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Locked-out former workers file back-pay claims against Bennigan's

Rolando Crespo, 48, of St. Petersburg lost his job at Bennigan’s when it closed two weeks ago. Now he faces filing a claim in the company’s bankruptcy liquidation in hopes of getting paid for the hours he worked.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Rolando Crespo, 48, of St. Petersburg lost his job at Bennigan’s when it closed two weeks ago. Now he faces filing a claim in the company’s bankruptcy liquidation in hopes of getting paid for the hours he worked.

After losing jobs twice this year when Roadhouse Grills closed, Ryan Roberts tried to sign on with a stable rest­aurant chain.

"Unfortunately, I chose Bennigan's," said the 27- year-old Seminole server, who got in two months before this granddaddy of the fern bar set closed without notice July 29. "Luckily, they only owe me $70 in wages."

Bennigan's and the last Steak & Ale closed two days before pay day, leaving many not just scrambling for jobs but also lined up with other creditors to get paychecks in a bankruptcy liquidation proceeding in Plano, Texas.

Metromedia Restaurant Group, a business unit controlled by billionaire John Kluge that owned Bennigan's and Steak & Ale, didn't respond to questions about how many got stiffed for back pay. But court officials say plenty filed claims.

Indeed, this midnight massacre is another reason why restaurant jobs have a bad reputation beyond long hours, weird work weeks and demanding diners.

Two months after Metromedia executives denied bankruptcy was planned, executives told store managers in a late-night conference call not to open the next day, split up the tip money and tell workers they had no jobs.

Locally, the closings put about 400 people — from veteran managers to table cleanup crews who work paycheck to paycheck — in the unemployment line.

It's left Rolando Crespo, a 48-year-old dishwasher at a St. Petersburg store, borrowing to pay bills and leaning on relatives for rent.

"One minute I'm excited about being promised a promotion to salad prep, then I get to work and the doors are padlocked," he said. "This really put me in a hole."

He's out about $350 for 51 hours of work, but feels lucky to find work half-days getting MJ's Jazz and Tapas Bar ready for a September opening.

Others were stung. Gift card holders are out of luck, but Texas Roadhouse, which has a store in Wesley Chapel, will honor them.

Metromedia's business partners — franchisees who run 138 other Bennigan's stores, including one in Tampa's Channelside — were forced to put out press statements and assure workers they are in business as news spread that Bennigan's closed.

"We were blindsided," said James Briski, president of the Bennigan's Franchise Operator Association that is negotiating with lenders and landlords to take over 60 to 70 closed stores to re-open them. That includes three Tampa Bay area stores.

"Of the 170 stores Metromedia abandoned, 90 were profitable. They could have sold them and preserved jobs and the brand. But they chose to just kill the whole thing," said Bill Snyder, managing director of CRG Partners, a consultant trying to put together the deal for franchisees.

Knowing employees faced tough times, some Bennigan's managers let workers take home leftover food when stores closed.

Crespo saw a cleanup crew fill a Dumpster with rotting leftovers days after his store closed.

A locksmith hired to lock up a Brandon Bennigan's tried to walk off with $1,500 in liquor and food to forget an $800 bill the chain owed.

Sheriff deputies arrived to arrest the locksmith, but a Bennigan's manager reportedly declined to press charges if the goods were returned.

Given what had happened to Bennigan's workers, the definition of theft changed.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Locked-out former workers file back-pay claims against Bennigan's 08/11/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 9:52am]
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