Sacramento’s nightmare kitchen: Employees say they got stiffed when troubled Midtown bar suddenly closed

Ousted celebrity chef Carina Lampkin pitched a reality show before departing for Vietnam

Former Bar Rouse bartender Stephen Clark says he and his co-workers are still owed their last month’s wages following the Midtown business’ sudden closure in September.

Former Bar Rouse bartender Stephen Clark says he and his co-workers are still owed their last month’s wages following the Midtown business’ sudden closure in September.

Photo by Jon Hermison

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the November 9, 2017, issue.

Multiple employees say they are still awaiting final paychecks more than a month after the sudden closure of Bar Rouse, a cursed Midtown hotspot that has churned through owners, names and a pseudo-celebrity chef who was last seen in the mountains of Vietnam.

Owner Adrian Watson said he was evicted from the property on September 20, shortly after buying out his co-owner, Carina Lampkin, a local chef with reality TV aspirations.

Watson owes 21 employees wages that total more than $20,000, said former front-of-house manager Jenn Schaaf, who provided payroll records to SN&R showing what each employee earned during the last month the bar was open.

Schaaf says her management role meant she was in charge of keeping track of staff earnings at Bar Rouse. While Watson declined to authenticate the payroll records, four other Bar Rouse employees said they were owed what the records showed.

The time cards show Schaaf earned more than $2,000 for the hours she worked September 1 to September 20, an amount she says she has never been paid.

Her ex-coworkers made similar claims, telling SN&R they were owed thousands of dollars for work they performed during the bar’s final weeks. Some said they were now scraping by.

“I literally have $2 to my name,” said Justin Richards, the former executive chef, whose time cards show he earned over $1,300. “I have had to borrow $200 from friends to survive.”

“A lot of us live paycheck to paycheck, which is the nature of the service industry,” added former bartender Stephen Clark, who says he is also owed over $1,300. “Everyone is scrambling for a job. We will pull out of this, but it’s wrong to fuck up [21] lives. For some, it means them being homeless. [They’re] one paycheck away from the curb.”

Reached by phone on October 19, Watson told SN&R that he’d mailed the final paychecks to his employees, but declined to provide evidence.

On Tuesday, Clark said he and his former co-workers had yet to receive “a single red cent.”

Watson’s alleged failure to pay his employees comprises another chapter for one of the most troubled restaurants in Sacramento.

Previously named Blackbird Kitchen & Bar, the high-profile business venture closed in similar, sudden fashion in October 2013. Then-owner John Thacker apparently paid the fired employees wages before the restaurant reopened with much of the same staff under Demetri Gregorakis in January 2014. But then, in May of the same year, a pipe burst and ruined the restaurant’s interior.

After Lampkin reopened Blackbird in late 2015, the onetime executive chef and co-owner disagreed with her partners over the business’ direction and split for Oak Park Brewing Co. in 2016. A few months later, she bought out the previous owners, partnered solely with Watson, and rechristened the restaurant Bar Rouse as an attempt at a fresh start. Watson said he originally came in as an investor with an 8 percent stake that expanded to full ownership by the time of the eviction.

He said he and Lampkin both “put over $200,000 into the building,” from which he was evicted after he purchased Lampkin’s shares. He said his buyout of Lampkin violated a stipulation in Bar Rouse’s lease that no more than 25 percent of ownership could be transferred. Watson said he is contesting the eviction in court.

Lampkin declined to comment beyond saying that she has “moved on” from Bar Rouse and is now cooking in Vietnam. On October 22, she posted a photo to her Facebook page at a yoga resort and training center in the country’s mountains.

The mohawked chef, who has competed on “Kitchen Inferno” and “Cutthroat Kitchen,” and is the granddaughter of the founder of USA Today, hasn’t always been so press shy.

Shortly before launching Bar Rouse, Lampkin recorded a promotional video pitching a reality show called “Raw Talent,” starring herself. The video, shot in front of the state Capitol, opens with a sepia close-up on Lampkin blowing a dandelion and cuts to a wide shot of her introducing Sacramento, Calif., with a karate chop to her crotch.

Saying she wants to show “how food is the medium of life,” Lampkin attempts to sell a travelogue where she traces local ingredients back to the farms they came from and stages pop-up restaurants outside of farmers markets.

“Sacramento is the farm-to-fork capital of the nation, so we could start here in my hometown,” she tells the camera. Referring to the name of her show, “Raw Talent,” Lampkin adds, “Because that’s what I am. I am raw talent and you fucking want me.”

In the two-and-a-half-minute clip, Lampkin also says she is the owner of three businesses—Blackbird, Oak Park Brewing Co. and the soon-to-open Bar Rouse, which technically replaced Blackbird.

