A federal judge last Wednesday said an eight-month-old wage lawsuit against the restaurateur and salt-sprinkling social media icon Nusret Gökçe can now include every person who has worked in a tipped position at his Brickell Avenue restaurant since it opened in late 2017.
Attorneys representing eight employees said they expect at least 100 to sign on to the suit that claims the restaurant, which serves a $30 burger, a $100 strip loin steak, and a $35 Ottoman salad of tomato, onion, walnuts, and Hungarian wax peppers, failed to pay tipped minimum wages and forced servers to participate in a tip pool that was split among nontipped employees too.
The suit was filed January 18 by Melissa Compere, a former server who spent 15 months at Gökçe's Miami outpost and alleged the restaurant improperly disbursed an 18 percent service charge that was automatically added to guests' checks. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, restaurants are allowed to pay tipped employees below minimum wage as long as their total hourly wage and overtime wage meet or exceed federal minimums. As long as they do so in Florida, eateries can also add a so-called gratuity or service charge to a bill and keep it if they choose. Of course, most restaurants that aspire to employ servers don't keep tips, but it isn't uncommon for eateries that issue the service charge to withhold some portion of it and use it for expenses such as broken glassware or credit card fees.
"It's important that all front of the house employees understand and know what their rights and they get properly paid," said attorney Lowell Kuvin, who is representing Compere and another former employee who filed the initial complaint. "That’s why they should participate in this lawsuit."
Compere said that the automatic charge was illegal and that parts of it were kept by the steakhouse for improper uses. The former server also filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission that alleged Gökçe didn't want to see female servers working the floor in his restaurant and that women were often forced to work behind the scenes or mostly quiet shifts when he was in town. The agency has yet to determine whether a suit can move forward.
"Nusret Miami does not comment on active, pending litigation," attorney Jonathan Beckerman, who represents Gökçe and his Florida restaurant company, wrote in an email.
Compere alleges she and others "were required to turn in all of their cash tips to a cashier, and these tips were shared with non-tipped employees. Ms. Compere was required to pay for impermissible business expenses, such as the purchase and maintenance of required work uniform items. Ms. Compere was required to perform non-tip-producing side work for 20% or more of her work time, [and] throughout her employment, [Compere] regularly worked in excess of 40 hours per seven-day week," the complaint said.
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"There are approximately '200 other tipped employees who were subject to the same policies and procedures' and that they each have 'personal knowledge that other tipped employees... will want to participate in this lawsuit,'" Chief Judge K. Michael Moore wrote in a 13-page order expanding the scope of the lawsuit.
A trial has been set for June 8, 2020.
Gökçe has been a consistent source of drama since planting his butcher's scythe in Miami about two years ago. He first sparked outrage as he was opening his restaurant after posting a picture of himself posing in front of an oversize image of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. In 2018, he drew ire and protests in Miami after bragging about feeding Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro as the South American country spiraled into a collapse that pushed millions to flee the country and left much of the rest of the population on the brink of starvation.