As director of events at Bankroll, the swanky Center City sports bar that opened in March, Olivia Mazza was gearing up for another full week of meetings with clients when she received an early morning email letting her know she had been furloughed.
Mazza wasn’t alone. The email, unsigned and sent June 19 from what she said was an unfamiliar HR account, had gone out to most of Bankroll’s approximately 50 employees, from managers to front-of-house and kitchen staff to members of the small corporate team, which Mazza joined late last November.
“Finding out in that way was pretty frustrating, as you can imagine,” she told Billy Penn.
The email had gone out around 6 a.m., a few hours before staff started seeing reports in the media that Bankroll would be scaling back operations for the summer to focus on private events.
Steve Kim was also a recipient of the email. He joined Bankroll as executive chef before it opened, last September, as what he said was one of the spot’s first hires.
“For them to fire me over an email, it’s so unprofessional,” Kim said. “I’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years and I’ve never, ever been treated like this.”
First announced in 2021, it took two years and a $25 million renovation to bring Bankroll to the former Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street in Rittenhouse.
Billy Penn spoke with several furloughed staff members — directors, managers, and servers, some of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing future employment in the industry — to find out what went wrong.
‘Too good for nachos’
Backed primarily by Paul Martino, a Doylestown venture capitalist and conservative PAC supporter who was an early investor in FanDuel, Bankroll was to bring a combination of sports-based fervor and fine-dine glamor to the Center City dining scene, in partnership with prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr.
The large staff required to run the vast space — upwards of 350 seats across a dining room, multiple bars, viewing lounges, and private event areas — was to be overseen by a corporate team working out of an office near the recently-vacated Rittenhouse Barnes & Noble and led by chief executive Padma Rao, a former marketing and product executive at Grubhub and advisor at Bullpen Capital, where Martino is a managing partner.
There were obstacles from the start, from protracted zoning issues to Stephen Starr’s departure sometime before the March launch. Later attributed in a joint statement to “a difference in philosophy,” the split was an ominous sign for some staff.
“When Stephen Starr left, I was like ‘Oh shit, we’re in trouble,’” recalled Kim, the initial executive chef. Prior to his departure, Starr had developed a menu that “made sense for a sports bar,” he said.
“It was approachable, it was affordable, it was friendly,” Kim said, describing a menu with multiple burgers, wings, a wagyu hot dog, and nachos that apparently clashed with CEO Rao’s vision of luxury dining.
“Padma was like ‘No, fuck that. We shouldn’t have nachos. We’re too good for nachos,’” Kim said. “But if you’re selling nachos and you’re making $5,000 a month on nachos, why not?”
Kim recalled Rao dictating increasingly extravagant changes to the menu during the leadup to the opening, leaving him confused, as well as wary of a style of operation where rank outweighed experience.
“Padma wasn’t open to other operational ideas that didn’t fit her ideology,” concurred former general manager Jerome Jones. “It was very much her way or the highway.”
Both Rao and Martino declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
With over two decades’ experience in the hospitality industry, Jones joined the Bankroll team in February and, like Kim, witnessed what he felt were questionable decisions by Rao during preparations for the opening, from spending tens of thousands on unused uniforms and chairs that ended up in the basement (“she didn’t like the color”), to deciding to open the Big Game Room — the venue’s central space with a 16-seater bar and multiple massive TV screens — before the dining room was ready to launch.
“They were bleeding money so bad, they had to open up,” Jones said, recalling his and other managers’ recommendation for delaying in favor of a more cohesive opening, ultimately ignored.
Even limiting the opening to the bar was a scramble, according to one manager who asked to stay anonymous. Specialty cocktails were added to the menu, they said, “with no type of communication brought to the staff.”
“Bartenders had no idea that [we] had cocktails until the next day when it was like, ‘Yep, we have cocktails now, and we have 600 covers,’” the manager said.
To Jones, that was a symptom of the mistakes that may have doomed the project. “Had they taken our advice and waited another month or another couple of weeks and got the restaurant together, started marketing the restaurant first, the food, the wine, all of that, I think it would have been in a better space.”
Instead, the decision to limit Bankroll’s launch to its Big Game Room created what Jones called “an identity crisis,” confusing customers as well as employees.
The betting app that never was
Speaking in 2018 to the Global Philadelphia Project, a city-sponsored gathering on branding Philadelphia, Martino, the investor, highlighted the city’s reputation as America’s most passionate sports town while lamenting its lack of a “marquee place to show that off.”
Bankroll appears to have been his attempt to fill that void.
From the April 2022 groundbreaking onward, there was a lot of buzz around Bankroll, but details remained scant. When it opened in May, public reaction included some confusion, as seen in multiple reddit threads questioning which demographic it was aiming to attract, and what type of venue it was meant to be.
“I had a lot of industry friends talk to me about it,” said one former manager who asked to stay anonymous. “And the average thing that I always heard was, ‘But what is it?’”
Central to Bankroll’s identity was the development of an app that would, among other services, provide connectivity between customers and the venue’s live events and sports partners “in ways that only we can,” Rao told The Inquirer in March, adding that through the app, Bankroll aimed to change the patron experience from “people staring at their phones,” to them “staring at a screen together.”
In a later interview with Metro Philadelphia, Rao explained, “We anticipate that our guests will be betting on their mobile phones while watching games at the venue.”
Did the app ever exist? Unclear. Former GM Jones told Billy Penn it was never developed. Another former manager said it was, but as a reduced web-based version. Another described the whole premise as “very, very confusing.”
They remembered asking Martino, “How do people bet here?” and having him reply, “Oh, we don’t bet. We don’t do that. You heard wrong.”
Billy Penn reached out to Bankroll for comment. A spokesperson confirmed via email that the majority of employees had been furloughed, and received notification to that effect. Bankroll, the spokesperson said, will be open for private events throughout the summer, and “will offer people hourly roles for the events work.” No private events have been canceled due to the scaling back, the company said.
‘It’s the experience that they’re paying for’
The first month of operation reportedly saw a turnover rate so high one employee referred to it as a “revolving door” of managers. Firings were often abrupt and carried out over the phone or email, or through intermediaries, regardless of their objection.
Jones, the former GM, said he was forced to come in on Easter Sunday by Rao, the CEO, just to fire his assistant general manager, whom he didn’t believe deserved to be let go. Floor operators favored by Rao, Jones said, would get assigned more lucrative areas to cover in the venue. “We would have some service making $1000 on a Saturday where others were making $75.”
With nowhere to bring his concerns — “nobody would go to Paul [Martino] and talk about Padma because Padma made it very clear that she was the end” — and a mounting dissatisfaction at working conditions and financial decisions, Jones decided he had had enough.
“I didn’t feel good about the way that I was treating other people at her behest,” he said. On May 7, he walked out.
Despite behind-the-scenes turmoil, the venue managed to attract strong initial business.
Opening to the public just before March Madness, the Big Game Room succeeded in drawing regular crowds, with one server describing evenings when they’d get frustrated at an inability to navigate orders through the packed space. But crowds thinned as the season progressed, and by the end of the Sixers’ playoff run there was a noticeable slump in business, per several former staffers, and shifts were scaled back. On some nights, “I was the only waiter in the entire place,” a server said.
Seeing the amount of food regularly thrown out by his kitchen, Kim said he raised concerns with the executive team, but was repeatedly told “don’t worry about it.”
“I would make a dish and then I would price it out, and if I say 15 bucks for this dish, they say, ‘Oh no, we should add another $10. It’s the experience that they’re paying for,’” Kim said.
Billy Penn was invited to visit Bankroll for dinner on June 14, a week after the venue introduced its brunch service and five days before it announced it would be scaling back operations for the summer and furloughing most of its employees in the process. For most of the two-plus hours a reporter spent in the 100-seat dining room, only two other tables were occupied, one by an off-duty server and her family for a comped meal.
One server said that a week prior to Billy Penn’s visit they’d asked a manager, “Are we going to be able to stay open? There’s nobody here.”
Employees said their concerns were met with broad reassurances. Kim said he turned down an opportunity elsewhere, in part out of allegiance to the kitchen staff he had months ago convinced to leave their jobs to join him at Bankroll.
One week later, “Bam! We all got furloughed.”
Some of the former employees Billy Penn spoke with said they’d heard prior rumblings of a potential scaling back for the summer, but didn’t expect to be let go with no notice, or for that matter, be “furloughed” — a move one server said “might be normal in the tech industry, but not in hospitality,” where workers are often living paycheck to paycheck.
On the corporate side of the business, former events director Mazza said she received the email when she had clients with private events yet to be fulfilled. “I would have appreciated that respect from leadership,” she said, “to have a conversation, one-on-one, and not just via email that was sent out to ‘Bankroll employee.’”
Bankroll’s recent announcement promised a return to full operations in time for the football season. Most of the interviewed former employees don’t see that happening; none plan to return. Last week, the Philadelphia Business Journal reported Bankroll is seeking $4M in debt financing.
Several former staffers said they had been unable to secure PTO from Bankroll. One manager estimated he was owed at least $1,200. He later confirmed to Billy Penn that Bankroll will be paying out an hourly rate based on individual salaries for calculated accrued hours, which he described as “legal verbiage that gets them out of a larger financial commitment.”
Asked if he felt the arrangement was fair, he said “none of my peers do, including myself.”
Said another former manager: “You need to build trust in your employees, and there’s none. They burnt all their bridges.”