Cafe Society

Jim Sullivan's former employees are on the line

Ex-employees say Jim Sullivan ran his empire like the dictator he named a restaurant after.

Since Monday, when I posted my first blog about the sudden closure of Nine75 and Ocean -- Jim Sullivan’s last two Sullivan Restaurant Group operations -- my phone has been ringing off the hook. Some calls were from concerned parties wondering how this could happen, and I just repeated what Sullivan had told me, that the tanking financial system and general shitiness of the economy had finally done them in. Backing his story was the fact that the day both joints locked their doors, the stock market took its biggest ever one-day point drop: 777 points in a matter of hours. Turning on any news channel that night, you heard people talking as though the apocalypse had finally come. I was even tempted to go out, pick myself up some hockey shoulder pads and big feathers, and start plundering the highways of post-crash America like Mel Gibson in the Road Warrior.

But slowly, the temper of the calls shifted -- going from “how could this happen” to “how could he do this” -- and those calling were mostly now-ex-employees of the Sullivan Restaurant Group.

I got a lot of those calls -- from kitchen, floor and management, from guys who were just flat pissed and others who wanted to tell their stories: how Sullivan had closed the doors with no warning, two days before peoples’ rent checks were due, in the middle of a doldrums stretch when more restaurants are laying off than hiring.

“You can only burn people so many times,” I was told by one of the callers -- a kitchen guy. “You can only burn people so many times and get away with it before it catches up with you.”

Listening to these calls, though, it seemed that Sullivan got away with burning people right up until the end. Over the years, his method of shuttering his restaurants -- the "no warning/fuck ‘em all" school of employee management – had become something of a standard operating procedure Starting with Mao (which was closed without warning on New Year’s Day a few years back, much to the surprise of those employees who’d just spent most of the night catering to the New Year’s Eve crowds filling the place), Sullivan cut the path that he would continue to follow through this week. His excuse was always that if he were to give his employees advance notice that they were going to be out of work in, say, two weeks, they’d just stop showing up.

But you know what can stop that kind of mercenary mindset? Being a stand-up guy from the start and actually earning the loyalty of your people. Creating an environment where your staff likes you enough and trusts you enough to stick it out right alongside you until the lights go out. Instead, Sullivan had a dictator’s approach: a survival instinct that always began and ended with “Screw before you get screwed.”

There’s a reason why guys who talk and write about the restaurant industry tend to work so heavily with military, war-time metaphors. It’s because there’s that same sort of bond, that same sort of loyalty in a well-run house. I’ve known and worked for chefs in the past who I would’ve followed to hell. Jim Sullivan’s people? The ones I talked to this week wouldn’t have followed him to the corner store.

Almost no one I spoke with wanted their names published, because right now they’re all scrambling to find work -- and no one wants to be tagged as an industry snitch. Also, they said that Sullivan had hinted that maybe -- at some later date, sometime in the ambiguous future -- there might be back-pay and some severance money available for those who keep their heads down and their mouths shut. So while they all wanted Sullivan called out, hopefully embarrassed into doing the right thing, no one was in a position to blow the whistle and call bullshit themselves. But there’s safety in numbers, and from more than half-a-dozen callers, I got the same stories: of paychecks bouncing; of bills going unpaid; of entire staffs, from management down to dishwashers, kept completely in the dark until the day the hammer came down.

And from two of the callers, I heard that both joints had to close in such a hurry not simply becuase of the economic downturn, but because neither location was able to get deliveries from suppliers because the Sullian Restaurant Group was so far behind on its bills that purveyors had given up on COD and moved on to the effective expedient of simply not bringing food anymore.

I know a couple of the suppliers that did business with Sullivan -- know them well enough that I could call them up and ask just how bad it was to work with SRG. “We got fucked rolling,” one told me.

Another said that, were this the East Coast, he would be out just about enough to make it worth having a guy whacked and tossed in a dumpster. Worse, it wasn’t just money he was owed from the most recent spate of closures, but green he was owed from back before Nine75 North closed several months ago. “And don’t tell me you’re broke,” he said. “If you’re broke, you’re broke, okay? It happens. But that guy? He ain’t broke.”

Penury, though, was exactly what Sullivan pleaded to his staff during brief meetings on Monday -- blaming the sudden closures on (natch) the failing economy, his recent divorce, the fact that he’d left his wallet in his other pants. “He said, like, the economy is down, I’m sorry I failed and, I don’t know… It’s like a surprise for me,” said one former Ocean employee – one of the few willing to go on the record. (I’ll have more of his story in Bite Me next week.)

During those meetings, his ex-employees said, Sullivan promised to make good -- once he’d sold or liquidated the two restaurants, everyone would be taken care of, the bills paid, checks cut immediately. On Monday afternoon, Sullivan himself told me that he had every intention of taking care of his people, cutting deals on bills that he owed, even making arrangements with some other restaurant so that people holding gift certificates from Ocean or Nine75 could get their money’s worth. But no one I talked to seemed to have a lot of confidence that any of this was going to actually happen.

“You know what I want?” one member of the kitchen crew told me. “I just want Jim to admit that he fucked up. That he had no idea what he was doing, that he had no business trying to run restaurants, and that he’d made a mistake.” This whole debacle, the cook insisted, was all about ego -- about Sullivan satisfying some need to prove that he could do this even when it was very apparent that he could not.

Too bad that he had to hurt so many other people in order to learn that lesson.– Jason Sheehan

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun