WBUR

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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  • AB

    Just Crust… is that name going to appeal to anyone who doesn’t know the history of the company, or has forgotten a few years from now?

    • http://twitter.com/CurtNickisch Curt Nickisch

      It’s a good question. Still, you wouldn’t think it would be too hard to have “worker-owned” on menus, etc and that becomes the story. Another minor worry is that someone could think you’re only getting the crust, “just the crust.”

      • employee

        you will see they not going hire this worker
        they are just want to use this boy

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chuck-McCann/1007846439 Chuck McCann

      It kinda puts an emphasis on the crust, which as a consumer I like, the crust makes or breaks the pizza. It’s brilliant.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chuck-McCann/1007846439 Chuck McCann

        But the crust, and all of it, better be goooood! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=574232735 Kristen Hanssen Goodell

    Yes! Oh, please let the pizza be as delicious as the Upper Crust Pizza was (I really loved it, and was very sad to discover that the owners were dirtbags). Then please expand to Lexington so my family can go back to our family movie-pizza night habit….

    • David Patrick

      The owners weren’t dirtbags… only the two guys, Josh Huggard and Brendan Higgins who tried to pin their stupidity on the founder are. Those guys are out of the company. Lexington is being reopened soon by the new company that purchased that location.. Personally, I can’t wait!

  • StevenHB

    Nice story. I hope that they succeed.

    • BenR

      So a lawyer sues a company and you stop supporting that company, even before anything is proven true or false…
      This same lawyer who now owns “The Just Crust” sued her own Alma Mater, Harvard, yet wants the community to support her.. That is simply crazy.

      • JohnS

        She sued Starbucks, Harvard, American Airlines…
        I am going to stop drinking coffee, going to Harvard Sq, and travelling.

      • StevenHB

        Do you really doubt that the charges against Upper Crust were materially accurate? They did pay the unpaid overtime wages to their staff (even if they allegedly clawed them back after the fact).

        How many other local retailers were accused of similar wrongdoing during this time period? None that I ever heard about. The Upper Crust story seemed to be a recurring story in that organization.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=589705863 Silas Peterson

    its another pizza place. leave it alone and see what they do. its pizza. aint that complicated.

  • John

    I was in Boston about a month ago, and picked up a slice at the trusty Charles St location, and god it was reliably delicious as always. It was a favorite spot(s) of mine in town, and I’m saddened to see how the workers were treated. I’m also saddened to see the pizza might be gone, so I’m thrilled to see it’s continuing in a new life, and excited to see how it turns out. “Just Crust” is definitely getting my business as soon as they open.

  • TP

    I think it sucks that the employees at The Upper Crust that were not involved in this have to be associated with the negativity from the events that occurred. They’re good hard working people who truly care about the service they’re providing and creating a quality product (which is some of the best pizza there is) and they had nothing to do with the actions that caused all this bad blood. It’s sad that the support for them might be damaged because of actions that were not theirs. I like a company that has a purpose behind it, but I feel like starting a business and making it the embodiment of a personal vendetta can’t possibly be a recipe for a good slice of pizza. It just seems like the focus is based more on vengeance and sticking it to the “wrong-doers” than it is on good food. It’s hard to compare to The Upper Crust’s pizza anyway…it’s just so damn delicious! I hope I’m wrong because I’m sure it would be a good thing for many if they did succeed.

    (It’s interesting that they didn’t mention that The Upper Crust is still in business and is progressively opening back up some of its old stores under new ownership like in Wellesley: http://theswellesleyreport.com/2013/02/wellesley-upper-crust-pizzeria-says-its-back-in-business/. But I guess they were trying to focus on one aspect of the story at a time and rightly so.)

  • Roadie

    Wonderful idea! We stopped eating at Upper Crust because of the immoral ways of the old ownership. We were extra disappointed because it was the only pizza we liked. As your plans progress, please, please, please consider opening a franchise in Salem, MA.

  • David Woo

    Good luck! This sounds like an ESOP on a small scale. They should also look at cooperative enterprise when it grows because in an ESOP, the employees with bigger shares have a bigger vote. In a Worker Co-op all employees (who want to) pay in an equal equity investment and have an equal say. They are however still employees and have to be subject to appropriate work rules as any employee/owner would be in a small mom and pop or any small partnership.

    • Laurenceofberk

      Right on, David,

      Here in Berkeley we have a collective pizza place called the “Cheese Board.” (used to only sell cheese). It’s been a collective since 1971. The pizza is so good that the line outside can stretch to 50 or 70 feet. Live jazz inside. Wages are equal and high. “They receive over double the average industry wages. The Cheese Board workers receive $21 an hour plus patronage dividends, in addition to health care, dental and a retirement savings plan.” (www.geo.coop/node/495) The number or worker-owners has expanded from 6 to 40.

      In addition, the Cheese Board has spun off 4 other independent pizza co-ops, and a “Juice Bar” collective. All are affiliated with the “Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives,” or NoBAWC (NOBOSS), which in turn is affiliated with the “United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives.”

