North Miami’s most politically-connected restaurant is also failing to pay its staff — at least according to a former chef at Moca Cafe and Lounge, who says he’s been waiting for a check since May. That's despite the fact that Moca has gotten thousands from city taxpayers over the years.
Alain Pierre Etheart, who also worked as a manager at the well-known Haitian restaurant, says he’s short “a couple thousand dollars,” and that the owners have been largely unresponsive to him.
Once New Times contacted the owners, Rodney Noel and Jean-Michel Cerenord, they promised to resolve the issue and denied they'd deliberately stiffed the chef.
Moca Cafe, which takes its name from the nearby museum but is independently owned, has over the past six years become a de facto meeting place for North Miami's political community — particularly its Haitian-American elected officials. It hosts weekly parties, dancing and live music. It’s also been a recipient of funding from taxpayers; ex-mayor Andre Pierre even voted to give the spot nearly $150,000 for a renovation.
But according to Etheart, during the three months he worked there earlier this year, he received constant complaints of bounced checks from employees and service providers. He too once got a $1,000 bounced check from the former employer.
“I would get calls from check cashers and banks saying this check bounced, that check bounced,” he says. “And employees were constantly complaining to me they weren’t getting paid. There was a rule among employees that you should go cash a check by 10 a.m. the day you get it, or else it won't go through.”
Etheart was hired in February to revamp the menu, manage the kitchen and waitstaff, oversee the budget and more. He loved the restaurant’s busy, fun community vibe, with constant parties and events. But by April, he says he’d grown frustrated by conditions at Moca. He resigned in April and continued to seek payment from owners Noel and Cerenord for the hours he says he worked. He received about half in May, he says, but is still waiting for the rest.
Noel tells New Times that he plans to resolve the payment matter with Etheart soon. “He should just come pick up his check, “ the co-owner says. “Of course we plan to pay him.”
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Later, Noel contacted Etheart and now says the two are “resolving the issue.”
But more trouble could be on the way for the restaurant owners. In late April, Etheart filed a complaint with the Department of Labor’s Division of Wages, on behalf of himself and a handful of other employees who say they haven’t been paid since February. The complaint is still being investigated.
It's not the first drama tied to the restaurant. In 2011, activists raised questions about a deal involving Moca’s owners and Pierre, the mayor at the time. Pierre had acted as attorney for Moca Café’s owners in 2009 and until at least February 2010. Weeks later, he voted via a phone poll to give them $10,000 from the city; months after that, he voted to give them $145,000 to expand the restaurant. The mayor didn’t disclose that past relationship either time.
Moca has “enjoyed the support of the political establishment for quite some time,” says North Miami Commissioner Scott Galvin. “They’ve become the go-to for the Haitian-American political powers that be.”