Imagine that, like a majority of the Canadian population, you work in the service industry – maybe waiting tables at a local pub. You come in to work one day to find that the phones and heat have been shut off, the floors are unwashed and sticky, the bar is almost barren, and the kitchen is too under-stocked to supply the daily special. You stay and perform your job as best you can, only to hear from the manager at 5 p.m. that you have just worked your last shift; you will not be needed again, as the pub is permanently closing its doors.
This was the experience described by a former employee of Houston’s Pub & Grill in Maple Ridge, which shut down in early January. Not only were most staff reportedly left without any other work, but without several weeks pay as well; they claim that, due to bounced cheques and cheques simply not issued at all, they have been deprived of thousands of dollars in wages. These individuals are holding Cory Wright – owner of both Wright Hospitality Group and the Houston’s franchise – responsible for their predicament. According to Houston’s manager Mark Nieken, some have even been evicted from their homes after being unable to pay rent.
Former staff and their friend Graham Risdale, who is also close to Wright, noted that conditions had been declining at their workplace. They complained of the only partially filled food and beverage orders, the failure to order some televised hockey matches, and the credit and debit machines that had not been working for “over a month,” but said that they were not expecting the establishment to be closed on such short notice.
Nieken recalled one busy night in which he was forced to purchase alcohol with his own funds in order to meet the demand. “There was a major UFC event, the GSP fight, … and we had no draft beer; we had no major products like Budweiser, Canadian, [or] Kokanee; we didn’t have any gin; we didn’t have any vodka… I said, Cory, I can’t even open if we don’t have any alcohol, and… he said: ‘get whatever you need.’ So I went up to the liquor store… and I spent a whole bunch of money on my credit card, and I was reimbursed the money, but it was just kind of ridiculous… It was… about $1200 worth.”
According to Nieken, staff had been having problems receiving payment for weeks before Houston’s finally closed. “[Wright has] apparently said…we’re gonna get paid tomorrow, but the thing is… he’s been doing this since mid-December; he always says: ‘Oh, this Friday, next Friday, next Friday. Oh, I gotta get you the cheque so I gotta get my accountant to do them for me; I gotta get some money transferred into the account.’ It was always a different story, different excuse, and always postponed.”
Shawn Everett, a former employee, said: “I won’t put [Wright’s cheques] in my account ‘cause I can’t afford the bounce fees, but I keep going to the bank and [they say] there’s no funds [in that account]… they know me by face now; they’re like: ‘Hi Shawn, no.’”
No one stepped forward to publicize the issue until Risdale – who did not work at Houston’s – grew frustrated with both the fact that it was not being rectified and that he was beginning to be negatively associated with Wright. He began a Facebook event called “WRIGHT HOSPITALITY GROUP = THEIVES. BOYCOTT REMAINING STORES,” that urged the public to stay away from Wright’s other franchises – Treehouse Bar & Grill and Dewey’s Pub in Port Coquitlam. On the event page, he estimated that Wright still owes over $10,000 in wages to his former employees.
Risdale stated that his effort has quickly generated a large response, and he has received numerous emails offering help and support – some from cities as far away as Kelowna and Peachland. “Probably over a hundred people have gotten a hold of me and have been like: ‘Anything we can do?’ … [Or:] ‘This situation happened with me… [too.]’ There’s… people [that say:] ‘Oh yeah, I fought for six months or eight months with labour relations; I finally got paid, here’s how to do it.’”
Brock Rodgers, of Mission Springs Brewing Company, confirmed that Cory Wright had been renting the building, and that the lease had not been set to expire until October 2011. He stated, “we too did not get paid our rent and NNN costs for January 2011… His cheque bounced, and we gave him notice as required under the agreement – he replied that he could not fulfill his obligations.” They are currently seeking and interviewing new tenants for the building. Rodgers said it was his understanding that Wright is now “negotiating to purchase the Pointe Pub in Port Moody.”
Everett emphasized the importance of publicizing the issue: “People should know not to work for him. He owns other bars, and he’s doing the same thing to other people… he shouldn’t get away with this.”
Wright stated: “Unfortunately I cannot comment on this situation as it is a business matter and has been turned over to our legal team due to the recent events.”
As of February 1, the issue of outstanding payment had not yet been resolved.