LAKEVIEW — Plagued by allegations of bounced checks and unpaid employees, The Belmont Cafe was sold to new owners this month as its founder faces multiple lawsuits and a Department of Labor claim.
For months, checks from the restaurant bounced, while staff said they went without pay. At least one ex-employee filed a claim of unpaid wages with the Illinois Department of Labor.
Owner Nicolas George, who opened The Belmont Cafe at 930 W. Belmont Ave. last June at the former location of Clarke's Diner, said he had no knowledge of any unpaid wages.
"I'm not aware of employees being unpaid or anyone saying they were treated wrong," George said. "I had no one coming to me."
Meanwhile, checks from the restaurant were being returned for insufficient funds as early as July 2015, according to four civil lawsuits filed against George and The Belmont Cafe.
Reinhart Foodservice, Sysco, Key Food Services and a Northbrook cash exchange have sued The Belmont Cafe for claims between $802 and $12,572. A total $31,753 is being sought among them, including damages and attorney and court fees.
Nicolas George of The Belmont Cafe. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
Attempts to serve George with the complaints have been unsuccessful, court records state. George did not respond to further attempts to contact him regarding the lawsuits.
While staying open late — although not quite the round-the-clock schedule of Clarke's — and remaining a diner, The Belmont Cafe never reached the popularity of its predecessor.
The lack of customers quickly became an issue, former employees told DNAinfo Chicago.
"At first it was really busy, because it was the former Clarke's," said Destinée Cambium, who worked at Clarke's on Belmont before transitioning with it to George's restaurant. "But it started to get slower."
Payment was scarce, although managers promised each week that cash was coming — soon, employees said.
Cambium, 20, said the wait staff relied on tips, so only working a few tables per shift was devastating. Owed $500, she finally got her back pay when her mother threatened to call public attention to the matter, she said.
New booths, exposed vents and a revamped color scheme were among changes made at The Belmont Cafe when it opened in June 2015. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
Oscar Quiroz Jr. wasn't paid for five of the seven months he worked at The Belmont Cafe, he asserted in an unpaid wages claim filed July 25 with the state division of fair labor. Quiroz said he's owed $525 for 100 hours of work and submitted time-stamped records of his work shifts.
The state can't comment on the unresolved case, but the Department of Labor confirmed the cafe had an active wage complaint filed against it. Two other employees said they also failed to receive all their wages from The Belmont Cafe.
As a full-time student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, "weekends were my one opportunity to make money," Quiroz said. To pay for rent and tuition, he relied on two part-time jobs.
As paychecks stopped coming, Quiroz, 20, said he worked as many hours as possible to try and make up what he lacked in tips. Quitting wasn't an option until he found a replacement job.
"That was the story with everyone there — they had to work so much just to make up for everything else," Quiroz said.
Managers and head chefs occasionally gave the wait staff small sums of $50 or $80 "when they had money to spare," Quiroz said. They all hoped for the day when the restaurant's bar would open up in the second half of the storefront, but it never came.
George said he didn't know why his former employees would claim to be not paid.
"I don't know why anyone would stay at a place they weren't being paid at," George said in an interview on Aug. 24. "There are disgruntled employees at all kinds of businesses — we've had our fair share."
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