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Zen closing in Northampton prompts sidewalk protest

  • Jonah Vorspan-Stein, left, of Northampton prepares Tuesday to gather signatures on a petition outside of Zen restaurant, in Northampton, which closed Monday evening. The UNITE HERE and Pioneer Valley Workers Center volunteer  is joined by Matt Szulborski, center, and Patrick Burke, both with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 in Springfield. —Kevin Gutting

  • Caitlin Dubois of Northampton, with the UNITE HERE union, talks Tuesday with passers-by on Main Street in Northampton in front of Zen restaurant, which closed Monday evening. —Kevin Gutting

  • A banner held by members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 in Springfield is reflected in the windows of Zen restaurant on Tuesday, hours after the Northampton establishment was closed Monday evening. —Kevin Gutting

  • Caitlin Dubois of Northampton, with the UNITE HERE union, talks Tuesday with passers-by on Main Street in Northampton in front of Zen restaurant, which closed Monday night. —Kevin Gutting

  • Northampton Police Officers Rebecca Mazuch, right, and Paul Marguet talk with a group petitioning outside of Zen restaurant on Main Street on Tuesday. The business closed permanently Monday evening. From left are Rose Bookbinder and Gabriella dell Croce of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, Matt Szulborski and Patrick Burke of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 in Springfield and Caitlin DuBois of UNITE HERE. —Kevin Gutting



@cmlindahl
Tuesday, May 24, 2016

NORTHAMPTON – Owners of Zen closed their restaurant Monday, ending a decade at 41 Main St., leaving employees out of work and prompting a sidewalk protest Tuesday afternoon. 

A new restaurant, Oriental Taste, is expected to open in the former Zen space next month by Chenghui Zheng, owner of the Chinese restaurant Oriental Flavor in Amherst, Erik Hong, one of the owners of Zen said when reached by the Gazette. 

Hong said the time had come to close the restaurant, which opened in 2005, in order for the owners to spend more time with their families.

Workers were told Monday that the restaurant was closing at the end of business that night. 

Some of those former employees were provided housing as part of their compensation, Hong said. They will be given the chance to sign a lease and rent the housing now that their employment has ended, Hong said. 

Labor activists took to the sidewalk in front of the business Tuesday to question whether workers were treated fairly. Members of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and representatives of two labor unions – UNITE HERE and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 – displayed a banner and asked passersby to sign two petitions.

One of the petitions endorsed the creation of an ordinance in Northampton calling for the fair payment of wages.

The other petition asked that 16 Zen workers be given their last paychecks, receive severance pay and be guaranteed jobs at the new restaurant. The petition alleges that not all employees received compensation due to them.

Hong denied treating workers improperly, saying that the restaurant followed state and federal wage laws. “I can tell you that we make sure we adhere to the wage standards as established by the state for this industry,” he said in a telephone interview.

The owner of the new restaurant, Chenghui Zheng, could not be reached Tuesday. 

No Zen employees could be reached for comment. Bess Hepner, who worked at Zen and is also an organizer with the workers center, attended the sidewalk protest but declined to be interviewed. Another Zen employee at the scene also declined to comment. 

There was no answer Tuesday at the door of the apartment  at 198 State St. where some of the workers live. Its small front yard served as the parking area for half-a-dozen bikes, while the mailbox for the upstairs apartment featured as many names.

Hong said he welcomed the opportunity to speak with workers and their advocates, but noted that none have come to him or other owners as of Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s crucially important for them to be willing to have a dialogue with the management,” he said.

Rose Bookbinder, coordinator at the workers center, said Zen employees had earlier contacted her to say the restaurant might be closing. 

She said workers noticed that the restaurant was running unusually low on supplies and food. Worker advocates had planned to ask managers Tuesday to explain what was going on. But that turned into the petition-signing outside the restaurant, after news of the closing emerged.

Bookbinder said just under 100 people signed the petition about Zen employees during the 90-minute demonstration. 

Housing issue

The petition also asks that workers who were provided housing as part of their compensation be allowed to stay in their apartment, which is owned by Hong and Yei-Yu and Michelle Sun.

Bookbinder said the approximately six workers who live there were told that they have three days to vacate the property – a claim Hong denies.

Hong said that any effort to remove workers from the property would be done in accordance with the law, but added that those who wished to stay in the apartment would need to ask for a lease agreement.

“Part of their employment package also accounted for housing,” he said. “If they’re looking to transition … they can sign a formal lease agreement.”

One of the petitions circulated Tuesday outside the restaurant alleged that the Monday closing showed “a lack of respect and dignity” for Zen workers.  

Asked whether he thought management had provided adequate notice to employees, Hong said it was a difficult decision. “We took one path, versus another path,” he said.

Hong said that the well-being of employees, the needs of the new buyer and the uncertainty of the process of selling the restaurant were all taken into consideration when deciding when to inform workers about the closing.

City records indicate that the closing has been in the works for some time. Representatives from Zen went before the city License Commission in March to request that the liquor license be transferred to the new Oriental Taste restaurant. 

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.