Philly food and drink scene

Workers demand changes as Rittenhouse restaurant V Street closes for good

Former and current staff say they want fair pay and a culture shift.

Plant-based taco from V Street

Plant-based taco from V Street

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
layla

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V Street is closed for good. The hip Rittenhouse street food bar that’s sister to high-end restaurant Vedge will not reopen, according to owners Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau.

Though the closure comes amid a larger economic bruising for the restaurant industry, a group of former staffers calling themselves the V Street Workers said they feel it was a retaliatory act in response to an employee letter sent to owners with a list of demands.

V Street Workers have started a public Instagram account, where they’re publishing anonymous stories from V Street employees, and pushing for Vedge Restaurant Group to improve what they say are unfair business practices and compensation.

Speaking to Billy Penn under condition of anonymity, nine workers from both V Street and Vedge allege Jacoby and Landau fostered a culture of retaliation and racial insensitivity.

They also described strenuous work conditions, which they noted are common in the hospitality business — which faces an existential crisis as the coronavirus makes normal operations impossible.

In an email to Billy Penn, Jacoby and Landau said they couldn’t make the V Street business model work because of the pandemic.

“Despite getting PPP in early July to invite some former staff members back to work, many we contacted expressed concerns about the virus, and we completely understand their hesitation,” the owners said, adding that they’re returning the loan. “The restaurant industry has been long overdue for meaningful change on many levels, and despite our needing to close this location, we look forward to being a part of that change as we all navigate these unprecedented times.”

Nearly 60% of all restaurant workers in the state, about 332,000 people, were out of work by mid-April. Across the nation, 8 million restaurant workers found themselves jobless that month, while owners and proprietors continue to struggle to make ends meet with takeout, delivery and limited on-site dining.

In Philadelphia, where indoor dining is not yet allowed, V Street is among several places that will not reopen, including Manayunk’s Mad River, Farmicia in Old City, Liberty Place-based R2L and Bards Irish bar. Many restaurateurs are hoping for a federal bailout to save their businesses.

The worker demands come against the backdrop of renewed mainstream energy for the Black Lives Matter Movement, which has seen workers holding executives accountable for a number of workers’ rights-related issues.

A ‘passion project’ that’s ‘not very profitable’

Both V Street and Vedge shut down due to COVID in mid-March, and a short-lived attempt at carryout was nixed soon after.

“We hope to be the first restaurant open when all the dust settles. But what can you really tell [the laid-off employees]?” Landau told the Inquirer on March 21. “They have to get on unemployment right away. But there’s going to be kids who live paycheck to paycheck that are going to have to move back in with their parents. People that are going to suffer.”

Certain managers, including one former kitchen manager who spoke with Billy Penn on a group Zoom call, said Landau and Jacoby reached out to them with a potential reopening plan at the beginning of July. Other staff members, though, had heard nothing since the March closure, so the group organized to send a letter.

“We are frustrated with a lack of leadership and clear communication from you,” read the letter, which says it’s from 34 staffers from both front and back of house. “Your response to the pandemic left many of us confused, unsupported and shut-out.”

Along with inquiring about reopening plans, workers requested the former employees be paid sick leave, in accordance with a city law under which V Street employees believe they’re covered.

Seven days after the workers sent their letter, Jacoby and Landau responded with an email saying they would close the Rittenhouse bar, which launched on 19th Street between Walnut and Sansom in 2014.

“V Street was a passion project and not very profitable,” Landau wrote in a July 17 email. “After so many years, we recognize how hard it is to share this news in a brief email.”

Vedge, the high-end vegan destination that opened in 2011 to widespread acclaim, has resumed operations. Jacoby and Landau, James Beard-nominated chefs, also operate Fancy Radish in Washington D.C., which has reopened for pickup only.

Workers said the sudden and truncated email response announcing V Street’s closure was an example of underlying issues at the restaurant group.

Two managers on the Zoom call said they had little real hiring authority, which led to what they called racially inequitable hiring and a “homogenized” workforce. Former staffers also said promotions were hard to come by, and 60+ hour workweeks were standard.

Better wages, sick leave pay, and ‘dismantle white supremacy’

While acknowledging that Vedge Restaurant Group may not be an outlier regarding these issues, workers said they felt the time was right to call it out.

“There’s just been so much complaining at V Street for so long, and so much disappointment with the owners and with the pandemic happening,” said Shane Olsen, who said he worked at the street food bar for 2.5 years and is not part of the organizing group’s leadership.

The group said Jacoby and Landau wouldn’t help crowdfund for marginalized workers who couldn’t access government unemployment benefits. “We asked them to start a GoFundMe, they outright refused,” said one former staffer. The workers created the GoFundMe themselves. So far it has raised just under $5k of its $10k goal.

In early June, Vedge staff tried to organize internally around BLM, one worker told Billy Penn, and said they were met with an email conflating BLM to animal rights.

“That’s when we all exploded,” the worker said.

With V Street closed for good, its organizing workers still want to make changes. In addition to sick leave payouts, their demands include:

  • Providing all returning staff with at least $20/hr wages + tips
  • Protection against retaliation for workers who may feel uncomfortable returning to work during the pandemic
  • That owners “actively work to dismantle white supremacy within the restaurant group” by amending hiring practices

Though Vedge is operating, one former manager told Billy Penn they don’t plan to return.

“They barely hire people of color, so I am a person of color and that was always an interesting experience,” the former worker said. “No, I’m not going back.”

Jacoby and Landau also at one point ran a vegan cheesesteak joint adjacent to V Street called Wiz Kid. It closed in 2019, and V Street expanded into both spaces.

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