Employees of former Ann Arbor Big Boys say closings were devastating
Jesse Garrett wonders how Tom, a regular at the Zeeb Road Big Boy, is faring since the restaurant closed in August.
Mary Rossettie is still looking for another job.
Candie Morgel is moving to Tennessee.
And Cassie Finnis looks back with anger, but is thankful she persuaded another Big Boy owner to hire her as a waitress.
They’re among the estimated 75 workers, both full- and part-time, who lost their jobs this summer when the two Big Boys were shut down within a month.
They describe the experience as devastating.
“I think it’s horrendous that all of these people got put out of work,” Garrett said.
She and other former employees gathered recently to compare their experiences and raise questions about why owners Sam and Nabil Berry wouldn’t disclose their pending evictions - leaving dozens of workers scrambling to find new jobs and replace suddenly lost income.
“They had no regard for anyone but themselves. You don’t just stop paying your bills and let people who depend on you (think things are fine),” Finnis said. “It wasn’t just them affected.”
Sam Berry didn’t return a call seeking comment for this story. But the Big Boy closings continue to play out in court, where documents show claims of unpaid royalty fees, unpaid rent and unpaid bank loans. And in those documents, the Berrys claim they were mistreated by Big Boy Inc. due to their Middle Eastern heritage.
There were signs of trouble starting in the spring at the Lohr store, located near Ann Arbor-Saline Road and I-94, said long-time manager Janiga.
“I was there where they were served (eviction) papers, but they kept saying everything was going to be OK,” Janiga said.
The store didn’t open on July 22, when police and the building’s owner formalized the eviction as employees showed up for work at 6 a.m.
At the Zeeb store, just north of I-94 - where an eviction notice was posted, but ignored by some staff and customers - business continued as usual until Aug. 9. That day, the store closed an hour early as trucks of people descended upon the store. Employees - some who had asked point-blank that day if they should come to work on Monday - were told the crews were there for cleaning.
“They said no, everything was fine here,” said Michelle Beckett of Chelsea, a manager.
By next morning, the restaurant “had been ransacked,” according to the building owner, with all fixtures - including the rooftop air conditioner - removed. And customers were calling employees to find out what was going on.
The employees are still sorting out the signs of trouble at the restaurants. But their priority since the closings has been searching for new jobs in a difficult economy. Initial attempts to file for unemployment raised questions about whether unemployment taxes had been paid.
Many former employees asked for jobs at other Big Boys in the area, where some have been hired.
“Nobody had any room - nobody was hiring,” Finnis said.
But she describes herself as fortunate - especially since she just bought a house after a difficult maternity leave - to land a job at the Plymouth Road store.
Employees also had to track down their outstanding pay by traveling in a group to the Berrys’ new restaurant, the Rams Horn, in Ypsilanti Township; many had to go to the Taylor area for the money. None would take a check as payment, they said, noting some checks bounced in recent months.
As they look back, they see the red flags - questions from staff and signs of stress in Sam Berry that prompted concern from regular customers.
Beckett, who’d worked at both restaurants, said many employees had been at the Big Boys for years. She joined the others in saying the workplace felt like a family.
That adds to the difficulty: They say they would have been willing to try to understand and help the Berrys deal with the situation.
“If they had just called and said, ‘This is what’s going on .,” Garrett said.
“It’s not like they were oblivious to the situation,” Finnis added.
Court files show payment default notices went out in December, when the Berrys owed Big Boy Inc. $33,733. Another went out in May for $18,466.
The lawsuits are moving forward. Recent entries in the court files show Judge Donald Shelton denied a motion for arbitration on Aug. 19. The cases head to trial in June 2010 if no resolution is reached.
Meanwhile, the owners of both buildings are seeking new tenants.
Jerry Helmer, owner of the Zeeb store, is negotiating with Big Boy officials and considering options for the missing equipment and unpaid water bills.
“We have to have it open again under Big Boy corporate (management),” he said.
Vijay Sahore of Rochester Hills, owner of the Lohr restaurant, said he has the property listed and hopes to have a deal finalized this fall.
Berry, speaking to Ann Arbor.com for an Aug. 7 story on the Lohr closing, offered an apology to customers who were surprised by the closing. He also assured them the store would quickly reopen.
"I am so sorry that this had to happen like this ... If I was closing my doors, I’d let everyone know (ahead of time)."
His former employees find that ironic.
“I think their pride was hurt more than anything else,” Janiga said. “ They knew about that Zeeb Road store for a long time.
"When you don’t pay the mortgage, you know you’re not going to have a store.”
Photo: Debbie Janiga and Mary Rossettie are among about 75 people who lost their jobs when two Ann Arbor Big Boy restaurants closed this summer. Photo by Lon Horwedel.