Only a few weeks after a limited opening, workers at Casa Bonita in Denver are asking management for changes to the pay structure and benefits.
In a petition sent to management last week, current and former workers—with help from labor organizer Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United—are demanding more transparency and better communication on a number of issues.
Among them is a return to the pay structure based on minimum wage plus tips that was initially promised when many of them were hired. Shortly before opening, Casa Bonita’s new owners Matt Stone and Trey Parker decided to eliminate tipping and instead pay workers a flat wage of $30 per hour.
Stone and Parker are the creators of the TV show “South Park,” in which Casa Bonita is featured in some classic episodes. The two bought the iconic restaurant, which had been shuttered since the pandemic, out of bankruptcy and spent two years on a $40 million remodel. The restaurant reopened on a limited basis in June.
In the petition, workers ask for “a mutually agreed on tip pool structure with input from all staff members,” and “full transparency regarding how the mutually agreed upon tip pool will be dispersed.”
The petition also asks that workers be given more of a voice, with access to management meetings via a “work-group representative” of their choosing. It also seeks more two-way communication, like a daily pre-shift meeting. It also requests that management no longer make same-day demands for workers to sign off on changes to policy, but be given time to consult with family or attorneys before making decisions.
The petition also asks that employees who were “unfairly terminated” as a result of contract-related disputes be reinstated with renegotiated terms.
Part of the dispute appears to be a result of the fact that the restaurant is still in limited-opening mode, serving guests only Thursday through Saturday. The website says Sunday-through-Wednesday service is “coming soon.”
In a statement late Friday, Casa Bonita management said they have been transparent about the slow opening, saying it was necessary to refine the complex aspects of the experience. The worker experience is also evolving. Since June, the restaurant has doubled its service from 1,148 customers per week to more than 2,300 last week. This week, they plan to reach 2,600.
"While this is still a long way from the around 20,000 customers a week we hope to serve, it is a major achievement, as all our staff have now been given the opportunity to work sufficient hours to have full-time benefits," the statement said. "Similarly, we have hired over 130 employees since May, well on our way to the over 350 staff we expect to need to serve that many guests."
Workers in statements included in the petition said they were not being give the full-time schedules that had been promised, and that the $30 per hour rate was actually a cut in pay.
A bartender only identified by the first name Michelle, for example, described Casa Bonita as her dream job, but said the changed pay structure and limited hours available made it unaffordable to work there.
“I cannot afford to work at CB. The dollars don’t make sense,” Michelle said. “Our whole house deserves better for its hourly employees. I’d gladly take minimum wage with tips so that our kitchen can receive better pay, give them the $30 they deserve it!”
Another bartender identified as Russ called it a “bait-and-switch,” saying the $30 per hour rate was a 40% cut in pay.
“We’ve been waiting over four months to get regular hours, we’re still not fully open, we have no path to earn enough hours for benefits,” Russ said. “We were excited about the possibility of reviving a Denver institution, but what was a really fun adventure has turned into a real-life nightmare.”
In a statement, the Casa Bonita management said the restaurant “strives to create the best working environment for its employees. This includes implementing the best compensation structure for all employees—not just a few. To the extent some employees have concerns about our policies, we will continue to make ourselves available to discuss their concerns individually or as a group.”
The shift to a $30 flat wage was a decision made after the soft opening, when guests weren’t tipping. Restaurant officials said they believed it was because Casa Bonita was using a ticketing system, charging adults $39.99 ($24.99 for kids ages 3-12, and those younger are free), which includes food.
The decision to move to a higher wage was an effort to provide “a higher-than-average, dependable wage,” the restaurant management said in an earlier statement.
Of 256 employees, 93 were a part of the shift and only two said they were unhappy about it, management said at the time.
UPDATE: This article has been updated with additional information from Casa Bonita.
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.