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Former Upper Crust Employees Aim To Avenge Wrongs With Bigger Slice Of The Pie

The logo of the new Harvard Square pizzeria, The Just Crust. (Courtesy Shannon Liss-Riordan)

The logo of the new Harvard Square pizzeria, The Just Crust (Courtesy Shannon Liss-Riordan)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the ashes of the Boston pizza chain that wronged them, some former Upper Crust Pizzeria employees are trying to get their just desserts. They’re opening their own restaurant, hoping to show up the previous owners with even bigger success.

The restaurant sits on a Brattle Street in Harvard Square. Carpenters have been busy renovating the space before the scheduled opening next month.

“We’re trying to have the business continue but give it, give it a new life,” architect Alex van Praagh said of the redesign.

Workers redesign the former Upper Crust pizzeria in Harvard Square (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

Workers redesign the former Upper Crust pizzeria in Harvard Square (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

The restaurant’s old life was part of a once fast-growing local chain. But the owners may have been taking the “upper crust” name too literally. They may have been trying to get rich at the expense of workers.

In 2009, the federal government investigated and ordered Upper Crust to pay its employees $341,000 in back wages for uncompensated overtime. After that, workers accused ownership of taking that money right back out of their paychecks.

Boston labor rights attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of workers. But last year, before the case was settled, the pizzeria chain went bankrupt.

“And it was when that happened that the wheels started spinning in my head,” Liss-Riordan said. “That something should be done here, somewhat dramatic.”

In the bankruptcy auction in December, Liss-Riordan partnered with a local businessman to plunk down more than $220,000 to buy the remaining lease of one of the chain’s locations in Harvard Square. That’s right by where Liss-Riordan went to Harvard Law School and it’s not a coincidence that it’s also close to the college where students once boycotted Upper Crust. Now Liss-Riordan is hoping for an anti-boycott.

Harvard Square proprietor Haluk Özek invested in the pizzeria. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

Harvard Square proprietor Haluk Özek invested in the pizzeria. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

“The goals are to set up a restaurant where the workers are paid correctly,” Liss-Riordan said. “And do something even further. So that it really is a place for the workers, and the workers could have a feeling of ownership.”

Liss-Riordan and her investor partner are hiring 10 to 15 former Upper Crust workers to run the pizza shop. One of them, Mehmet Ali, started out at the old pizza parlor as the deliveryman.

“I’m gonna be the manager,” Ali said, smiling.

Ali’s not just getting his job back. He’s not just getting a promotion. He’s also getting an equity stake in the business. All of the workers will get an ownership share.

The details have yet to be worked out. But offering workers equity makes sense to the local businessman who partnered with lawyer Liss-Riordan to buy the shop. Haluk Özek runs Monella, a clothing boutique down the street, and he shares the profits there, too. After all, Monella is a family business.

“You know my son and my nephew and my wife are working for me,” Özek says, laughing. “So if I don’t share the money with them, I’m in deep trouble!”

Former Upper Crust pizza deliveryman Mehmet Ali will manage the new Harvard Square pizza shop. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

Former Upper Crust pizza deliveryman Mehmet Ali will manage the new Harvard Square pizza shop. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

The pizzeria is set to open next month, only a few months after the Upper Crust location closed. That’s when former worker Ali had to tell his pregnant wife that the chain had declared bankruptcy and that he lost his job. He’s hoping to be back to work before the baby is born.

“My wife’s so excited,” Ali said. “I’m really excited. This is new career for me.”

Ali hopes he and the other workers make the joint so successful that it expands and grows bigger than the old Upper Crust chain.

He wants to show the former owners how far a business can go when you work with the employees rather than stealing from them, how far a business can go when you focus on growing the pie, instead of fighting over how to slice it.

This new pizzeria has a new name: The Just Crust.

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