“I manage $2 million a year. I manage 50 people. And I still manage to put on my chef coat and pour my love into every plate, every night,” Lampkin boasts in the video. “Blackbird was about death and Bar Rouse is about life. And it’s the story of my life.”

By all accounts, the story was short-lived.

Ex-staffers say Watson pushed Lampkin out after she repeatedly acted unprofessionally. In a brief phone interview with SN&R, Watson didn’t answer why he bought Lampkin out of the business.

During his tenure as owner, former employees say Watson was difficult to reach and almost never visited the restaurant, leaving them to run it in his absence. They said Watson’s most hazardous demand was keeping the restaurant open until 4 a.m., often without a security guard.

“If you are serving food after 2 [a.m.], and you get the nightclub crowd, you are going to get treated like shit,” said Logan Hesse, a former bartender. “People who are wasted, coming in and wanting as much as possible while paying as little as possible.”

Former bartender Clark said that he and one chef were routinely the only employees working those twilight shifts. One summer night, on July 2, Clark said the low staffing ratio and lack of security resulted in “the worst bar fight I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“There was like six dudes beating the shit out of two people with barstools,” he said. “They actually grabbed candle holders and smashed them and were stabbing the dudes with candle holders. That ruined me.”

Police Department records show officers responded to a felony assault at Bar Rouse’s address at 2:24 a.m. on July 2.

Leaving work at dawn, Clark said he slept until 4 p.m. the next day, missing a shift that he had promised to cover for a co-worker. Watson informed him that he’d been fired. Clark protested.

“I had an emotional breakdown and just turned my phone on,” he wrote in a text message exchange he shared with SN&R. “I was at the bar cleaning up blood and teeth until 6am.”

“I have heard all about it Stephen,” Watson texted back. “The circumstances are extenuating.”

Clark said he had panic attacks and “crazy anxiety” through the rest of July. But he returned for his next shift and continued working until the bar’s closure. Watson either didn’t notice or mind.

During a brief phone interview, Watson said he mailed his employees their final checks, but didn’t confirm their addresses beforehand.

“I’m not going to go personally to each one of their houses and deliver a check or call them up and say, ’What’s your new address? Let me walk over there,’” Watson said. “That’s not something that I’m responsible to do or going to do.”

Actually, he is, according to the California Labor Commissioner’s Office.

Labor spokesman Frank Polizzi said that in a case like Bar Rouse’s, employers must guarantee that employees are paid at the time of termination. When a restaurant closes, Polizzi said, an employer owes his employees their final wages on their final day. For every day that an employer doesn’t pay up, another day’s wages are added to that total for up to 30 days, a time period former employees say has already elapsed.

To ensure that employees get what they’re owed, the Labor Commissioner’s Office has the power to put liens on private bank accounts or other businesses owned by the employer, Polizzi explained.

“A lot of these scofflaw employers pretty much exhaust every method possible to avoid payment,” Polizzi said.

Roughly 35,000 people file wage claims against their employers every year in California, Polizzi said.

To make a claim, employees first file with their local branch of the Labor Commissioner’s Office. Then a deputy labor commissioner evaluates their claims to determine what is actually owed before mediating a settlement conference between the employee and employer. If no settlement can be reached, the case moves to a hearing, wherein the deputy issues an order decision or award.

If the employer refuses to pay that, then the employee can ask the Labor Commissioner’s Office to provide a pro bono attorney, a feature aided by the recently passed Private Attorneys General Act.

Polizzi stressed that if a valid wage claim case was brought forth, the Labor Commissioner’s Office is empowered to get employees the money they’re owed, although it may take a few months.

“[Watson] is betting on the fact that it is going to be too much time and effort for us to try and collect it,” said Hesse, whose time cards show he earned more than $1,500 at the time Bar Rouse shut down. “He is not hurting. He has the luxury of time. I had to file for unemployment and that does not feel good. I like to work. It’s just another example of a rich guy taking advantage of the poor guys.”

Watson insists that he doesn’t owe his ex-staffers anything.

“I’ve dealt with employees in the past who have banded together to make a claim and, in the end, you’re vindicated,” he said. “If a bunch of employees are disgruntled, or feel like they’re owed tips or something like that, then they can contact you and say that it’s true. It doesn’t make it true.”

Watson also said that he’s fighting legal battles on two other fronts. He’s disputing his eviction by the landlords of the Bar Rouse property. Meanwhile, his construction and real estate development company, Vector, is currently in arbitration over a dispute with Sactown Union Brewing Co., which claimed Watson failed to live up to his contractual obligations during a remodel, damaged property and broke into their building after another contractor was hired, according to Sacramento County court records.

After he was asked for proof that he paid his employees, Watson referred further questions to his attorney, who didn’t respond to SN&R’s request for comment.