December 27, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – The wait staff at the highest grossing steakhouse in the city is appealing directly to the restaurant’s rich and powerful clientele this holiday season to help in their struggle to improve working conditions that stand in stark contrast to the tony atmosphere high-powered diners regularly enjoy.
Sparks Steakhouse, located at 210 East 46th Street, is the major leagues for career waiters and bartenders, and attracts some of the most influential patrons from the worlds of business, finance, politics and entertainment. But for the last year, longtime employees of the famed restaurant say that staffers have been subjected to a myriad of intolerable working conditions – not the least of which includes fistfights and draconian management tactics bordering on the bizarre.
“Things started to change around Christmas of last year when the chef was fired and two brothers took over,” said Kris Fuller, 37, a waiter at Sparks for almost 10 years. “The owner gave them a free pass to do anything that they wanted to do.”
According to Fuller, that meant prohibiting some staffers from taking a drink of water, engaging in physical confrontations with others, and establishing an overall list of disliked people to be terminated – although the ability to hire and fire workers ostensibly lay outside the chefs’ purview.
Andy Arniotis, 33, worked at Sparks Steakhouse for two years and had a history of union organizing in the restaurant industry before being fired last spring following an alleged run-in with with one of the chefs. Arniotis died unexpectedly, shortly after the firing, leaving behind a 10-year-old son. Co-workers believe that the constant stress Arniotis experienced working at Sparks Steakhouse, as well as his subsequent firing, may have contributed to their friend’s untimely death.
“[The chef] had issues with him,” said, Fuller who routinely serves power brokers from from the banking industry including those at JP Morgan Chase, BlackRock and Wells Fargo. “He was really nasty to Andy. But Andy wouldn’t lay down for him.”
Around the same time, in effort to have their grievances finally addressed, waiters and bartenders at Sparks Steakhouse voted overwhelmingly to become part of UFCW Local 342.
Last week, union representatives began engaging patrons outside the festively-lit restaurant, asking for their support in winning employees respect on the job, fair raises, affordable healthcare, paid sick time and vacation pay.
One of those reportedly expressing sympathy for the Sparks Steakhouse wait staff, included former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland.
“This holiday season the union is calling on the company to do the right thing and negotiate a fair contract for the hard workers of Sparks Steakhouse – the ones who make the business what it is,” said Kate Meckler, Local 342 communications director.
So far, however, progress at the bargaining table remains elusive with the union calling management’s last proposal actually “regressive.”
Sparks Steakhouse’s annual revenues run into the tens and millions of dollars. In addition to being the highest grossing restaurant in New York City, it is also the third highest grossing restaurant in the nation.
Despite that, workers there maintain that they lag behind their counterparts at similar establishments in other parts of the city, including those at Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn, where waiters and bartenders reportedly earn higher salaries and enjoy better benefits.
According to Fuller, last spring’s sweeping vote to join Local 342 is causing things to change for the better at Sparks Steakhouse.
“The chefs have been shut down,” Fuller said. “Unionization has changed their behavior. The owner said this will never happen again.”
Nevertheless, job security and improved working conditions truly reflective of New York City’s premiere restaurant remain the wait staff’s highest priorities, and the focal point of Local 342’s ongoing public outreach at Sparks Steakhouse.
“People need to know,” said Fuller. “This is unacceptable.”