Chloë Monsen started working at Cultivar — the now-shuttered restaurant opened by chef Mary Dumont and Emily French-Dumont at the Ames Boston Hotel — in May 2018, primarily as a server but occasionally taking on bartender shifts. Monsen said that, this past December, she and other employees regularly began experiencing issues with their paychecks.
“Eventually people stopped showing up,” she said. “People quit.”
As a critically acclaimed restaurant that seemed to be thriving in downtown Boston, Cultivar’s Jan. 9 closure after a year and a half of business came as a shock. But in interviews, Monsen and three other former front-of-house Cultivar employees — whom Boston.com granted anonymity due to their fears of speaking publicly while looking for new jobs in the industry — described paychecks that have bounced, were unable to be processed, or have not been distributed for two or three pay periods since mid-December.
In a statement to Boston.com, Dumont faulted Cultivar’s closure on an issue prompted by the restaurant’s liquor license renewal that she said became too costly to continue the restaurant’s operations. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office said the Fair Labor Division had received 21 complaints related to Cultivar as of Tuesday, Jan. 29.
“WE KNEW THERE WAS A CHANCE THAT THEY MIGHT BOUNCE”
The four former employees said that their Dec. 14 checks bounced, though some of the checks were paid within the next few days. One former employee who worked at Cultivar for almost a year said that, while her check was eventually paid, her bounced check fee was not. On the following payday, Dec. 28, the former employees said the checks never came in.
“They said they were working…to fix the situation,” Monsen said. “They told us we could come in on Wednesday [Jan. 2] to pick up our checks and that they would be in by then.”
When Monsen arrived at the restaurant for her check, they hadn’t been delivered yet, she said, and she was told that she and everyone else who was waiting should come back in a few hours to collect them. The checks never came in that day.
“Eventually on Monday [Jan. 7], I was allowed to pick up my check, but I was told by a manager that I could not cash it or deposit it because there was no money in the account,” she said.
Monsen said she still hasn’t been able to deposit that check. Other employees who tried to deposit their Dec. 28 checks also were unable to do so.
“A bunch of us had gone to the bank immediately and went to go cash and deposit the checks,” said a former server who started working at Cultivar at the beginning of September. “We knew we had been having trouble with our paychecks, so we knew there was a chance that they might bounce. The banks said they couldn’t even cash them, they couldn’t even deposit the checks.”
Checks for the following two pay periods, meant to be paid on Jan. 11 and Jan. 25, were never distributed, according to all four of the former employees.
In response to the missed wages, numerous employees have filed complaints with the Massachusetts attorney general’s Fair Labor Division, according to the spokeswoman. Beyond the 21 individual complaints, the Fair Labor Division has received a request for a private right of action from an attorney representing several of Cultivar’s former employees.
“FEES THAT WE COULD NOT OVERCOME”
Dumont said Cultivar’s financial problems first came to her attention when the restaurant went to renew its liquor license this past fall. In a statement Thursday to Boston.com, Dumont began:
“In early January we were faced with having to close our beloved restaurant, Cultivar. In late November, we encountered a liquor licensing renewal issue that became incredibly expensive to address. A portion of the paperwork in the hotel’s name had been overlooked by the Commission and we did not have time to resolve the issue before the deadline. All restaurants struggle to maintain tight margins, and the resolution of the liquor license depleted all our cash reserves. We immediately were transparent with our partners and also the Ames Boston Hotel seeking financial assistance to overcome this bump in the road. We were confident that it could be resolved because on every other mark, Cultivar was successful. We exhausted every possible avenue available to us, but were not able to come up with the funds leaving us with no other option but to close.”
When asked for clarification on what portion of the paperwork had been overlooked, Dumont said via email that when she went to renew the restaurant’s liquor license, she found that a certificate of inspection was registered to “a construction representative for the hotel.” She said the invoice had been mailed to that person for the past two years.
Dumont said she paid the outstanding fees and registered the certificate of inspection in Cultivar’s name, but that the process “pushed us past the renewal deadline forcing us to apply for a brand new liquor license. This caused the exceptional costs resulting in emergency filings and fees that we could not overcome.”
