By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Famed bad-boy chef Avner Samuel is back in signature form. That's assuming, of course, there was ever a departure. Notorious for incessant kitchen-hopping, questionable business practices, and colorful people skills marked by demeaning, profanity-soaked outbursts fired at employees and patrons alike, Samuel was thought to have undergone a dramatic personal transformation.
A kinder, gentler Avner Samuel took charge of the kitchen at Bistro A in Snider Plaza last spring. At least that was the company line. "Avner has really decided he's going to be a new man and put all the things that have gone on in the past behind him," said onetime Bistro A chef Eric Keller shortly after the restaurant opened. Keller collaborated with Samuel on the development of the restaurant's cuisine.
Matthew Feldman--the driving force behind Bistro A parent Asher Investments, where Samuel's wife, Celeste, serves as president--was equally convinced of Samuel's new outlook. "He's very committed to what he's doing," he said. "I've known Avner for a long, long time, and I know what the challenges have been in the past, and I think we've overcome a lot of those issues."
Since opening, Bistro A has been bursting with diners swarming to nibble Samuel's imaginative Mediterranean fare spiked with Middle Eastern and North African spices. Critics rallied with positive reviews and a series of bests: fifth in D magazine's top five, second in The Dallas Morning News top 10, ranked the best new restaurant in the city by the Dallas Observer.
But with its success tied to Samuel--he also oversees restaurant operations--who has racked up a long series of restaurant stints (The Mansion, the Pyramid Room, The Melrose Hotel, Yellow, and Okeanos, among many others), Bistro A seems due for a scheduled meltdown. In late October, a series of server complaints alleging misuse of tips triggered an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor. And last month, agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission paid the restaurant two visits to investigate server reports that Samuel was storing the restaurant's pricier wine stocks at his house, a violation of TABC regulations.
"It was very visible," says one server who said the practice had been going on at least since last July. "He did it in the daytime where everyone could see him taking cases of wine in and out." According to former waitstaff personnel, who asked that their names not be published, the visits by TABC agents spooked Samuel into hauling the wine back into the restaurant, where he stashed it in a specially constructed cabinet. Yet he seems to shrug off his apparent Department of Labor trouble. One server, who was fired from the place last week, says Samuel chased him out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk just before the start of his shift, threatening to "kick his ass" following a heated argument over policy and the chef's treatment of employees.
Servers claim Samuel forces them to cough up all gratuities at the end of each shift for contribution to a communal kitty. They allege that Samuel not only tips out busboys and cuts his manager, Karim Alaoui, a share equal to that of servers from this cookie jar, but that he also uses the cash to cover restaurant inventory shortfalls, particularly wine. "That was one of the things I kept screaming about," says former Bistro A waiter James Jordan. "It's like, 'How do I know what's missing from inventory when the inventory is at your house?'"
Servers allege Samuel covers his tail further at their expense by deducting credit-card transaction costs equal to 4 percent of total patron dinner checks settled with a credit card, far higher than the fees typically charged by card companies. (American Express, with the highest fee among major cards, charges merchants roughly 3 percent of bills paid with the card, while Visa and MasterCard fees range from 1.25 to 2.25 percent.)
Yet even after factoring in all of this nickel-and-diming, servers claim their tip payouts are still consistently short by 50 to several hundred dollars. "There were times that I would bring in, on my own, $450 per night," says a former Bistro A server. "By the time I got my money back, I maybe saw $100."
Curtis Poer, Dallas district director of the U.S. Department of Labor, says this is a no-no. While tip pooling is not illegal, he explains, tip-pool funds are strictly limited to disbursement to busboys or anyone else who is directly involved in customer table service. Employers are permitted to take up to 15 percent of pooled tips to pay busboys and other non-tipped waitstaff--more if the restaurant can demonstrate larger amounts are a common practice among restaurants in a particular segment or geographical area. But using server gratuities to cover business costs (save for the percentage of credit card transaction fees generated by the tip portion of the check) or to augment the salaries of managers, chefs, or owners is strictly prohibited.
"The tips belong to the employees. They do not belong to the employer. So the employer cannot just capture them and make them a part of his income," he stresses. Servers claim Samuel ignores the law and repeatedly spells out his illicit policy in heated staff meetings. "He would say 'You guys are aware of the drill. If things come up missing, I take it from you,'" relayed one server. "That's what boggles my mind. How brash he is and how bold. He knows full well what he's doing is illegal as all hell."
Penalties for first-time flouting of such labor laws are limited to full employee reimbursement of all contested funds if the charges are proven. Not surprisingly, Samuel disputes the allegations with his characteristic style of confutation: "They're full of shit. There's nothing there. People say a lot of shit."
Feldman, who has scaled back his involvement in Bistro A to a limited consulting role (he says he hasn't divested), claims he was unaware the restaurant was in the crosshairs of the pair of regulatory agencies. Yet these problems could have costs beyond the return of any improperly siphoned tips. With the food-service labor market tighter than rusted muffler bolts, help will be even harder to come by once the stench of picked-over tip pools wafts through the air. As one former server--patiently awaiting the recapture and return of a formidable wad of diverted tip loot--puts it: "Avner, bless his heart, just always seems to shoot himself in the foot.