Social Distortion

Gaslamp Owner Wants Out, Says Allegations of Racism Have "Hurt Me More Than Anybody Else"

On most nights, the red and green neon sign at Gaslamp is brightly lit as music emanates from inside the Midtown club.

However, it was completely dark on Wednesday night, likely because of the TABC suspension of the club's mixed beverage license that lasted from September 16 until yesterday. Gaslamp, according to records, was accused of selling drinks to a person who was already intoxicated. According to owner Ayman Jarrah, the club will reopen tonight. 

Gaslamp has been under fire since a story broke on September 14 that three Houston attorneys — Brandon Ball, Dan Scarbrough and Ken Piggee — accused the club of using a discriminatory $20 entry fee to dissuade non-white patrons from entering.

The pile of allegations against the club and its owner has continued to grow ever since, with many of those allegations coming from former employees. Ryan Matthew Matte, who claims he was a manager at Gaslamp, posted screenshots of a text message exchange with Jarrah. The messages appear to show Jarrah asking Matte to offer Brandon Ball $2,000 to “back off.”

The messages also seem to show Jarrah asking Matte to make a statement that Jarrah never gave orders to discriminate against customers and it was solely the fault of Gaslamp’s managers and doormen. 

Matte wrote in the same public Facebook post that he plans to file a lawsuit against Jarrah for stolen wages. When we asked Matte to elaborate, he told us his attorney has advised him not to speak with the media. (The attorney did not return calls from the Houston Press on Wednesday or Thursday.)

However, Gaslamp attorney Tim Sutherland (who reached Internet fame/infamy last week with his 'we're not racists, we're just uppity assholes' video defending the club) claims Matte “asked us for $10,000 in order to not go and speak with Brandon Ball and he would say whatever we wanted and put whatever we wanted in writing. We refused, and my understanding is that he’s gone out and is working with them or something like that.”

Sutherland says the club has filed an extortion complaint with the Houston Police Department against the former manager and turned over copies of the text messages to the authorities. Jarrah provided more of the exchange with Matte (see below), and also claims Matte was never a manager at the bar. “He never in any dream in his life was a manager at the club,” Jarrah says, adding that Matte started out as upstairs security, later became a bartender but then was demoted back to security.

Matte isn’t the only one of Jarrah’s former employees to complain of stolen wages. Two women who used to work at O2 Lounge Hookah and Oxygen Bar, another club formerly run by Jarrah, at 914 Prairie, sent written statements to the Press claiming Jarrah didn't pay them for their work. Jennifer Wyeth claims that Jarrah would keep employees’ credit card tips through the week and wouldn’t pay out tips until Saturday night. Wyeth began to keep a tip log book to ensure she wasn’t shorted and says she quit when Jarrah argued that “he provides the venue and the alcohol and without that, I wouldn't have anything to make the tips I made so he should get half of everything we make.”

Wyeth said her sister, Mary, continued to work at O2 Lounge after she quit but also complained that Jarrah was keeping her tips. More seriously, Wyeth alleges Jarrah slapped Mary across the face in the parking lot when she told him she was quitting. No charges were filed after the incident.

Another former employee of O2 Lounge, Lindsey Schenck, says she worked for Jarrah for a month and never received a paycheck. She was 19 years old at the time and had just arrived in Houston from a small town in Minnesota to attend college. O2, she said, was her first *downtown Houston bartending job.

“Ayman personally hired me and oversaw the bar's nightly operations," she told the Press in an email.  "He explained that I would be allowed to take my cash tips home at the end of each night. Credit card tips, however, were to be tallied and recorded. They would then be paid out in check form every two weeks along with the hourly wage.”

After two weeks, though, Schenck says she didn’t receive a paycheck. Instead, she says she got excuses from Jarrah — misprinted checks, missing signatures from business partners and checks lost by FedEx.

Two more weeks passed, and Schenck still had not been paid. She says she demanded her wages from Jarrah and that he apologized for all the issues and promised to pay her at the end of the night with cash. Schenck says that instead, just before closing time, Jarrah “grabbed up every single one of my cash tip jars. He took them straight to his office and locked them in. He came back to the bar; I objected. I asked what the hell he was doing. Ayman told me to get out and never come back. He said I was fired. I demanded my money. He laughed at me. He said he was never going to pay me, then wished me good luck proving he owed me anything. He literally pushed me towards the door and walked away.”

Schenck says she never did collect the more than $2,000 that she believes Jarrah owes her, even after her parents contacted the U.S. Department of Labor Wages & Hours Division and the Better Business Bureau on her behalf. Schenck says her parents were told they didn't have enough evidence, witnesses and information to mount an investigation.

Schenck says her incident with Jarrah happened about a decade ago, and he claims he doesn’t remember Schenck. “In the last seven years, we’ve had over 300 employees work for us. I can’t remember her name or face,” he said.

Schenck also claims she witnessed racism at O2 Lounge that applied to workers as well as patrons. She wrote, “The bouncer/door person was instructed by Ayman to let the white men and women in for free, and to charge anyone black or dark skinned a $20 cover. Ayman would nightly hire pretty girls to dance in the windows of O2 to attract business. White girls were paid $50. Dark skinned/black girls were paid $20.”

Unlike a decade ago, many people now carry cell phones, ready to record whenever they encounter something they think is offensive. One such video surfaced on September 22 and appears to show Mike Ross, a bouncer at the Gaslamp, telling a group of minority women, “Have a good night in the ‘hood” and “Tell Tyrone I said hi” after the women declined to pay the $20 entry fee. At the end of the video, a white woman states that she got in for free but the group of minority women behind her were asked for the $20 fee. 

When asked about Ross’s comments in the video, Jarrah said, “It was completely disrespectful. He deserved a big fine, and he’s stepping down. Mike Ross is from the ‘hood. When he said it, it was just like if he were talking with his friends. He’s a child. The way he acts, the way he behaves — it’s completely inappropriate and unacceptable.”

Jarrah says he is making a video to communicate with the public himself this time and says he wants out of Gaslamp. “I am going to make that interview hopefully tonight and post it tomorrow, but I want to tell people that this story has hurt me more than anybody else,” he said. “I am looking to meet with the landlord today to see if he will buy me out or let me sell the business. I want to step out of the whole business. It’s just that we need guys to give us a break. We can’t just lock out the employees. We can’t put them on the street having no job, having no business just to satisfy people being treated wrong in this business, which I do apologize for them and I will never accept that happening to them.”

Undoubtedly, Jarrah’s critics will find his plans to get out of the business as the best news regarding Gaslamp to date. 

*Corrected 9/25/15 at 10:00 a.m.