Cultivar held an innholder’s license for the Ames Boston Hotel. Massachusetts restaurants may apply for an innholder’s license at hotels so they’re able to serve alcohol to the rooms onsite as well. A city official said that holders of a Section 12 Innholder All-Alcoholic Beverages License, the type of liquor license that Cultivar had, are required to renew their license on the last business day in November of each year. The official said that, despite reaching out to Cultivar to make the owners aware of the upcoming deadline, a representative did not come to the licensing board to renew the license until Dec. 3. In addition, the official stated that Cultivar had not completed or paid for the necessary inspections by Inspectional Services for the restaurant and hotel space.
Boston’s Inspectional Services Department does not retain copies of mailed invoices, so Boston.com was unable to confirm where Cultivar’s invoices had been mailed. Sylvia Rivera, the department’s chief billing and administration clerk, said a note had been made in the department’s system to change the name of the LLC for the invoice on Jan. 9, 2019.
Lisa Timberlake, director of publicity for the department, reaffirmed that the certification is due every year at the same time.
“We do send out notifications, reminders,” she said. “The onus is on the manager and/or owner of the licensed establishment to ensure that all their paperwork is up-to-date, that licenses, certification, and permits are up-to-date.”
A representative for the Ames Boston Hotel declined to comment on Cultivar’s financial situation.
“I NEVER IMAGINED MYSELF WALKING DOGS FOR MONEY AT 26”
Cultivar was a pooled tips establishment, with all wages and tips distributed through employees’ paychecks.
The four former employees said they each are currently owed more than $2,000 in wages and tips. Since first experiencing payment issues, three said they contacted Dumont and French-Dumont multiple times and asked about when they could expect payment and where their tips had gone. They said their inquiries went unanswered. As of Jan. 28, the last official communication about their pay came in a staff email sent on Jan. 14, they said.
“Many of you have reached out regarding your outstanding pay,” read the email, signed by both Dumont and French-Dumont. “Please know that we hear your anger, fear, and desperation. We are in the same position. As we work with our legal team and partners to wind down the business, our primary objective is to address the outstanding payroll. Because it is in the hands of legal, we regret that we do not have a definitive time frame right now. We will share updates with you as they become known to us.”
The email continued: “While some things are outside our control right now, one thing that is within our control is assisting you in finding new employment and filing for unemployment benefits. We have been working diligently to identify open positions in Boston. We will work with you directly to assist you as we find opportunities and will respond to reference requests promptly. We will also promptly process all unemployment benefit requests.”
That was echoed in Dumont’s statement last week:
“Cultivar was a special place, staffed by wonderful people who were like family to us. The closing of Cultivar has deeply affected many lives. Most importantly, the lives of our staff who we considered our family. We have been distraught that there have been delays in our staff’s wages being distributed to them in a timely fashion. Since closing we have been communicating to our staff via email informing all of them of any progress that we know of. We have worked diligently to bring all parties and legal counsel together to resolve this, and believe that an arrangement for Cultivar to pay the staff is imminent. We also have tried to assist our employees in finding employment by linking them with recruiters, directly connecting them to open positions we learn of, assisting in timely unemployment claims, and finding new health insurance where needed.
“Again, we are heartbroken that this has affected our loyal, hardworking staff and are incredibly sad that such a beautiful place that we poured our heart and soul into is no longer.”
The former employees said that neither Dumont nor French-Dumont have personally contacted them about employment assistance. One former server who joined in November and has worked in the service industry for 10 years said he’s embarrassed to tell future employers that he worked at the restaurant.
While Monsen said she has interviewed at a number of restaurants since Cultivar closed, she hasn’t been able to secure a new job in the industry.
“It’s the slow season in Boston right now, and a lot of restaurants aren’t busy, and a lot of restaurants aren’t hiring,” Monsen said. “I ended up finding a job walking dogs in the morning. I’m 26 years old. I never imagined myself walking dogs for money at 26.”
Monsen said that she had to borrow money to pay for her rent in January, and that she doesn’t know what she’s going to do next month.
“My landlord is threatening to evict me now,” she said.