Former employees of the recently shuttered food hall, The Hall at Ashford Lane, are accusing its owner of failing to pay them and using vulnerable undocumented workers to keep the operation afloat.
Rough Draft interviewed seven former employees, some of whom were undocumented, who say that they are owed thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, and claim that the owner, Jamal Malek Wilson, has refused to answer phone calls or texts.
In a brief comment to Rough Draft on July 9, Wilson said, “All employees are being paid as we speak, as we had some financial difficulty.”
However, as of Monday, July 10, the employees interviewed by Rough Draft reported they had not received any funds, either through a bank draft or check.
The Hall, with nine food stalls and reportedly housing Georgia’s largest bar, opened to great fanfare on May 26 and abruptly ceased operations on July 5. There had been some complaints from customers on social media about poor service, menu items that were unavailable and/or perceived as overpriced, but most were caught by surprise by the signs posted on the building that stated, “This business is closed until further notice.”
However, the employees interviewed by Rough Draft said they saw flaws in almost every area of the business from the start, including a disorganized management team, a lack of communication regarding specific job duties, an ever-changing menu, and the increased hiring of off-the-books workers.
One employee, who asked for anonymity because he was getting paid under the table, said Wilson told him to recruit undocumented workers after disgruntled unpaid employees walked off the job.
“We had a meeting and Jamal said he would be okay with hiring undocumented workers. I had a face-to-face conversation with him after the meeting,” the former employee, who worked as a cook, said. “I asked him specifically, ‘Are you saying that I should find some undocumented workers?’ and he gave me the green light.”
The cook recruited at least seven people, including his own mother, to join the ranks at The Hall using social media and his contacts in the community.
Another former cook, Jahmaris Nesbitt, said she felt that the owners deliberately fired employees for “a variety of petty reasons” and quietly replaced them with undocumented workers whom they would pay in cash.
“When we started out in the beginning, there were maybe six people working in the kitchen who were undocumented,” Nesbitt said. “By the time it closed, I would say undocumented workers made up 90 percent of the back-of-house staff.”
Nesbitt said she witnessed several incidents wherein legitimate employees were shown the door for small infractions.
“We were really slow one day and one of the workers asked if she could go across the street to get some food for her child,” Nesbitt said. “She was given permission by her supervisor, and when she got back, she was fired on the spot.”
Nesbitt said others who asked for time off to deal with personal issues were also unceremoniously terminated, even after receiving permission from their supervisors.
Another person with knowledge of the operation said Wilson and other managers also pressured on-the-books employees to accept cash in lieu of having funds directly deposited in their accounts.
“They asked eligible workers to also be paid under the table and not sign official employment contracts,” the source said. “I feel, in this scenario, that they would be able to avoid as many legal ramifications as possible for the wage theft that ensued.”
Late payments, bounced checks
All the former employees interviewed by Rough Draft said their employment started out in a promising manner, with Wilson painting a rosy financial picture of the company’s finances.
“He showed us some financial records that said that his food hall in Tampa was very successful, and we would have that same success,” Nesbitt said. “He promised that he would be upfront and honest in all ways with us.”
At first, the employees said they were getting paid their wages on time, but by mid-June they were hearing reports of late payments, underpayments, and bounced checks.
José Rodriguez, who worked as a cook at El Greco, one of the food stalls, said he heard rumblings about people working without pay, but “didn’t think a lot about it” because he had set up direct deposit.
“Then it happened to me,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t get paid, and then I got a paper check. When I went to the bank to cash the check, my bank told me that the (restaurant’s) account was in the negative.”
Rodriguez said he was pressured by his managers to take cash instead, but he resisted, saying, “I didn’t have time to drive up there and get my money when the right thing to do was the way it was set up.”
Another employee, who was hired in mid-May as a bartender and food runner for $11 an hour plus tips, said he also noticed that most of the newer employees were hired off the books and that systems that had been put into place to track wages and hours were deleted.
“Around mid-June, the app that we used to track how much we got paid and how much we made in tips got reset, so there was no way to track what we made.”
When the bartender approached management to discuss the deletion of the app, called 7Shifts, they refused to address the issue. He also said employees working in front and behind the bar either never received their tips or got them after a two-to-four-day delay.
After five weeks of delays, excuses and broken promises, according to all the employees who spoke to Rough Draft, tempers were at an all-time high. Several people shared screenshots of texts sent on June 29 by Anthony Rubero, an investor in the Hall, promising that people would be paid on July 3.
“We know that this has been difficult and a grind with how uneven things have been,” the message from Rubero said. “We are a small business and as you see things have opened slowly. We are paying everyone as money comes in and trying to keep things together.”
In the text, Rubero promised that people would be paid the following Monday and thanked the employees “for holding on with us.”
The workers interviewed by Rough Draft said more than 30 people came to The Hall that day after they were promised that they would receive either cash or checks. Others were told that their wages would be directly deposited in their accounts by 5 p.m. that day.
Radio silence from owners
Nesbitt said the group waited outside for hours on that hot July day.
“I finally opened the doors and let them inside because otherwise, they would have been waiting in the hot sun,” she said. “And I cooked for them while we waited.”
Finally, Nesbitt said, after the crowd waited five hours, it became obvious that the promised bailout would not happen. Wilson, Rubero, and The Hall’s other managers stopped answering text messages or phone calls made by many of the employees who showed up that day.
Rodriguez, who says The Hall owes him more than $2,000 in back wages is “up to my neck in bills” and facing eviction. He is not alone.
Sharie Shepherd, the mother of five children, was hired as a prep cook for $17.50 an hour in mid-May. After her paycheck bounced in late June, she was promised to be made whole by July 3, like the others. She is still waiting for her back wages, estimated to be around $2,800.
“I have sent messages to Jamal asking him, ‘How am I going to feed my kids? How am I going to put a roof over their heads? How am I going to pay for my car?’” she said. “I have heard nothing from him since July 3.”
Shepherd said she has daily calls from Title Max threatening to repossess her car, and other bill collectors sending her texts about her past-due bills. She, like others, has contacted Wilson and his company seeking a letter of separation so she can apply for food stamps and unemployment, but has yet to receive any written documentation.
An undated message sent by Wilson to employees said the business was “forced to close as there wasn’t enough income to maintain.”
“I will reiterate everyone will be paid what they are owed,” the message said. “I’m truly sorry that we did not win the battle, but people were not coming thru (sic) the doors with enough volume to make money.”
When asked if there were plans to reopen The Hall, Wilson told Rough Draft, “We are exploring all options.”
He did not comment regarding a reporter’s questions about The Hall’s hiring practices.
Several former employees interviewed by Rough Draft said they were concerned about Wilson’s next project, a similar 17,000-square-foot food hall in Snellville.
The Atlanta-Journal Constitution last October reported that The Hall at the Grove at Towne Center, Snellville was slated to open in 2024.
“Considering that they are planning to open another location in Snellville in the coming months, I believe it should be known to anyone who would work there and also anyone who cares about the kinds of restaurants they patronize,” a source close to one of The Hall’s former employees said. “This should be known to prevent any additional harm to the community of people that truly work hard to make Atlanta the place that it is.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up to assist those who are experiencing financial difficulties because of The Hall’s closure.