      In general, collective or co-operative small businesses last longer than their capitalist counterparts, and pay much higher wages. And because the worker owners live locally, they try to keep pollution to a minimum, and to serve their communities.

      In Spain there is a federation of worker co-ops called “Mondragon.” In 2010 there were 100,000 worker-owners in many different kinds of businesses, including a co-op bank which helps new co-ops get started.

      As capitalism grows more and more dysfunctional, (think unemployment, poverty and global warming, just for starters), the alternative is not state ownership (state capitalism), but federations of democratic worker and community co-operatives. That’s what the world will look like when human beings have the courage to stand up.

  • RS

    The name “Just Crust” sounds VERY antagonistic

    • RS

      Also… the manager was one of the Upper Crust most loyal employees and was with them till the end. I’m just a bit confused at this point.

  • Pat T

    It’s a shame that anyone is giving any airtime to the lawyer who caused the chain to file for bankruptcy. None of her allegations have been proven, and here she is going into business as a competitor… She is not giving equity ownership to employeea, despite her claim… she is taking advantage of the employees, using them as pawns in her masterminded scheme. Can anyone say conflict of interest? Or how about violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct? BBO? The lawyer is the same lawyer who sued The Harvard Club, bullied the chain into Chapter 11, and now she wants our support?

    • http://www.facebook.com/colleen.omalley1 Cailin O Maille

      “In 2009, the federal government investigated and ordered Upper Crust to pay its employees $341,000 in back wages for uncompensated overtime….”

      • Robert

        Restaurants that underpaid their workers include 15 Not Your Average Joe’s restaurants in Greater Boston and eastern Massachusetts; six Science Partners restaurants in Cambridge and Boston, including Miracle of Science, Middlesex Lounge and Tory Row; Metropolitan Club restaurants in Chestnut Hill, Dedham and Natick; Noon Hill Grill in Medfield; T.G.I. Friday’s in Framingham; Fresh City restaurants in Burlington, Needham Heights, Newton Upper Falls and Woburn; and Paul W. Marks in Everett.

        • Dan G

          Why isn’t anyone talking about these establishments?
          Ummm…..

          • bob

            Go read some articles. Some of them were minor and they had to pay rather than declaring bankruptcy.

  • PL

    Am I the only one who sees that the attorney’s motive all along were greedy and scummy?? Seems obvious that she is exploiting others for her own financial gain… Disturbing! And there is no chance the pizza will compare to the delicious Upper Crust pizza… They are still open and better than ever!!! Had an awesome pie from Charles Street location last night!

    • LP

      I think it’s knowing that it’s made by poorly-paid migrant workers and total scumbag owners really makes it so delicious.

      • James

        From what I read, the old owners who pinned this on the founder are gone… The workers seemed very happy when I went in last night, and when I asked one about what he thought, he simply said, “it’s ridiculous. That lawyer doesn’t speak for me.”
        Speaks volumes.

      • Reims

        Do you go to any of the restaurants listed below?
        These are from 2012….

        Restaurants that underpaid their workers include 15 Not Your Average Joe’s restaurants in Greater Boston and eastern Massachusetts; six Science Partners restaurants in Cambridge and Boston, including Miracle of Science, Middlesex Lounge and Tory Row; Metropolitan Club restaurants in Chestnut Hill, Dedham and Natick; Noon Hill Grill in Medfield; T.G.I. Friday’s in Framingham; Fresh City restaurants in Burlington, Needham Heights, Newton Upper Falls and Woburn; and Paul W. Marks in Everett.

        • StevenHB

          What’s your source for this list?

  • Gabe

    The Just Crust? Now that’s rich?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chuck-McCann/1007846439 Chuck McCann

    Be kind, polite, patient as they get going, and BUY THEIR PIZZAS!

  • Upper Crust Employee

    don’t know how people can defend The Upper Crust…as a former employee I can tell you there was nothing decorous about how they were doing business. They underpaid people, paid them under fake social security informatoion, paid them on several checks so as to avoid over time hours, and most of all, when the chips fell…Jordan Tobins’ assets had to be frozen because he was selling everything, to buy the company under “new” investors. Educate yourselves, and understand that it’s businesses like The Upper Crust that ruin communities, not enrich them.

  • Former Pizza Shop Worker

    As a former employee of a pizza shop in Boulder, Co where I had to seek department of labor’s help in getting paid for my overtime hours, I’m cheering these guys on. Now if only someone would swoop in and give us a bunch of money to open something in place of what new owners ruined…

    • employee

      this is not real those are use employee they dont want not think for this employees just show point for boston lest see when they open who can see this employee in the store

  • The Working World

    This is a story our organization is pretty familiar with.

    In many of the cooperatives we work with in Argentina, workers took ownership of their bankrupt businesses and reopened them to be successful, democratically managed businesses. Today, there are over 200 recovered businesses. We’d like to invite anyone interested to learn more about the cooperatives we work with and worker-ownership at our website: http://www.theworkingworld.org

  • http://twitter.com/joshvogel1 Josh Vogel

    Good luck! American dream in action (except for the unfortunate circumstances that led to this point, we can do without that)!

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