February 26, 2010

It's not just the fox urine that stinks

— We can only assume that when Portland's fledgling Restaurant Opportunities Center of Maine holds its first ''summit'' next month, it will be high on the agenda: ''Fox Urine: The Untold Story.''

It happened Sunday night outside The Front Room on Munjoy Hill, where protesters from so-called ROC-ME gathered for the second time in as many months to demonstrate against owner and chef Harding Lee Smith.

According to Portland police, Jome Murphy, 36, emerged from his apartment above the restaurant armed with a spray bottle containing fox urine -- commonly used as a rodent repellent -- and proceeded to zap six protesters and one police officer with the anything-but-savory solution.

Murphy, a self-employed contractor who sometimes does work for Smith, now faces seven assault charges (and a lifetime of backwoods humor).

It was the latest episode in a drama that gets more public -- not to mention puzzling -- with each passing week. And the more you peel away at it, the more you've got to wonder exactly what these young zealots in their black T-shirts are so worked up about.

To recap:

Back on Nov. 19, about two dozen protesters from ROC-ME, a local spinoff of a New York City-based organization that advocates for restaurant workers' rights, crowded into the lobby of The Grille Room on Exchange Street, which Smith also owns and operates, along with The Corner Room, a block away.

While one of them stood on the waiting-area bench with a video camera rolling, another read a ''demand letter'' to Smith, alleging that he's committed a litany of abuses against his workers and giving him a week and a half to make it right. And, oh yes, he owed them $160,000.

Two weeks later, the demonstrators were back -- this time in front of The Front Room on Congress Street.

That incident quickly descended into a war of words between a handful of protesters who work for Smith and some on-duty employees who were angry at their co-workers for raising such a ruckus.

Inside, confused diners supped on their cedar-planked salmon and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Then, on Jan. 6, six current and former workers from The Front Room filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland alleging that Smith had failed to pay them overtime, illegally forced them to share tips and engaged in other accounting skulduggery too convoluted to explain in this limited space.

Two days later, a group of 22 employees from Smith's three restaurants signed a letter saying they're more than happy with their workplace, thank you very much, and were mystified as to why ROC-ME, with the help of a few co-workers, had chosen Smith as the poster boy for all that is wrong in the local restaurant industry.

And now, inevitably, the conflict has escalated (or devolved) into alleged assault with a dangerous animal urine.

In an interview last week, before things got truly stinky, Smith maintained that he's the victim of an outside unionizing effort -- and a thinly veiled one at that.

''We have many, many happy employees,'' Smith said. ''We feel like we provide a pretty good place to work.''

You be the judge.

For starters, all of Smith's 105 employees -- full-time or part-time, doesn't matter -- are entitled, after 90 days on the job, to health insurance, dental insurance and group life insurance. The total employee premium: $212 per month.

''It's very unusual for small restaurants,'' said Smith, explaining that the rapid expansion of his work force -- from one to three restaurants in the past two years -- has enabled him to score the generous benefits package at an annual cost of just over $2,500 for each employee.

We should all be so oppressed. As Richard Grotton, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association, put it Monday, Smith's benefits package ''far exceeds what is the norm for our industry.''

But wait, there's more: If you work for Smith for two years, you're eligible for a fully vested 403(b) retirement plan. Sock away any amount, no matter how small, and he'll kick in 3 percent of your annual salary.

Goodbye ''Grapes of Wrath.'' Hello ''Standard & Poor's Guide to Saving for Retirement.''

''Just because someone gives benefits and (retirement plans) and health plans and dental plans doesn't mean it's a good workplace,'' countered Steve Emmons, an organizer and spokesman for ROC-ME. ''Just because you have benefits doesn't mean you feel safe or you're getting proper pay.''

Emmons, 29, insisted that his group is not trying to unionize anyone. The protests against Smith, he said, are based on ''a model that has worked in other 'workplace injustices' that our organization has done in the past in other cities.''

It works like this, Emmons said: A group of local folk decide to start a ROC chapter. They then undertake a survey of 500 workers and owners to take the pulse of the local restaurant scene. Based on the survey results, they decide how, when and where to make their presence known.

And how do they find people to survey?

''I wasn't there for that,'' said Emmons, who joined ROC-ME only few months ago. ''But from what my co-workers tell me, they go in and have dinner at these places and try to talk to the workers who work there and say, 'Hey we'd really like to talk with you.' And then try to talk with them outside of their work and set up times to do that.''

All of which raises a rather obvious question: If ROC-ME is on the lookout for restaurant workers with a beef, where was it last summer when nine ex-employees of the Super Great Wall Buffet in South Portland filed their own federal lawsuit against their former employer?

The workers, all Chinese immigrants, claimed in the lawsuit that the restaurant owners, Ren Qi Chen and his wife, Siow Wooi Chang, collected kickbacks from the workers in exchange for their jobs.

Also, the workers alleged, the housing they were promised when they came to Maine included an overcrowded basement with no windows, a single outlet for a hot plate and conditions that were ''at times squalid.''

So why no pickets, no videotaped manifestos, no public demonstrations whatsoever against the Super Great Wall Buffet by ROC-ME, which has been up and running in Portland since 2008?

''I think (the Super Great Wall Buffet) was already being taken care of by other folks,'' replied Emmons.

And why exactly are they now targeting Smith?

''We found from the (survey) a group of folks we thought would be really strong leaders on this,'' Emmons said. ''So we kind of laid the label on that place as the place we wanted to focus our campaign on.''

What's more, Emmons said, ''There is a hostile work environment. If you talk (about Smith) to other restaurant owners in town and talk to other folks in town a character will develop.''

He's talking about Smith's penchant, to which Smith freely admits, for getting a little testy at times. It's proof, Emmons said, that ''there's a really dark side to what's happening at all of the 'Rooms.'''

To which Smith responded, ''I definitely know that I have a fiery side -- that's one of the things that makes me successful at what I do. In the kitchen, we work very had and I am somewhat of a perfectionist at making things right . Sometimes your frustrations get the better of you, and I definitely have lost my temper now and again.''

That said, he added, ''you do your job, it's a great place to work.''

Emmons said the 22 workers who signed the recent letter of support for Smith apparently ''didn't want to rock the boat'' because ''folks up there do make a good chunk of money.''

Hmmm so they have great benefits, make ''a good chunk of money'' and still need to be saved from what? A chef with a temper?

''We're letting him know that there is a community bearing witness to this,'' Emmons said.

(Not to be confused with the community that routinely raves about Smith's skillet cornbread and pan-fried mozzarella.)

Barring any more street theater, we'll next hear from ROC-ME on Feb. 9, when the group holds its first ''restaurant summit'' in South Portland.

Emmons said it will release the results of ROC-ME's survey and put a positive spotlight on local eateries that do it right. The kind of place where the owners are magnanimous, the employees are blissfully content and the diners (remember them?) can enjoy a good meal in peace.

And, last but not least, nobody's packing fox urine.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

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