WICKER PARK — Parlor Pizza has been a popular bar and restaurant chain in Chicago for years — but former employees are alleging the company mistreats customers of color, requires unpaid overtime work of staff and hid potential COVID-19 exposures from employees.
The chain has come under scrutiny after all three Parlor Pizza locations were shut down for two days in October after being raided by Chicago police. Police said they were helping investigate a case with the state’s revenue department, which has declined to comment.
Parlor has since reopened, but former employees have criticized the company in social media posts.
Eight former employees spoke to Block Club about their experiences at Parlor Pizza, which opened a West Loop location in 2014 and has expanded to Wicker Park and River North.
They said customers of color were routinely seated in a spot employees dubbed the “Rejection Section” at the River North location, while workers across the company were subject to harassment, unpaid overtime and being overworked — all while leaders dangled the threat of being fired over their heads. Parlor has disputed the allegations.
“Parlor was probably one of the most stressful and anxiety-causing server positions I’ve ever had in my life, especially due to management, how they treated employees and how things trickle down from the owners down to the floor staff,” said Elizabeth Skisak, who worked as a server at Parlor’s Wicker Park restaurant for about five months in 2020.
The former employees who spoke to Block Club worked for the bar and restaurant chain for as little as five months to as long as five years. Seven former staff members said they had panic attacks and anxiety from their work.
“We always compare it to having an abusive boyfriend,” said Ilsa Morales, who was a server at Parlor’s River North location. “They treat you like s—. And then one day you go home with $600, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess it’s OK. It’s not that bad.’ But one day you gotta have enough self respect and f—ing leave.”
One former bartender said the business was “constantly hanging money over [her] head,” making her feel like she’d never get paid similarly at another workplace, she said.
After working five years at Parlor, she said, “it completely broke down my self-esteem and self-worth.”
Parlor declined to make owner Michael Bisbee or Director of Operations Patrick Comer available for an interview, but it issued a lengthy statement and provided written responses to questions from Block Club.
“We firmly dispute these serious allegations and the blatantly false picture being painted of our restaurants, how we operate them and how we treat our valued employees and customers,” according to the company.
Four former Parlor servers said people of color were often seated in less visible or desirable sections at the locations in River North, 405 N. Dearborn St., and Wicker Park, 1824 W. Division St.
“They try to sit younger, white people by the windows,” Morales said. “Because that’s what Parlor is: They want people, you know, late 20s, early 30s, young professionals, white. They want them by the windows. And they want everybody else in the back.”
Parlor’s representative said it “disavow[s] racism and any discriminatory behavior at all Parlor locations.”
The company “would immediately terminate any employee who acted in such a despicable way,” the representative said in an emailed statement. “This allegation is a complete fabrication and abundantly apparent when you walk into any of our restaurants.”
But several former Parlor employees said people of color at the River North restaurant would often be seated in the back of the restaurant or in a portion of the sidewalk patio.
Those areas were referred to as “rejection sections” by some servers.
“It wasn’t pretty. There was no music. Basically, you were sitting in the middle of a sidewalk, eating,” one former server said of the patio location. “It was very strange … and they would seat people of color over there, mostly.
“Their excuse was, ‘[The customers] don’t have a reservation, so that’s why they’re sitting on the side.’ OK, but we have open tables in the front. So, why aren’t they getting sat up front?”
Another former server said it happened so often she confronted a host about it.
“I went up to a host a couple of times, and I was just like, ‘You cannot keep sitting people of color in the same section. Like, it’s extremely obvious at this point. It’s making everybody feel uncomfortable and people, the guests, were starting to notice,’” the server said.
Skisak said a similar practice was in place when she worked at Parlor’s Wicker Park location in 2020, as people of color were often seated in a less visible section of the restaurant.
“There was a back room in Wicker Park, and that tends to be where they move people who were not white,” she said.
In the statement, Parlor said that a “number of factors go into determining where someone is seated at a restaurant, but race most certainly is never one of them. Real factors when seating include reservations getting priority, splitting covers between server sections, locations of tables with varying number of seats, sections being closed due to lack of staffing, etc.”
The former Parlor servers Block Club spoke to about the seating practice said they don’t know if it was ever an official company policy.
“It just happened so much that it seemed too frequent to not be,” one server said.
And all of them expressed disgust and frustration at the practice.
“I’ve been in the industry for 10 years. I work at another bar now, as well,” said a former River North location server. “And I have never seen anything like that in my life.”
After Block Club reached out to Parlor about the allegations, the company made Tania Yalda, general manager at the Wicker Park location, available for an interview.
Yalda said the details shared by former employees about Parlor’s seating practices are “not the truth at all.”
“I am a woman of color, I am Middle Eastern, and that’s something I would never tolerate, and it’s disgusting to hear that. That represents me. I run this store, and I would never tolerate that, and if I were to see it I definitely would speak up about it,” said Yalda, who was formerly an assistant manager at Parlor’s River North location.
‘Girls Were There To Be Looked At, Not The Boys’
Morales was a server at Parlor River North for two and half years and said she worked with managers who were “creepy” and made inappropriate comments about the women they worked with.
“One of our managers called me a ‘snack’ and then called the girl next to me, who is, I guess, prettier, he called her a ‘whole meal.’ Meaning like you’re just cute, but this girl’s hot,” said Morales, who said she quit in June.
“I didn’t really know what to say. I didn’t really think I could like defend myself because that was my manager. It just was embarrassing.”
Former employees said managers would scrutinize the appearance of female workers and penalize them if they didn’t look the way managers wanted them to. Women were “called out” for not wearing enough makeup and “looking a little ragged,” said Liz Zagone, who was a bartender and server at Parlor’s Wicker Park and West Loop locations.
