Unfriendly fire: Colorado's "at-will" law regarding firing hits hard in the restaurant industry, where it's often easier to hire a new body than to take the time to train, rehabilitate or accommodate an old one. The bottom line of "at-will" means that an employee can be fired for nearly any reason--with the notable but often difficult to prove exceptions of discrimination and harassment. Of course, your employer may never tell you the real reason; it's always something like, "You just don't have the right attitude," or "I just don't think this is working out."

But former employees of Cucina Colore in Cherry Creek North--four of whom called me last week--think they know exactly why they were fired: They didn't have the image that management was looking for going into its redesign of the restaurant. "People were let go because they didn't have the look, or they didn't speak well, or their lifestyles didn't fit in," says one woman, who asked that her name not be used but pointed out that her comments weren't sour grapes, because she quit when she didn't like what was going on. "The owners just came in one day and said, `Sorry, you don't have any fine-dining experience, so we're going to have to let you go.'"

Venanzio Momo, who with his family owns Cucina, Pizza Colore in Writer Square, Teresa's Pizza Colore in Boulder and seven other restaurants in New Jersey, says that's only partially true. "I'm not going to say that I'm not looking for people with a passion for food and wine and that these people didn't have that," he says. "But that's only half the story. Some of these people were stealing--liquor, food, you name it. They were giving away food to their friends who came in as customers; they were scamming customers on credit-card receipts. The place was a mess."

Momo blames most of the problems on his former operations manager, Joe Timberlake, whose position has been eliminated, as has that of general manager Patrick White. "I had an operations guy who was letting the employees get away with murder," Momo says. "What I did wrong with this store was not running it myself."

Timberlake, who is in the process of buying out another Cherry Creek restaurant, has a different take on things. "Listen, I've spent my whole life in restaurants, sometimes managing as many as fifty restaurants at a time," he says. "I'm sorry Venanzio feels that way--I have nothing bad to say about him or the management there. They did what they had to do. It's easy to start blaming other people when things go wrong. He can't blame himself, can he?" Timberlake adds that he thinks all the members of the restaurant's waitstaff--more than half of whom were let go--could have handled the new Cucina. Momo says it will be a "modern Italian eatery serving wonderful, quality fresh food in a timely manner"--as opposed to the old, which was a pizza/pasta place that served quality fresh food in a timely manner.

According to White, now general manager at Cucina Leone, one word explains the removal of two management positions: nepotism. "They eliminated my position so they didn't have to deal with firing me," he says, "and then they called in one of the family."

And in fact, Momo has brought in his brother Anthony to take over. "The brothers are back in town," Momo says. "We're running the show again.


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