January 23, 2013

The dark side of paradise

Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, a whimsical, retro restaurant that propelled Louisville’s weirdness to international celebrity, is dead. The mayor declared its sudden self-shuttering after 22 years “a sad day.” A week and a half later, the cause remains the talk of the town. Patrons, still reeling, want to know why it happened and what it means. There will be no memorial service, no eulogies amid the unsolved mystery. But news reports point to a few likely causes.

Effective Jan. 2, management mandated, due to customers’ increasing use of credit cards, that servers bring $100 to work to ensure the tipping pool would have adequate cash for support staff at the end of each shift. The next day, part-time server Leila DiFazio, 25, became the first casualty. She blasted the policy in a shot heard ’round the blogosphere.

Owner Lynn Winter, in an interview with the food blog Eater Louisville, defended the policy, saying her operations chief, Patty Schnatter, explained it to “every single person” and invited them to follow up with any concerns. But DiFazio says staff was notified via posted memos. “Everybody was against the new policy but afraid to question it because of all the previous rash terminations …”

Legal experts agree that state law bans mandatory participation in tipping pools.

Last week, LEO Weekly confirmed the half-baked policy could have nuclear consequences based on labor law violations. “Had the restaurant remained open and continued the policy, it could have potentially accrued thousands of dollars in back pay owed to servers as part of a civil damages suit,” Trent Taylor, an attorney for the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, told LEO.

Former employees accuse management of sexual harassment, unfair wage practices, bullying, verbal abuse, etc.

In an off-camera interview with WDRB-41, Schnatter attributed the closure to “four reasons” related to personnel — and not the policy. In a written statement, Winter thanked “loyal customers and faithful employees” but offered no apology or explanation after “a great run and a ton of fun.”

Management’s terse remarks fueled speculation that lawyers had driven the decision to shut down and shut up. It seems plausible that multiple risks reached a critical mass.

The restaurant could have taken responsibility for the “tipping bank,” which, in effect, required servers to deposit as much as $100 per shift. But Insider Louisville’s Steve Coomes wrote, “I say any server who can’t come up with $100 cash quickly isn’t a good server or is a terrible money manager or just got robbed.” His editorial appeared beneath a headline that demonized the victim: “Server’s smear campaign over Lynn’s Paradise Cafe’s ‘bank gate’ is ridiculous.”

However, not all servers work full time. And it’s preposterous to disparage those who may be struggling — especially in this economy.

Winter and Schnatter should have anticipated and averted the controversy. Their ignorance of their potential liability is a failure of human relations and risk management.

Even if they’d resolved this insensitive assault on morale, something larger happened as criticism boiled in the blogosphere: a paradigm shift. Suddenly, Louisvillians were rethinking Lynn’s slice of paradise. The iconic diner was under a harsh microscope amid a PR meltdown. In response, I reviewed Louisville Magazine’s November profile of Winter, which was based on 50-plus hours of interviews with reporter Josh Moss.

It’s the tale of a fascinating, hapless Bohemian’s desperate search for love, happiness and her place in the world; the frantic quest of a colorful, combative control freak, by turns endearing and abrasive. For 17 years, she’s been probing private lives — including willing employees — by mapping their happiness. “If I’m going to let you in, I want you to let me in,” she told Moss. One can’t map one’s own happiness, but she excels at “command,” which her reference guide defines as a comfort with imposing one’s views on others. She enlistsed Schnatter, her roommate, in a tough negotiation for veto power over the photos the magazine would publish. “Lynn’s not going to do what she doesn’t want to do,” she said.

Winter dines out “professionally” and estimates she tips as much as $30,000 per year. She’s an accident-prone, New Age cage fighter who craves privacy but insists she’s not a recluse. She seems trapped in a midlife malaise and miscast managing an unwieldy business. Ominously she told Moss, “If one person messes up, it can all fall apart.”

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