Yesterday, the owner of 59 Diner, Naveed Baig, showed up at the Shepherd location of 59 Diner to give his dismissed employees their final pay. It led to a tense confrontation with one former employee, Bryan Malek, after he repeatedly asked for his wages and didn't get paid.
A cameraman from CW 39 NewsFix caught the confrontation on video, which was broadcasted last night
but has not been posted to their web site. (Updated, 3/4/2016, 2:26 p.m.: the video has now been posted and is embedded below.) Malek got into a spat with the friend of Baig’s who was actually interacting with the employees since Baig refused to get out of his car (reportedly a 2015 BMW). He may not have wanted to get out of his car because media was on site.
Malek talked to NewsFix about why he lost his temper at the scene.
“I just asked for my money, and he (a friend of the owner) told me to ask the other guy,” says Bryan Malek, who waited tables at 59 Diner for 10 years. “And I asked the other guy and he told me to ask that guy. And I went back to ask him and he told me, ‘F— you.'”
59 Diner employees were unceremoniously dismissed without notice and all locations were closed on Monday. Malek told us yesterday by phone that both he and his wife worked at the diner for ten years. Now, they are both unemployed. (Malek did not say if his wife received her pay.)
Baig brought a stack of cash to pay his former employees instead of issuing checks. Former employee Maria Harris told Newsfix yesterday, "“For the last three months, our checks have been bouncing," and explained why she thought Baig was paying in cash. “That way we won’t go to the bank ’cause they say they don’t have any money." On site, a man who came with Baig named A.J. (who may be his brother) claimed the company is bankrupt.
Brandon Hubbard and Anthony Mack work for Star Pizza, which is located across Farnham Street from 59 Diner. They witnessed the former 59 Diner employees gathering. Hubbard said that when he showed up at 11 a.m., there were approximately 15 to 20 employees standing around waiting for Baig.
Baig still owes a group of 19 59 Diner employees more than $200,000 as dictated in an agreed judgment. The plaintiffs retained attorney Alex Mabry of Mabry Law Firm, PLLC and a suit was filed against Baig on February 21, 2014. The allegations included, “a practice of manipulating time clock records and under reporting to their payroll company the hours worked by wait staff employees during each payroll period.” The most recent payment of $18,750 toward the outstanding balance was due on January 1, 2016, and Baig still hasn't taken care of it.
Jimmy Edwards, manager of Star Pizza, has gotten to know many of the longtime 59 Diner employees over the years. He said, “The way Baig has treated his employees is unconscionable. They deserve their money. I have seen those employees over there working their butts off for over 20 years. One of them — Dot — had been there for 27 years. Now she’s gone, doesn’t have a leg to stand on and I’m sure he owes her thousands of dollars, too.”
A former 59 Diner employee who worked at the Shepherd location for several years was willing to talk with us only on an anonymous basis. She says she’s “devastated” over the iconic Houston diner's closing and is still trying to process it. She believes Baig owes her between $25,000 and $35,000 dollars, but she is not one of the 19 employees represented in the prior lawsuit. “I’d work 60 or 70 hours a week and he’d pay me for 35 or 37 hours — for $2.13 an hour. And I’m not the only one,” she said.
She described Baig’s treatment of the employees as “The worst in the world. He lies to you. Your paychecks bounce — a server only gets $50 or $60 a week [before tips]. They cut your hours if you object to anything. The restaurant is filthy. The kitchen is filthy. A server like myself or Dot who cleans their station, do their sidework and always shows up on time — those are the ones he treated the worst. At one time, we were interviewing people — servers. A young man came in of around 21 — good-looking and good qualifications. [Baig] didn’t want to hire him. He said, ‘I want young, beautiful girls.”
The former employee also told us that Baig did not want the loyal customers who patronized 59 Diner for decades. “He said they were the older people that expected to get something free when they come in or they were used to sitting there and drinking a cup of coffee and leaving a quarter tip. He didn’t want them there.”
According to the source, however, that wasn’t actually how their loyal customers behaved. “We made good money there. There was a time that I made over $1,000 a week. Our customers at Christmastime — they’d take care of us.”
With such bad conditions, why did she continue working there for so long? “I was there more than I was home for many years. The customers — you love the customers and they love you,” she explained. “They’re family. Our customers are family here.”
Now, it’s a family without a home.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.