Multiple former servers at Buddakan, Stephen Starr’s pan-Asian clubstaurant in the Meatpacking District, allege they suffered from a culture of insensitivity and favoritism while working at the restaurant in the years leading up to the pandemic.
In a series of allegations that heightened in 2019, three Black former servers claim that they were disproportionately assigned to lower-paying shifts within the restaurant, when compared to shifts received by their non-Black colleagues. Two non-Black servers, who were working at Buddakan at the time but have since departed from the restaurant, confirm the former employees’ version of the events.
The five former servers allege that shift assignments at Buddakan were often doled out based on “favoritism,” rather than tenure or merit, which disadvantaged servers of color. Those concerns reached a tipping point, former servers say, during a pre-shift team meeting in August 2019, when a manager distributed a flyer among Buddakan staff with an image of a Black person beside the text, “Did someone say watermelon?” During a team meeting later that year, former servers allege a separate manager characterized the restaurant’s Black clientele as the “pineapple and Ciroc crowd,” referencing a mixed drink commonly ordered at the restaurant.
Both managers were terminated following the incidents, but former employees say the incidents point to larger blind spots among leadership at Buddakan. “The environment was toxic,” as one former Black server described it. “It was extremely clear that me being a Black server, I could not do nor ask for the same things my other white colleagues were asking for.”
In an email statement to Eater, Starr Restaurants denied the accusations. “Discrimination of any kind — racial, gender, sexual — is not tolerated by the management. All staff are provided with an anonymous hotline phone number and HR email immediately upon hiring, so they know reporting systems are at their fingertips should they experience or witness intolerance or bias. The anonymous tip line is in place so all employees feel an extra layer of safety expressing their concerns.”
Buddakan has been sued for discrimination in the past (the case was settled), but the aforementioned allegations have not previously been documented. Each of the former employees who spoke to Eater asked to remain anonymous, some because they are now working at other restaurants in New York City, and others because they hope to finally move on from a saga that, for years, dominated their working lives.
Buddakan started with a single location in Philadelphia in 1988 and grew into a small group of restaurants at its height, with locations in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The restaurant’s Meatpacking District location opened in 2006 and, backed by an early two-star review from the New York Times, was an immediate hit. Buddakan was “a hipper, younger, clubbier analogue to older, expensive, white tablecloth venues” in Manhattan at the time, Eater critic Ryan Sutton wrote in a 2015 review.
But the restaurant’s polished veneer belies a darker story of inequity and favoritism, former servers allege. Buddakan is “Stephen [Starr]’s cash cow,” according to a former server, who worked at the restaurant from August 2017 to December 2020. “They do whatever they must to keep it open, at everyone’s expense.”
Multiple former servers at Buddakan pointed to the restaurant’s method of distributing tips as a source of inequity among staff. While many restaurants in New York City operate on a “pooled house” system — where employees from across a restaurant pool their tips together and divide them among staff at the end of the night — Buddakan divides tips among sections within the restaurant.
Under the system, the restaurant is divided into approximately 20 sections, each assigned to a server, who splits all of the tips from the tables in that section with their support staff. Although sections within the restaurant have roughly the same number of seats, multiple former servers say that certain sections are more likely to seat larger parties or fill to capacity during off-hours, which can often result in more money in tips for those working those sections.
Buddakan isn’t the only New York restaurant to pool its tips by section, but former servers say it contributed to a culture of disparity, in which being assigned to a “good” or a “bad” section could result in a difference of hundreds of dollars in tips. “Every server makes their own money, and the sections are very disparate in how much you’re able to make,” according to one former server. “Who they put into the ‘bad’ sections, that starts to show pretty quickly.”
In interviews with Eater, multiple former employees at the restaurant described a workplace in which managers claimed to dole out sections by seniority, but more often assigned them based on “favoritism,” which they say disadvantaged Black and female employees. “The managers have to like you,” says one former server, who worked at Buddakan from 2014 until March 2020. “There is a lot of favoritism.”
The three Black former Buddakan servers allege that they were disproportionately assigned to the lowest-paying sections within the restaurant, despite their tenures on staff. “I didn’t expect good sections every day,” says one Black server, who worked at Buddakan from 2018 until the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. “I just wanted to be in a fair section. Don’t put me in the terrible section every time.”
One of the former Black servers, who had worked at Buddakan for six years until they were laid off at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, claims they were regularly assigned to lower-paying sections within the restaurant, despite being a senior server. Their colleagues of similar tenure, especially those who were white and male, were not assigned to those sections as often, they allege.
Two former servers working at Buddakan at the time, who are white, corroborated that their Black peers were disproportionately assigned to lower-paying sections at the restaurant.
In a statement to Eater, Starr Restaurants denied the existence of favoritism and inequity in shift assignments at Buddakan. “Like every restaurant, we hope that every table at Buddakan NYC is optimally placed and all sections are perfectly balanced, while we also know that guest requests vary and every restaurant has design challenges,” the statement reads.
“Our goal for our servers is to provide a fair and balanced opportunity for all of them to maximize their earnings at every shift. We mitigate the challenges by rotating our server staff, of course taking into account tenure and experience to allow less experienced staff time to work on their performance and reward senior members with closing sections. We are confident that a policy of fairness was in place, while also maintaining the highest level of experienced performance.”
A source close to Buddakan management said the restaurant had not received any complaints about discrimination in section assignments through human resources or its anonymous tipline. “You can’t fix what you don’t know about,” they said.
