In the ashes of a Boston-area pizza chain that wronged them, some former pizzeria workers are trying to get their just desserts. They’re opening their own restaurant, hoping to show up the previous owners with even bigger success.
The restaurant sits on a busy shopping street just off Harvard’s campus. Carpenters have been busy renovating the space before the scheduled opening next month.
“We’re trying to have the business continue,” says architect Alex van Praagh of the redesign, “but give it — give it a new life.”
The restaurant’s old life was part of a once fast-growing Massachusetts chain Upper Crust Pizzeria. But its owners may have been taking the “upper crust” name too literally. They may have been trying to get rich on the backs of workers. In 2009, the federal government investigated and ordered Upper Crust to pay its employees $341,000 in back wages for uncompensated overtime. After that, workers accused ownership of taking that money right back out of their paychecks. Boston worker rights attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of workers. But before the case was settled, the pizzeria chain went bankrupt last year.
“And it was when that happened that the wheels started spinning in my head,” Liss-Riordan says, “that something should be done here, somewhat dramatic.”
In the bankruptcy auction last month, Liss-Riordan partnered with a local businessman to plunk down more than $220,000 to buy the remaining lease of one of the chain’s locations, the one at Harvard Square. That’s close to where Liss-Riordan went to Harvard Law School. It’s not a coincidence that it’s also close to the campus where students once boycotted Upper Crust.
“The goals are to set up a restaurant where the workers are paid correctly,” Liss-Riordan says. “And do something even further. So that it really is a place for the workers, and the workers could have a feeling of ownership.”
Liss-Riordan and her investor partner are hiring around a dozen former Upper Crust workers to run the pizza shop. One of them is Mehmet Ali. He started out at the old pizza parlor as the deliveryman.
“I’m gonna be the manager,” Ali says, smiling.
Ali’s not just because getting his job back. He’s not just getting a promotion. He’s also getting an equity stake in the business. All of the workers will.
The details of this shared ownership with workers have yet to be worked out. But offering workers equity makes sense to the local businessman who partnered with lawyer Liss-Riordan to buy the shop. Haluk Özek runs a clothing boutique down the street, and he shares the profits there, too. After all, that store is a family business.
“You know my son and my nephew and my wife are working for me,” Özek says laughing. “So if I don’t share the money with them, I’m in deep trouble!”
The pizzeria is set to open next month, only a few months after the Upper Crust location closed. That’s when former worker Mehmet Ali had to tell his pregnant wife that the chain had declared bankruptcy and that he lost his job. He’s hoping to be back to work before the baby is born.
“My wife’s so excited,” Ali says. “I’m really excited. This is new career for me.”
Ali hopes he and the other workers make the joint so successful that it expands and grows bigger than the old Upper Crust chain ever was. He wants to show the former owners how far a business can go when you work with the employees rather than stealing from them. How far a business can go when you focus on growing the pie, instead of fighting over how to slice it.
This new pizzeria has a new name: The Just Crust.
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