In the wake of three restaurants shuttering Saturday, employees say they didn’t see their layoffs coming.
Candace Barbee began working at Mariah’s 3 1/2 years ago and stayed with the restaurant when it moved to Hitcents Park Plaza. Barbee was eventually promoted to assistant manager of Brick & Basil Pizzeria, Tres Molinos and Pagoda Asian Cafe, all three of which closed Saturday.
“I knew there was a meeting scheduled for Saturday, but nobody was told why,” Barbee said. “Everybody was just really nervous. We weren’t told anything. We were kept completely in the dark.”
Rick Kelley, consultant for Hitcents and former owner of Mariah’s, delivered the news to the approximately 30 employees at Saturday’s meeting that the restaurants were closing, Barbee said.
Barbee, a Western Kentucky University student, said Kelley thanked the employees for their hard work and said that though the fast-casual concept is a popular trend in the nation, regrettably, it hadn’t succeeded at the plaza. If the employees gave about three hours of their time to help clean up the restaurants, they would receive a severance package.
“It could’ve been handled a different way,” Barbee said. “I cared about (my employees) ... and that’s why it was so hard that everything happened. ... It just seemed like a community injustice.”
Barbee said she feels that she and the other employees worked to promote the restaurants and drum up business. However, Barbee said she thinks the restaurants’ overall marketing campaign was poorly executed. Barbee said she often had to explain to people where she worked because they had never heard of the restaurants.
Natasha Patterson, a WKU student, was formerly a cashier at the restaurants. She was among the first employees working at the restaurants when they opened earlier this year. Patterson wasn’t scheduled to work a couple days before the Saturday meeting, but she felt that something was wrong after seeing signs posted in the restaurants about a mandatory meeting.
When Patterson arrived at the meeting Saturday morning, she said she could tell by the way Kelley was talking that the employees were about to lose their jobs. Patterson knew business was slow – an issue she partially attributes to sparse marketing.
“I loved working there. ... I just wish we could’ve been let go a little more tactfully,” Patterson said.
Clinton Mills, co-founder of Hitcents, said after the closure Saturday that they plan to open full-service restaurants in the fast-casual restaurants’ place in the coming months. Mills reiterated this morning that Hitcents would invite former employees back when the new restaurants open.
Mills said Saturday that Hitcents had underestimated parking challenges, because most customers, after taking the time to drive downtown and park in the parking garage, were going to Mariah’s or 6-4-3 Sports Bar.
Mills said this morning that 30 employees were let go and 15 employees were kept on at the plaza because they were cross-trained. All the restaurants at the plaza employed about 200 people.
“To only lose 30 people, it shows that we tried to retain and repurpose as many people as we could,” Mills said.
While Mills said he can understand the former employees’ frustrations, he thinks most of them probably “knew it was coming.”
“It’s nothing against them,” Mills said. “It’s just unfortunate that the restaurants weren’t profitable.”
Mills added that Kentucky employers can let employees go at any time for any reason.
“If they think they were let go unfairly, that’s the opinion of a couple people because (Kentucky is) an at-will state,” Mills said. “We thought we were very nice and very fair to everyone and went above and beyond what most employers would” by providing severance pay.