Employees say Mt. Airy restaurant owes them back wages

 (John Corrigan/for NewsWorks)

(John Corrigan/for NewsWorks)

Screaming through a megaphone, huddled against the window as a party of three ate their dinner, a group of protestors demanded patrons put down their forks and leave the restaurant immediately.

A sign pressed against the glass read “Anne Rivers, Jake Sudderth. Pay Me!!”

Calling the gathering “No Christmas Without Justice,” organizers Morgan and Megan Malachi assembled their friends and family Friday night to demand the owners of Alma Mater, a restaurant on the 7100 block of Germantown Avenue, pay up back wages. Accusing the owners of racism and homophobia, the group rallied outside the establishment for two hours, recruiting passers-by and confronting potential diners, as police stood in front of the entrance.

“They’re scam artists,” Morgan said.

Owner Jake Sudderth disagrees with the Malachis’ account of what happened and said police are handling the conflict.

Morgan worked as Alma Mater’s chef from November 13 until November 27. She says she was supposed to be paid each Friday, but was never compensated.

On November 27, she received a text saying the paychecks would be ready before noon.

“I got there at 10 and asked Anne if the paychecks were ready,” Morgan recalled. “She said no, they’ll be here after 12.

“I told her fine, but moving forward, we’ll all need to be paid on time. I also told her I had gotten injured on Wednesday, and when I asked for the job’s insurance information, she got an attitude and told me to get out. She tried to physically remove me.”

Morgan said she is owed $1,756. Her sister Mallory, also a former Alma Mater employee, is owed money, too. India, a former worker as well, says she is owed $328, but co-owner Jake Sudderth disputes her claim, saying she has already cashed her check.

“Unfortunately, Anne and her husband Jake thought they could take advantage of these workers, but that is obviously not the case,” Megan said.

“It’s a racial issue as well as a gender issue because two of the men were paid part of what they were owed, but the two black, queer women were not paid anything.”

The Malachi sisters identify themselves as active members in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. They participate in activist groups such as Action Against Black Genocide and Philly REAL Justice Coalition.

On July 23, Morgan was acquitted of charges associated with her participation in a protest in Baltimore speaking out against the death of Freddie Gray.

In December 2014, Morgan sued the owners of Old Eagle Tavern in Manayunk after she was fired for complaining that the owners, Erin and Scott Wallace, selectively applied staff rules based on race. The claim also said they promised her a promotion to take over the kitchen of a new restaurant, but then gave the position to a less experienced chef that is white.

The case was settled out of court in May.

Sudderth’s side

Inside the warm confines of Alma Mater, Sudderth mingles with his workers, relaxing nervous customers about the ruckus outside.

“It’s really out of my hands,” Sudderth said.

Three officers were stationed outside the restaurant throughout the afternoon until more officers, about 10 total, arrived during the protest. Sudderth says that the police notified him about the planned protest the day before, and encouraged him to continue business as usual.

“If you freak out about it in response, the people get more excited,” Sudderth said.

A food service veteran, Sudderth also owns Mt. Airy’s Read and Eat, which has recently expanded to Roxborough, and used to run Bee Burger and Mt. Airy Noodle House.

He claims that on on November 27, Morgan came into Alma Mater and after a server told her that Rivers hated her chicken minis, Morgan caused damage to the restaurant.

Sudderth said that Morgan and Mallory are the only workers who haven’t been paid, and he doesn’t plan on paying them.

Since the “No Christmas Without Justice” Facebook page launched, listing phone numbers for Alma Mater and Mt. Airy Read and Eat, Sudderth says he has received at least 200 calls regarding the racial and homophobia accusations.

“We consider ourselves a liberal, open-minded business,” Sudderth said, estimating that 60 percent of his staff at the bookstore is gay and that more than 50 percent of Alma Mater employees are black.

“People should speak their mind and make their piece known, but I don’t see it going anywhere positive for them,” Sudderth said. “We simply respectfully disagree. The police record is clear in terms of what happened.”

In the crosshairs

Mt. Airy USA’s Business Association reached out on Facebook to act as a facilitator between the protestors and Alma Mater, but that only fueled the sisters’ decision.

“They tried to intimidate us by saying they’d help us quietly,” Megan said. “That’s not the Mt. Airy that I know. West Mt. Airy was founded as a mixed race, mixed economic neighborhood, who prided themselves on diversity. I hate that’s what they’re moving away from.”

Jamie Shanker, a representative of Mt. Airy USA, was concerned about the protest disrupting the annual tree lighting ceremony at Lutheran Seminary, scheduled at the same time.

“Our staff has not been involved in this matter, which concerns an employer and former employee,” Shanker said in an email. “We look forward to coming together as a community to celebrate the spirit of the holiday season.”

Morgan says the group plans on spending the rest of their holiday season protesting outside Alma Mater.

“This is all we can do,” Morgan said. “As far as our wages, the police say it is illegal for them to be withheld, but at the same time, they can’t make them pay us. And it’s not financially feasible for a lawyer to take a loss wages case, but we did file for unclaimed wages with the Labor Department.”

“But if we wait for the Labor Department,” Morgan added, “we probably won’t see a check until next summer.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said one of the co-owner’s names was “Annie Rivers.” It is Anne Rivers. An earlier version also stated that the case against Lamar Square Inc. was dismissed. It was settled out of court. NewsWorks regrets the error.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.