Major Restaurant Legal Drama

Waitress sues two high-profile Houston restaurants for orchestrating her firing, inflicting emotional distress

Waitress sues two Houston restaurants for orchestrating her firing

News_Culinary Tours_Terrence Gallivan_Chris Shepherd_Seth Siegel-Gardner
Underbelly chef/owner Chris Shepherd with The Pass & Provisions chef/owners Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner at a happier moment.  Photo by Daniel Ortiz
4 John Besh dinner at Underbelly November 2013 chefs shotgunning beer
Johnston was terminated for violating the restaurant's alcohol policy, but shot-gunning a beer at the end of the shift is a regular ritual for Underbelly's kitchen staff.  Photo by Eric Sandler
News_Culinary Tours_Terrence Gallivan_Chris Shepherd_Seth Siegel-Gardner
4 John Besh dinner at Underbelly November 2013 chefs shotgunning beer

Just days after Underbelly parted ways with sous chef Ryan Lachaine, the high-profile Houston restaurant is back under the spotlight with a former waitress filing a lawsuit against it.

In a petition filed Nov. 13 in Harris County District Court, Rachel Johnston alleges that chef/owner Chris Shepherd and Hay Merchant co-owner Kevin Floyd first suspended, then fired, her from her position as a server at Underbelly after a group she was part of caused a disruption during a meal at The Pass & Provisions. She's seeking between $200,000 and $1 million in damages for Tortious Interference by Pass & Provisions in her employment status at Underbelly, Defamation and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

 During a meeting after the call, Johnston alleges that Shepherd and Floyd demanded she quit as a result of the incident.  

According to the pleading, Johnston and an all-female group of her friends complained loudly to P&P's staff after they were asked to move from their table to free it up for another party. The group thought it was unfair that other parties with men at the table were permitted to remain seated while the women were required to move. Johnston later sent an email to P&P apologizing for her friend's behavior. 

Someone, the lawsuit doesn't say who, from Pass & Provisions called Shepherd to complain about Johnston's behavior. During a meeting after the call, Johnston alleges that Shepherd and Floyd demanded she quit as a result of the incident. When she refused, they suspended her for two weeks, which, the document notes, occurred "in December, the most lucrative time of the year for restaurant FOH (Front of The House) and thus caused her to lose significant income." 

When she returned to work, "her work environment deteriorated. She was treated rudely and excluded by kitchen and FOH management." On Dec. 21, Underbelly alleged that Johnston was intoxicated during a lunch shift and fired her for violating the restaurant's alcohol policy. Johnston denies being intoxicated.

Although not specifically related to the incident at The Pass & Provisions, Johnston also alleges that Shepherd frequently made inappropriate remarks. "Shepherd would ask Plaintiff questions about her sex life and would offer to engage in sexual activities with her. She refused. Although many of these remarks were made in a joking manner and/or not to be taken seriously, there were times when these remarks crossed the line and were not joking." A footnote notes that she "has filed a charge of discrimination against Underbelly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Texas Workforce Commission . . .  she may add sex discrimination claims to this lawsuit."

 "Shepherd would ask Plaintiff questions about her sex life and would offer to engage in sexual activities with her. She refused." 

P&P co-owner Seth Siegel Gardner categorically denied Johnston's allegations to Houstonia, which first reported the story.

Clumsy Butcher, the umbrella organization that owns Underbelly, Anvil, Blacksmith and other businesses, released a statement to CultureMap that reads as follows: "It's not unheard of for high-profile restaurants like ours to be subject to lawsuits of this kind. We hope that outside observers don't jump to conclusions. This employee was terminated for intoxication at work, which is in line with company policy and legal standings. We regrettably terminated an employee with whom we had a longstanding and close relationship for behavior and misconduct inside the restaurant."  

Johnston notes one aspect of Underbelly's culture that might undermine the restaurant's claim that drinking violates its policies. As CultureMap observed during the recent, sold-out guest dinner with New Orleans chef John Besh, dinner service at Underbelly typically ends with the kitchen staff shot-gunning a beer, lead by Shepherd. 

According to a CultureMap source within the restaurant industry who is not connected to either Underbelly or The Pass & Provisions, employees at fine-dining, high-profile restaurants are held to a high standard when patronizing other, similar establishments. If they act out, as Johnston and her friends reportedly did, someone from the offended restaurant may contact the person's employer. That typically results in a reprimand but not termination. 

A judge and jury will have to decide whether Johnston's claims have merit. 

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