakhouse sued his business in Miami-Dade County for sex discrimination.

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Compere first filed an EEOC complaint in January 2019, as reported by the Miami New Times. Then in December she filed the sex discrimination lawsuit. Compere, who worked as a server for 10 years at various restaurants before applying to work at Nusr-Et Steakhouse in Miami, said she interviewed with Salt Bae himself, according to her lawsuit. Though she applied to be a server, he said, per the filing, that he “saw her as a food runner,” someone who brings the food to the table but doesn’t wait on customers, and she accepted the position in the hopes of being promoted to server. From the complaint:

For months, managers at Nusr-et asked Salt Bae to promote Compere to a server because she was clearly highly qualified compared to many other servers. Salt Bae would tell them that he only "saw her as a runner" and denied the request. Approximately five months after the restaurant opened, Compere was finally promoted to the position of a full-time server. As a server, Compere was able to make considerably more money that she did as a cocktail waitress or as a food runner. However, Compere was still treated differently than the male servers.

When Salt Bae came to Miami and worked at the restaurant, Compere was frequently forced give up her dinner shifts and work the lunch shifts so she would not be seen by Salt Bae. Or, Compere was forced to give up her server shifts all together and was made to work as a cocktail waitress in order to hide the fact that Compere was a server. When Compere worked lunch shifts as a server or worked as a cocktail waitress, she earned considerably less money.

The decision to not hire Compere as a server, or to force her to work inferior shifts or job positions, was based upon Compere's sex.

"It’s important for people to file these types of claims on gender discrimination because there is no reason male and females alike can’t do these jobs equally," Compere’s lawyer, Miami-based attorney Lowell Kuvin, said. "The idea is you can't make sex a part of your motif and marketing identity. Women are breadwinners just as much as men are breadwinners. It’s about equality."

Kuvin’s firm is also representing Compere, as well as more than 20 other plaintiffs, in a collective-action lawsuit filed against Salt Bae’s Miami restaurant in January 2019. The lawsuit said Salt Bae’s business failed to pay minimum wage and overtime under FLSA. The case, Kuvin told VICE, is currently in discovery.

Another FLSA lawsuit was filed against Salt Bae and his business in January 2019 in New York; the suit also said the famous chef’s steakhouse failed to pay sufficient minimum wage and overtime. Plaintiff Mustafa Fteja, who worked as waiter at Salt Bae’s midtown steakhouse from January to December 2018, said that Gökçe was regularly in the restaurant, “interacting with customers and employees, instructing employees what to do, has the authority to hire and fire employees, change their pay and pay schedules, and he keeps records regarding the employees’ hours worked and compensation.” The complaint said:

Defendants paid Plaintiff Fteja below the minimum wage because, upon information and belief, he is a tipped employee and they were availing themselves of the tip credit: the difference between the statutory minimum wage and the rate tipped employees may be paid, provided certain conditions are met. This is often referred to as the “tipped minimum wage.” Defendants never informed Plaintiff Fteja or other waiters that they are taking a tip credit: they did not inform them of this verbally or on any wage statement. Plaintiff Fteja pooled his tips with other waiters, bartenders, baristas, host, hostess, runners, bus boys, sommelier, sushi makers and managers (“Tip Pool”).

Fteja also said he faced retaliation for asking about his tips: “Defendants fired Plaintiff Fteja for complaining about them keeping some of his tips [...] Because he complained about them retaining some of his tips, Defendants gave Plaintiff Fteja less tips than the waiters who did not complain about Defendants retaining tips.”

Christy Reuter of Meister Seeling and Fein, the Nusret company’s U.S. counsel, told VICE, “The company denies any wrongdoing with respect to the employment and labor related claims,” and that the New York class-action case is pending final settlement. (The plaintiffs' lawyers did not respond to VICE’s requests for comment.)

The blanket denial is odd considering that this past November, Gökçe, facing charges from the NLRB that he had fired four waiters from his midtown steakhouse for asking about their tips, agreed to a reported $230,000 settlement. The New York Daily News reported that the workers “claimed management never told them how much was collected in tips. Instead, they’d get weekly checks of around $2,000 to $2,500, which they were told included gratuities.” The document that showed the tip distribution breakdown, the report said, was deemed confidential by management.

In an earlier interview with the Daily News, the four waiters—Batuhan Yunkus, Onur Usluca, Yunus Delimehmet and Suleyman Kucur—unloaded on Gökçe.

"He's trying to cover up his authoritarian, dictatorial attitude,” Yunkus told the paper. “He doesn't care about local laws."

Kucur talked about Gökçe’s obsession with Scarface: "He was so influenced by the movie. He thinks he is like Tony Montana. He said to me, 'What's the name on the restaurant? Nusr-Et. What's my name? Nusret. What I say, goes.'"

Reuter, Gökçe’s lawyer, initially said, “The NLRB matters have been resolved,” and was unaware of the three NLRB complaints that were filed last week against Nusr-Et until VICE asked about them. She said, “We were not aware of any filings, nor was my client. As the [NLRB site] shows, claims were just filed last week and notices will be sent. We cannot comment until such time as we receive those notices and understand the basis of the allegations, and the identity of the charging party.”

The lawyer who filed the NLRB complaints, William Michael Brown, told VICE that the three complaints were filed on behalf of three different parties.

At any rate, with the new restaurant set to open seemingly any day (it was originally slated to open last summer), Salt Bae--along with his labor politics--is back in the spotlight.

“To me it’s just indicative of corporate greed,” Sourov, the Local 79 rep, told VICE outside the restaurant on Thursday. He said the union protestors were operating under the assumption that the restaurant would be opening that day, but it didn’t look finished. Inside, boxes were piled to the ceiling and ladders and other tools were visible from the street.

“Non-union construction isn’t always as efficient,” Sourov said.

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