“If you’re there and your hair wasn’t as perfect as the managers thought [it] needed to be, they would tell you in front of everybody how ugly you were or how you needed to look different or change. And if you came to work and you weren’t presentable to their standards, then they just wouldn’t schedule you the next week. You just knew you weren’t going to get scheduled,” said one former server.
In the statement, Parlor said the company disavows “any sexist or discriminatory behavior at all Parlor locations. Employees are directed to notify managers or HR if they witness or experience any inappropriate behavior, which will be investigated thoroughly and followed by swift action, including termination.”
Parlor also seemed to have unwritten guidelines about which jobs women and men could do, said four former employees. They said that for much of their time working at Parlor, across all of its locations, there were only female servers. One former employee said the only roles men could have were cooks, food runners, bussers, bartenders or security guards.
“When I was employed there, it was only female service staff,” another former server said.
At the beginning of Zagone’s time bartending at the West Loop restaurant, when there were two male bartenders, managers would cut the shift of the second male bartender “because they didn’t want two boys working behind the bar and no girls,” she said.
“They were very much like girls were there to be looked at, not the boys,” she said.
Parlor denied any such policy exists.
“We have both male and female servers and bartenders, and staffing is not decided by gender,” they said in the provided statement.
Overworked But No Overtime
Double shifts — getting scheduled for two consecutive shifts in a day — are a reality in the restaurant industry, though they are typically few and far between.
But several former Parlor Pizza employees said they were often scheduled for multiple doubles in a row, sometimes for more than a week straight.
One former bartender, who also waited tables, said there were times when she and others were scheduled for 11 double shifts in a row. That meant 12-hour days for more than a week and a half.
“By the time that 11th double came around, we were actually sitting at people’s tables having to take their orders because we physically could not stand anymore,” she said.
Parlor disputed the allegation.
“We do not require or make anyone work outside of their availability. Staff are allowed to pick up extra shifts if they are available,” the company said.
Extra work didn’t always translate to overtime pay, former employees said.
Four former Parlor servers at all three locations said some managers would instruct servers to clock out of their shifts and then spend two to three unpaid hours rolling silverware with napkins.
One former server said she rolled silverware after every shift. Another said it depended on the manager if she would need to stay past closing to roll silverware.
“They hated paying anyone overtime,” said Zagone, who said if a server was already at 39 hours worked that week, managers would tell them to clock out before rolling silverware because “they didn’t want to pay over 40 hours.”
“Essentially, they would make us clock out and then sit there for hours upon end with hundreds and hundreds of rolls of silverware,” said another server.
When asked if management directed employees to roll silverware while off the clock, Parlor replied “absolutely not.”
Parlor Pizza has been sued twice by former employees for refusing to pay overtime wages.
In 2015, two former sous chefs sued the restaurant for failing to pay overtime, equivalent to one and a half times their normal hourly rate. Both chefs alleged they “regularly worked” 55-60 hours per week, according to court documents.
The case was settled for $8,300 in June 2015. An attorney for the two said they had no comment in an email to Block Club.
In 2017, three former dishwashers sued Parlor Pizza and the now-closed Stout Barrel House & Gallery — which was partially owned by Parlor owner Michael Bisbee — for failure to pay overtime wages and a minimum wage for several weeks.
The case was settled in February 2018, according to court documents.
Not playing ball had consequences, according to nearly all the former employees who spoke to Block Club. They said managers would take away shifts, send people home and threaten to fire staff for what often seemed like whatever reason they wanted.
“Our jobs were kind of almost dangled over our heads of whether we could keep them or not,” said Skisak, a server at the chain’s Wicker Park location.
‘Management Never Said A Word’
Parlor’s managers also failed to protect workers when someone on staff tested positive for COVID-19, even if they had potentially been exposed, former employees said.
“When COVID hit, they literally hid from us when our employees got COVID. They wouldn’t tell us that we were exposed to anything. They kept everything hush hush, and we wouldn’t find out anybody had COVID unless that person told us,” said a former server and bartender who worked at the River North and West Loop locations for almost two years.
The server said she was exposed to someone with COVID-19 at least four times but only found out from her coworkers, not Parlor’s management. Managers and servers would just “disappear off the schedule,” she said.
“Then we would find out in our server group texts that they had COVID,” she said. “And management never said a word, didn’t say a single thing.”
Morales and Skisak said Parlor leaders were not forthcoming with staff about positive cases at multiple Parlor locations.
“They would keep it a secret if you had COVID,” Morales said.
When asked if management failed to alert employees when they had come into contact with a staff member with COVID-19, Parlor responded “not to our knowledge.”
Tania Yalda, the Wicker Park general manager, said the company followed all COVID restrictions and guidelines.
“If [employees] had symptoms, they would have to get tested and quarantine 10-14 days based on their symptoms, when they started. Then we would inform the employees, not mentioning the name of the employee who had COVID, just let them know when they were last in the building and if they came in to contact with them,” she said.
After one server who tested positive alerted her coworkers via text, Skisak said managers became angry employees were communicating among themselves about COVID-19.
“One of the managers came out and yelled at all of us, that Parlor was doing everything and that they didn’t appreciate that we were having group messages to inform each other,” Skisak said.
After that, employees did receive notifications “once or twice” that someone on staff had tested positive for COVID-19, Skisak said.
But the situation remained stressful, and Skisak worried about unknowingly transmitting the virus to her family during the holidays last year.
“[I] was worried about the potential risk of me bringing it to them and having no idea and having no idea I was exposed,” she said.
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