A group of 25 protesters outside Bruce Molzan's new River Oaks restaurant were faced with an unusual concession this evening.
Corner Table, where the beleaguered Molzan is now head chef, sent out two pizzas to the picket line, delivered by waiters in pressed white shirts and black aprons. The protesters were mostly waiters themselves, along with other kitchen workers who say that Molzan still owes them back wages from his now-closed restaurant Ruggles Grill. Many of tonight's protesters were involved in a similar public display in December 2011, when the entire staff at Ruggles walked out on a busy Friday night after alleging that Molzan owed them back wages and tips totaling $14,000 to $15,000.
This was not a point that Molzan disputed, although he claimed that the "whole thing" had "been blown out of proportion." On December 5, 2011, Molzan told the Houston Press that his waitstaff would be "paid in full" that day.
Laura Perez-Boston of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, a non-profit that assists low-wage workers, claims that promise never came true. Says Perez-Boston, "he has still not paid the waitstaff that walked off the job at Ruggles."
In lieu of payment, the two pizzas came as cold comfort.
"No food; pay me!" one protester began to chant. Soon, the entire line -- predominately Hispanic, with a few supporters from Fe y Justicia and Down with Wage Theft -- was chanting the same refrain.
"That was bizarre," said Perez-Boston of the proffered pizzas. "But it just energized us. We're here for justice."
The raucous protesters drew curious onlookers from the quiet neighborhood off Virginia and Westheimer where Corner Table recently opened. Soon, police cars had been called, too, although they remained parked and silent, simply watching. Corner Table's managers and valets scurried outside amid chants of "Ruggles workers are still in the struggle!" and "No justice, no peace!" from the sidewalk across the street.
A steady stream of cars let out diners who craned their necks at the protesters as they walked inside. "Eat somewhere that pays your workers!" yelled a few women from the picket line. Power tools on Corner Table's patio were conspicuously turned on to drown out the din. And in front of the large plate glass window that faced the picket line, a giant white shuttle was pulled around so that the view was entirely blocked.
Inside the restaurant, a hostess graciously but nervously led over an elegant, well-dressed woman whom she identified as a manager. The manager, who wished only to be identified as Leslie, was calm but firm.
"This has nothing to do with the restaurant," she said. "This is about [chef Molzan's] former enterprise, and he's not affiliated with them any longer."
Along with other lawsuits Molzan has been involved in over the years, the former owner of Ruggles sued the employees who walked out on him at Ruggles -- despite acknowledging that he owned them money. But Molzan is not an owner at Corner Table. That would be Darla Lexington. Lexington is perhaps best known as the longtime companion of famous Texas lawyer John O'Quinn, who died in a car accident in 2009. Should Lexington or Corner Table pay for Molzan's transgressions?
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"We sent out pizzas," Leslie continued. "We don't want to be ugly. There's no need to be ugly."
But, Leslie finished, "I think there's some facts they don't have straight."
Back outside, the protest that had begun at 6 p.m. was still in full swing an hour later despite night falling. The lines of cars pulling in to Corner Table's valet seemed to be energizing them as much as the pizzas had.
"They're just trying to shut us up," said Perez-Boston. "It won't work."