Yet former servers allege they faced obstacles to speaking up about issues of insensitivity. They say that Brandon Wergeles, a former general manager at Buddakan, used section assignments to create a “culture of fear” at the restaurant that discouraged employees — especially those who were Black or female — from speaking up about concerns. One of the former Black servers, who alleges they addressed their shift assignments with managers at the restaurant, felt like they had a “bullseye on [their] back” afterward and were assigned to worse sections as a result of speaking up.
Former employees described a workplace in which section assignments, at least for the Black and female servers interviewed by Eater, “rested on how Brandon felt about [them],” according to a female employee, who worked at the restaurant from July 2017 until the start of the pandemic in March 2020. “If you’re not a white male server, and especially if you’re a woman and you try to speak up for yourself, it probably is not going to work well in your favor,” she said.
The senior Black server corroborated their account. “If [Wergeles] had an issue with you, your sections would be influenced,” they say.
Wergeles denied the allegations. In a statement to Eater, he claimed that he did not make section assignments in his roles as general manager and director of operations. “As Director of Operations for Starr Restaurants, I provide management consulting and support for Buddakan NYC, among other restaurants, which involves providing financial analysis, and marketing strategy for the restaurants. In this position and in my earlier position as General Manager of Buddakan NYC, I did not make the day-to-day server section assignments. I am grateful to Buddakan NYC and Starr Restaurants and proud to work for a company that has created a culture of inclusiveness for all its employees.”
All of the former servers interviewed by Eater disputed that characterization of Wergeles’s responsibilities in his role as general manager. Multiple servers described Wergeles as their primary point of contact when discussing scheduling concerns at Buddakan leading up to his departure from the restaurant in 2019. The former senior Black server alleges they raised the issue with Wergeles in a series of conversations, and claims he told them, “I don’t give you bad sections.” Another former server recounted an interaction with Wergeles in which he reportedly used the phrase, “I’ve been giving you better sections.”
Wergeles, who joined Buddakan in June 2016 as part of a management overhaul unrelated to these allegations, left his position as general manager of the restaurant in 2019, according to multiple employees. He was promoted to director of operations at both Buddakan and Morimoto, Starr’s 15-year-old Japanese restaurant that closed in May 2020.
Wergeles was previously named in a 2017 lawsuit against Buddakan, in which a former server alleged managers at the restaurant treated him with “hostility” after learning that he was HIV-positive. Starr Restaurants denied the allegations at the time, and the lawsuit was later settled out of court.
Issues of favoritism and insensitivity are also present at other restaurants in New York City, and for at least one of the former Black servers, the pros of continuing to work at Buddakan — their pay and consistent schedule — outweighed the cons. Yet employee concerns reached a tipping point on August 25, 2019, during a pre-shift meeting in which a manager reportedly distributed a photograph of a Black person beside the text, “Did someone say watermelon?”
In a photograph obtained by Eater, the image appears on a staff handout beside a note encouraging employees to sell more watermelon “sake-rita” cocktails. “Sell the most today and win an entree,” the flyer reads. A former employee present at the time alleges multiple managers were in attendance when the handout was distributed among staff, but none raised any concerns during the meeting.
None of the restaurant’s Black employees were present for the August 25 meeting, and they say they would not have learned about the incident were it not for a staff group chat over text, where several servers shared photos of the handout. Of the five former employees interviewed by Eater, none could recall the incident being addressed at a meeting, over email, or among staff more widely. “It was sweeping it under the rug,” according to one former server.
A source close to management said the termination regarding the handout was addressed at a pre-shift meeting within 48 hours of the incident.
During another staff meeting in winter 2019, a separate general manager reportedly referred to the restaurant’s Black clientele as the “pineapple and Ciroc crowd,” referencing a mixed drink commonly ordered at the restaurant. None of the restaurant’s Black servers were present for the meeting, but a former server who was in attendance claims that managers in the room at the time did not address the comment.
A source close to management said that the manager was terminated and specific employees were spoken to about the incident in a one-on-one setting and thanked management.
Yet once again, former servers say the incident was not addressed among staff more widely. “They did not talk about it at all afterwards,” according to one of the former Black servers, who confirms that he and the other two Black servers working at Buddakan at the time were spoken to in a one-on-one setting. “To us, maybe, but to the rest of the staff, they didn’t.”
All of the former servers interviewed by Eater corroborated their account. “Nothing [was] publicly addressed at all,” another former employee says. “One day he was there and one day he wasn’t. We weren’t even told that he was fired.”
Starr Restaurants confirmed that the incidents occurred but denied the former workers’ characterization of them. “While it is against our policy to comment on individual personnel issues, these accusations and inferences are so abhorrent, we are making an exception,” Starr Restaurants said in a statement to Eater.
“The two specific accusations both resulted in swift action, investigation, and resolution. In the first situation, once the matter was reported to the general manager, the responsible employee was terminated within 24 hours. In the second matter, within 48 hours of the offense being committed and reported, the employee was confronted. An internal investigation was conducted, and the employee was terminated less than a week later.”
Following each of the aforementioned incidents, the Black former servers report they were briefly treated better by the restaurant’s managers, and assigned to higher-paying sections within the restaurant, but they believed it was too little too late. “I feel like something bad has to happen every single time for me to get treated in a similar fashion to the way that you treat other servers here,” one of the former servers says.
Starr Restaurants, restaurateur Stephen Starr’s international hospitality group, operates nearly 40 food businesses in Philadelphia, New York, Washington D.C., Florida, and Paris. Employees believe that, given the company’s extensive reach and resources, it should be among those leading the charge for equity in the workplace, rather than struggling with these alleged issues.
“This is a multimillion dollar restaurant that can afford to treat its employees well, that could afford to hire somebody to do a racial sensitivity training … and chooses not to do any of that.”