It looks like the staff walkout at Ruggles Grill last Saturday night was just the beginning of a contentious standoff between management and former employees who say they are owed thousands in unpaid tips.
On Wednesday night several former Ruggles employees, plus supporters and representatives from the Houston Interfaith Workers Justice Center and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) protested outside the restaurant.
"We want to get the word out in general, show workers they should speak up for themselves," said Jeremiah Villarreal, a former Ruggles employee. Protestors held signs with slogans like "We demand justice," and chanted "We'll be back, we'll be stronger."
Villarreal and others met with a county attorney on Tuesday, and tells CultureMap that the office pledged to open an investigation.
Ruggles owner Bruce Molzan admits that the employees were owed back pay, but insists the problem was caused by a single management employee who was stealing tips. Molzan told CultureMap that he'd brought in an independent auditor in November to look over financial numbers that weren't adding up, and that the manager sabotaged and deleted computer files when asked to explain discrepancies.
"This guy's a bad guy," Molzan said, "When people steal they cover their tracks and make diversions, and this is a big one."
Molzan filed a police report on Saturday, the day of the walkout, claiming that manager James Wray "took money from his job and used the company credit card to pay [his] personal bills." The report lists the theft at $6,100.
Molzan has also filed a civil suit against Wray and other employees who participated in the walkout (including Villarreal), accusing them of misappropriation of funds, fraud, business disparagement and interference with employee relations. The suit alleges, in part:
Defendant Wray and his co-conspirators, and perhaps others yet not known, discussed a common plan and scheme to intentionally disparage Ruggle Grill in order to cause it harm. Defendant Wray and his co-conspirators have falsely stated to the public that Ruggles Grill isn involved in "criminal activity" and that Ruggles Grill intended to steal money from its employees . . . with the specific intent of causing harm."
In response to the suit, Wray told Eater that Molzan has a history of accusing managers of theft and that the employees were standing their ground and would not be bought off. On Twitter, Villarreal also disputes Molzan's claims that the auditor was independent.
Molzan tells CultureMap that all employees owed money "except one guy" have been paid, but Villareal says that he and others have chosen not to accept any money because Molzan is requiring employees to sign a statement with it that would "release Ruggles from all debt."
With both parties claiming the law is on their side, it's likely that the fight over who is responsible for the wage theft will continue. As Villarreal says, "the truth will be told in court."