Ruggles Waitstaff Walks Out Over Allegedly Getting Stiffed on Tips

Categories: Spaced City

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Photo by Ed T.
Ruggles owner and chef Bruce Molzan lost 60 percent of his staff Saturday night.
Saturday night at Ruggles was busy. There were nearly 200 customers packing the restaurant at Westheimer and Montrose, with a skeleton crew of only five waiters out of a normal ten-man crew. And at 7 p.m., all five of those waiters -- as well as Ruggles's general manager -- walked out, closing the restaurant behind them.

"We told the customers there was a gas leak," said Jeremiah Villarreal, 28, a University of Houston sports medicine student who had been a waiter at Ruggles since June.

Villarreal, his GM and his co-workers called the customers who had reservations for the evening to inform them that the restaurant would be closed unexpectedly, hung a sign on the door and left chef and owner Bruce Molzan with an empty restaurant and only four employees. All five waiters and the general manager submitted their resignations that night as well.

Villarreal and his fellow waitstaff allege that Molzan hasn't paid them their tips in nearly a year. Prior to the walk-out, Villarreal and his co-workers filed a claim with the Texas Workforce Commission, claiming that they're owed thousands of dollars in back wages. In a statement to the Chronicle today, Molzan claimed that "he was not in charge of the tip payments, but is working to get checks out as soon as possible."

However, this differs from the statement Molzan made to the Houston Press just last week, when contacted about Villarreal's claims of nonpayment.

"Those are just people that are disgruntled," said Molzan, when contacted by phone. "We are paying people. We are keeping up with stuff. There's not a single person that's owed over $1,000."

This is untrue, says Villarreal: "I have maxed out my credit cards and have used up my entire savings to pay my bills in the meantime."

"I have no more money, and I'm now dealing with late fees and several overdraft fees. I'm worried my utilities will be cut off soon. I'm not the only person in this situation, I'm actually the one on staff who might be suffering the least."

Villarreal says that in the six months he worked for Ruggles, he never once received a standard payroll check. Instead, he alleges, Molzan paid his workers with personal checks -- a claim backed up by Ruggles's general manager, who asked not to be identified by name. And even when the waitstaff received personal checks for the money they were owed, Villarreal says, they were few and far between.

When Villarreal first started waiting tables, it was common for waiters to get a $0 paycheck: Taxes were deducted from the few credit card tips they received, which were paid to them via check every week or two weeks. This is no longer the case, with nearly all tips left via credit card.

"I didn't get my first check for a month and a half," said Villarreal. "And it was only $165." That $165 was far less than the estimated $500 Villarreal claims to get in credit card tips each week, tips he says rarely show up on his paychecks. To date, he has only received $2,200 in six months of waiting tables.

It's increasingly rare for customers to leave cash tips, especially at upscale restaurants such as Ruggles, where a plate of steak Diane is $33. Said Molzan just last week: "Most of our sales are credit card sales," he said. "Maybe 85 percent of our sales are credit cards."

Villarreal estimates it at slightly more: "90 to 95 percent of all tips" are left on credit card receipts at Ruggles, he said. The rare instances in which he received a cash tip, he said, he was forced to hand it over to Molzan at the end of the evening.

"[Molzan's] personal checks didn't show our hourly wages," he said. Neither did the checks show any credit card tips, nor were Social Security taxes deducted from them, Villarreal said. The Texas Minimum Wage Act (Sec. 62.003) requires employers to provide an earnings statement to their employees, including hours worked, rate of pay and total amount of pay for the period.

The situation escalated in recent months, when Molzan repeatedly took trips and flaunted new purchases in front of his employees -- "On Facebook, his wife posts pictures of their extravagant Thanksgiving feast, when several of us couldn't even prepare a feast for Thanksgiving because we haven't been paid," said Villarreal -- despite telling his waitstaff that he was having cashflow issues. The general manager, who had access to Ruggles's bank account records, claims that this is not true, and that Molzan has always had enough money to pay his waitstaff -- but chooses not to.

"He says if he pays us he won't be able to pay the bills at Ruggles and we won't get paid either way," Villarreal told the Press last week, prior to the walk-out. "Management constantly tells us to be patient and not quit."

Molzan told the Press: "I'm a small business guy. I live on cashflow just like everyone else in a bad economy." Last week, Molzan was blaming his cashflow issues on a downed computer system and a slow credit card company.

"Our computers went down a week ago and we're working on getting them back up. My credit cards haven't been going back into the bank," Molzan said. Today, he's blaming the general manager -- even though Villarreal claims that the GM was the only person at Ruggles fighting to get the waitstaff paid.

The excuses have gone on long enough for Villarreal. The waiter, who worked at Bonnie's Beef & Seafood for six years before leaving for Ruggles, compared the two situations: "Bonnie's always made the effort to pay us, even when business was slow."

Villarreal has made an appointment with the Harris County District Attorney's office to file a civil case against Molzan, although he'll have to get in line: Molzan is currently embroiled in several other lawsuits, including two against the owners of Ruggles Green and Ruggles 11th Street Cafe. (Molzan doesn't run those restaurants, but rather licensed his name and recipes to them.)

In the meantime, Villarreal plans to picket the restaurant until he receives all the back wages he and his other waitstaff claim they are owed. "A lot of the servers are too scared to speak up, but I will," Villarreal said. "I'm fed up working for free and not being treated with respect."

Check our food blog for updates on this story.


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22 comments
Jeff B
Jeff B

A server should get 100% of their tips. Fertitta made us pay 5% of our tips to pay the credit card fees. Mandatory tip out should be abolished as well. I don't need to tip the hostess.

