Six days after restaurant workers at a hip downtown hotel filed cards to organize a union, the hotel’s food operator declared it would shutter the dining establishments that employed them, the latest in a string of showdowns and confrontations between workers and employers in L.A. area restaurants.
The case is playing out at the Hotel Figueroa in downtown, home of Sparrow Italia, Cafe Fig, Bar Magnolia, the Cafeteria and La Casita at Driftwood. The historic building has for the last two decades built a following for its Mediterranean-inspired space and stylish dining rooms, but behind closed doors, tension has loomed between the third-party management company behind the restaurants, called Noble 33, and the estimated 100 food and beverage workers who run them.
Discontent between Noble 33 and its employees at Hotel Figueroa started soon after the hospitality group took over food and beverage operations for the hotel in 2021, according to workers and union organizers who spoke with The Times.
Workers said they were forced to take on multiple tasks without more pay as their colleagues left and management failed to back-fill positions.
Some food and beverage workers, many who worked alongside the unionized hospitality workers employed by Hotel Figueroa, started to agitate to also form a union and gain similar rights.
On Dec. 8, food and beverage workers who worked for Noble 33 notified their management that they intended to form a union, and submitted cards to do so.
Six days later, Noble 33 emailed its food workers, announcing that it would permanently shutter the restaurants by mid-February and lay off its food and beverage staff before then, according to a letter sent to employees on Dec. 14.
In response, restaurant and bar workers employed by Noble 33 at Hotel Figueroa filed a complaint in January with federal labor regulators, accusing hotel management of trying to suppress labor organizing among its food and beverage staff.
Unite Here Local 11, which represents the hotel workers at Hotel Figueroa, filed the complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the food workers at Sparrow Italia, Cafe Fig, Bar Magnolia, the Cafeteria and La Casita at Driftwood.
The closing of the restaurants would leave large wells of unused space on the hotel’s ground floor.
Restaurants and two bars take up most of Hotel Figueroa’s bottom floor. The hotel’s front patio serves as outdoor dining space for Cafe Fig, a popular all-day Mediterranean restaurant featuring dishes like cauliflower bites, tuna tartar tostadas and truffle fries. Hanging vine chandeliers decorate the indoor dining room, which is attached to Bar Magnolia, a well-stocked watering hole for hotel guests and diners who want to sip on a libation.
Walk a few steps toward the the courtyard, past an arched entryway and there’s Sparrow Italia, which serves coastal Italian dishes and cocktails in an indoor-meets-outdoor dining room and bar that opens up to the hotel’s iconic coffin-shaped pool. La Casita at Driftwood offers food and drink service poolside when open for the summer season.
It’s unclear what operations if any would replace the dining spaces at the Hotel Figueroa, a Spanish Colonial hotel at Figueroa and 9th streets in downtown L.A.
“We are still evaluating all options concerning future food and beverage offerings at Hotel Figueroa,” a spokeswoman said Monday in a prepared statement.
Some of the workers said they were devastated by the move, which came right before the Christmas holiday.
Leobardo Perez, a 45-year-old dishwasher at Cafe Fig, said he decided to organize after two other dishwashers left and management made him take on their work instead of hiring new dishwashers. Perez, who has worked at the restaurant for two years, said he was also forced to do other jobs, such as prep or pastry work without additional pay.
“All we want is for our rights to be respected in the workplace,” Perez said. “It’s unjust for them to close down the restaurants because we just want to organize.”
Third-party manager disputes hotel’s claim
A spokesperson for Noble 33 said the third-party vendor had no option but to close.
Noble 33 contends that its contract with Hotel Figueroa stipulates that the unionization of food and beverage employees would trigger a kill clause between both parties. “It would be a breach of the hotel’s current unionization agreement with the union,” a Noble 33 spokesperson said in a written statement.
Hotel Figueroa and Unite Here Local 11 deny this claim.
A spokeswoman with Hotel Figueroa said notice to terminate the food staff “was not prompted by hotel management nor hotel ownership.”
She said the layoffs were initiated by Noble 33, which issued the notices without first discussing it with hotel ownership, management or employees.
“It is also important to note that our agreement specifically stipulates that Noble 33 will never be requested or authorized to engage in unfair labor practices,” Hotel Figueroa said in a written statement.
Unite Here Local 11 called Noble 33’s claim “absurd.”
“It is absolutely disgusting that a company would sign a contract promising to kill its operations simply because its employees exercise their federal right to organize a union,” said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11.
Food workers across the region have been struggling with owners and employers in an industry shaken last year by brutal financial realities and allegations of mismanagement and abuse. At least 65 notable closures of restaurants affected the dining scene in 2023.
The closures continued into the new year. On Jan 1, Sweet Lady Jane — famous for its triple berry cake — announced it had shuttered all six of its Los Angeles locations.
At the same time, discontent between food and beverage workers and employers continues to grow.
In June, former servers at Jon & Vinny’s, a hip Italian American restaurant, filed a class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the restaurants’ owners, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. The lawsuit against Joint Venture Restaurant Group Inc., which owns Jon & Vinny’s, claimed that the company denied servers tips, resulting in a reduction of take-home pay due to diner confusion regarding an 18% service fee.
In September, hostesses at Nobu in Malibu filed separate lawsuits against the popular restaurant, alleging sexual assault, sexual harassment and discrimination.
In December, the National Labor Relations Board announced that it was looking to force Starbucks to immediately reopen 23 stores that workers allege were shut two years ago in a move that was allegedly done to suppress union organizing. Six of those locations were closed in the Los Angeles area.
Edith Reyes, a line cook at Cafe Fig, said she felt compelled to organize because of what she described as unfair treatment on the part of managers.
Reyes, a single mom who has worked at the restaurant for about three years, said managers ignored multiple requests for a few weekends off to spend with her daughters.
At the same time, she said newer workers were granted weekends off.
“It’s unfair. I’m the only parent my daughters have,” she said of her teenage daughters. “They depend on me. I need to be there for them and I need to provide for them.”
She was given a few hours short of full-time and didn’t qualify for vacation or sick time off, she said.
On Jan. 20, Hotel Figueroa hotel workers took to the picket line for a few days for the first time this year. The move was the latest in a series of intermittent strikes and a larger summer strike that launched in July when hundreds of hospitality workers at hotels across Southern California took to the streets in protest.
Unite Here Local 11 represents the hospitality workers and reached tentative agreements with about two dozen hotels, out of some 60 properties in Los Angeles and Orange counties initially targeted by strikes that started last summer.
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