Brandon Moeller
Brandon Moeller

I, too, worked waiting tables at the Ruggles at Enron Field for less than a year while in college. I believe at that time Mr. Molzan owned that establishment, his first and pride-and-joy Montrose location, one in the Village (the bakery), 5115 downtown and a cafe-styled Ruggles-branded location at Enron Field that was accessible from street-level. To me, he seemed like a very hands-off owner, hardly ever making an appearance, but when he did, he found plenty to complain about. But he was also cordial; the type of owner who had his photo hanging in the foyer. The food was good but I wasn't really ever impressed by Molzan or the management and if you're not favored, you get stuck in the lousy sections and don't make any money so I quit and went elsewhere. But, it's interesting to hear how apparently his ex got half of his empire in the divorce and how things are going downhill and how his waiters are complaining about getting shorted. Goes to show that dining empires in Houston can fall quicker than they can rise.

Not Surprised
Not Surprised

I worked at the Ruggles that was in the baseball stadium when it first opened...he was a douchebag then. Ssome things never change.

Aydenrcas
Aydenrcas

I worked at Ruggles for a few years and even helped open Grille 5115, back when owned it. He was a jerk back then not only to the staff but also to his wife who he berated in front of the staff and had affairs right in front of us, he is a disgusting person. I'm glad his now x-wife decided to leave him. He was never one with morals, I only hope his children turn out better.

CoasterQueer
CoasterQueer

Bruce did in fact have an affair with one of the hostesses, but dont assume that Susan didnt get back at him. Rumors abound that she in turn was shacking up with one of his former managers.  I feel bad for the kids (legitimate and illegitimate)!!

mollusk
mollusk

I drove past 11th Street Cafe today, and noticed that the "Ruggles" portions of the signs were covered with brown paper.

Dale M
Dale M

Man, I wish Marvin Zindler was still around to fix this!!

Bill Stevens
Bill Stevens

Cant believe anyone is surprised by this story. For more than 2 decades Bruce has been a blight to the restaurant business in Houston. When I worked for him our checks were never on time and extremely difficult to cash. I had to find a check cashing place that would accept ruggles checks without laughing at me.(Im not exaggerating) He is a known Coke Head, and if he denies it he is also liar. I own the place but i dont handle the tips????? bull shit he is handling plenty of tips. Plus i believe there was a teen hostess he knocked up. I personally saw him scream at a hunch backed lady for crossing the street at Richmond and Montrose causing him to rear end the car in front of him. He got out and told her she needed to cross the street faster or stay of the f ing road. He took pictures of her and made her cry before i walked out of the speedy stop that was there at the time and told him to f off and leave her alone. I only worked for Bruce for about a month and these are my stories. Find more ruggles employees and you will find more stories

VollStadt
VollStadt

Molzan is an egalitarian: he pays none of his bills, whether they are owed to small-guy real persons or the larger (Mit Romney defined) persons like Sysco.

Got like that kinda consistency!

Moe Ramsey
Moe Ramsey

Get 'm! Fight the powah! Get ur monies!

J. Britt Alexander
J. Britt Alexander

... didn't he just buy 11th street cafe in the heights ?  and put in a new RugglesGreen in CityCentre?  and move // renovate the old Cafe Moustache ?  He can't be hurtin for cash.  

.... I'm sure thee are two sides to every story - and then there is the truth -  

Mn3527
Mn3527

He doesn't have anything to with Ruggles Green... he got voted out as president by his partners for stealing money and putting it into Ruggles Grill. As for the Heights location there is a lawsuit pending because Bruce tried to steal from them to. His wife went in there almost everynight got 100$ worth of food and would walk out without paying.

Megan
Megan

Ruggles Green and 11th Street Cafe are not owned or run by Molzan.  The names are licensed.  Ruggles Cafe and Bakery in Rice Village is wholly-owned and operated by his ex-wife Susan.

J. Britt Alexander
J. Britt Alexander

... what is the curse on Montrose Icons of the 80's turning all to sh!t ?  - First the stale and dusty Charles Armstrong empire - The burning of LaStrada , - Numbers is a neglected timbershack dreading the next big wind storm ( or termite ) and now Bruce tainting the reputation of his exceptional restaurant -  Ruggles should go down as Iconic Houston - not a side street shady shack.  

Native Houstonian 1974
Native Houstonian 1974

Bruce Molzan has ALWAYS been a WORLD CLASS SHIT!!!!!!!! I ate there once in 1997 and was not impressed, I have no desire to return there ever.

drod
drod

He better have lots of relatives to run it or better yet just close the doors.

Rmiller
Rmiller

I would say Mr. Molzan troubles will promptly continue.  Last time I was there I dropped nearly a hundred bucks on a so-so meal--and left $20 of that for tips.  To hear that the boss pocketed the tips and failed to pay the staff is just incredible.  I'll never frequent a place that is associated  in any way with that guy.

Mr. Blonde
Mr. Blonde

I shan't eat at Ruggles et al again over the owner's abuse of the employees.

redneck
redneck

What a cheap bastard

Northsider
Northsider

Unbelievable to me that the staff hung around for as long as they did, the job market in Houston is not that bad.

When will America wake up and join the rest of the free world on this subject and require restaurant owners to pay waitstaff and bar staff a proper wage and do away with the tipping structure all together?  The system essentially requires that patrons pay the wages for the staff not the owner, and even if service is sub par a decent human being will still shell out 15%-20% because you know that is just how it works, but why?

sbterry
sbterry

I quit going to Ruggles long before they closed with Ike damages.  There was always a sense of "snobbery" there.  No reserversations, or when they did, you still were told there would be an hour + wait only to have a Houston "socialite" walk in and be taken DIRECTLY to a table while you continued to wait.  The food was good, but not that good and now with so many other choices, Ruggles doesn't even make my top 30!  I say all this to say -- sorry for these employees, but I'm not surprised.

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