Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, February 9, 2005
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The continents of Planet Zolon: Sundance Square’s Zoë, Zolon, and Angeluna restaurants.(Photo by Scott Latham)
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Erratic Orbit

Workers report some wobbles at Planet Zolon.

By BRIAN ABRAMS

There’s no doubt that Zolon Wilkins III has upped the hip quotient of downtown Fort Worth. His three restaurants — Zolon, Zoë, and Angeluna — offer relatively innovative entrées amid contemporary décor. The trio is a “big part of the [downtown] restaurant lineup, giving another flavor to Sundance,” Sundance Square Management spokeswoman Tracy Gilmore said.
Though the trio, collectively, are Wilkins’ first effort at running restaurants, he has training and experience in the culinary arts. The Dallas native attended chef school at the prominent Johnson and Wales campus in Rhode Island and served an apprenticeship at New York’s famed Rainbow Room. After that, he got into the hotel business as vice president of development and operations for his family-owned Lexington Services and was promoted to president in 1999. In May 2003, he stepped down from that post and, with financial backing from his father, opened Zolon, the wood-burning grill in the new Bank One building.
The following October, Wilkins opened Zoë right around the corner, specializing in Italian cuisine. Then in March 2004, after a deal fell through to take over the Fort Worth Chop House, Wilkins acquired Angeluna, the five-year-old Mediterranean-food favorite just a few blocks over.
Despite his restaurants’ popularity, Wilkins himself is not so popular among another group — the large and growing number of former waitstaffers, managers, bartenders, and chefs who have been fired from or voluntarily left his “Planet Zolon” mini-empire over the last year.
More than a half-dozen of those ex-workers told Fort Worth Weekly that weeks (and in some cases months) after they left, they still had not received their final checks. Former bartenders and waitstaffers said that, even while they were still employed, they often had to wait days, sometimes more than a week, to receive tip money owed them from patrons who paid with credit cards. Tip money, of course, makes up the lion’s share of income for many restaurant workers, whose base hourly pay rate ($2.13) is far below minimum wage — specifically because their tip income is figured in.
Wilkins denied having any payroll problems at his restaurants. “I have never missed a payroll,” he said. “Maybe one individual or, from time to time, maybe two individuals” have received tip money or paychecks late, he said. “If anything is done ... wrong, it’s corrected immediately. We do not mess people around.”
Many restaurant managers pay workers their credit card tips at the end of each night. Others have a system for distributing that tip money through a weekly or biweekly payroll. At Planet Zolon, the former workers said, there was no such payroll system to explain — or regularize — the delayed tip payouts for tickets tendered by credit card. “We weren’t set up for that,” said former Angeluna headwaiter Jeff Mayfield. “Sometimes we wouldn’t get tipped out for a whole week. Managers would cash their own paychecks just to tip everybody out. That happened several times. [One time] I had to go all the way down to see Zolon himself to tell him to give me my money, and he wouldn’t talk to me.”
Wilkins said that a weekly pay procedure was implemented at Angeluna. “We made a decision three months ago at Angeluna that we pay tip-outs every Friday,” Wilkins said. “At Zoë and Zolon, the servers [still] get paid nightly.”
However, one former manager who’d been at Angeluna during the last three months said no such policy was even discussed with staff. And former Zoë employees said they didn’t receive tip-outs on time, either. In the first three months she waited tables there, Meg Goodrum said, tip-outs were often as much as a week late, and her hourly paychecks were delivered in an even more erratic fashion. She left the company in November; on Dec. 10, she got a check in the mail for $40, for hours she had worked in July.
“One hand didn’t know what the other hand was doing,” she said. “Where I work now, I get paid immediately at the end of the night. It’s much better money and way less stress. At Zoë, it was just ridiculous.”
Goodrum and several others said that money management at the three restaurants was very confusing because, when one Planet Zolon restaurant ran low on cash, managers borrowed from the other locations rather than making bank runs.
Wilkins blames his previous managers for those problems. “The previous [managers] at Angeluna had a cash management problem. [They were] paying the band and other people out of cash they weren’t supposed to use,” he said. “But having cash in the drawers is completely different to how we’re paying credit [card] tips to servers. There’s thousands of dollars in cash either in the safe or any of the three restaurants at all times.”
Another ex-worker at Angeluna confirmed that two hourly bartending paychecks bounced on separate occasions — which meant that, subsequently, the rent checks the worker had written also bounced and that the worker ended up getting charged past-due fees and bank overdraft fees.
The restaurant biz is volatile. Hours are long, pay is low, and turnover rates have always been high. Eateries, both independent and chain-owned, open and close in the blink of an eye. Turnover at Planet Zolon establishments, however, has been excessive even by service industry standards. One former worker said she knew of at least 40 people being fired at Zoë alone since its opening, including Planet Zolon’s corporate chef, Carl McPherson, and general manager, Darren Moulds (also a longtime high school friend of Wilkins).
At Angeluna, the most upscale of the three eateries, at least 12 servers quit or were fired in the first five months after it was acquired by Planet Zolon. That’s not including the terminations of managers Erick Tabor and Augustine Campuzano in December. Wilkins said that those relieved from their positions in the organization were terminated for “unique reasons” or “due to lack of performance.”
Even so, a majority of those no longer with the company have gone on to work at rather prestigious establishments. Mayfield is now a server at Stolik in Dallas. Wilson waits tables at another Dallas hot spot, Steel. Those jobs, according to Mayfield and Wilson, dish out tips and paychecks on time.
Employees are apparently not the only ones who’ve had to wait for their money. A representative for one food vendor said that in summer 2004, Wilkins’ company was behind on his food bill for Angeluna by approximately $40,000. (Wilkins currently owes $18,000, the vendor said.) When he visited Angeluna to try to collect on the outstanding bill, one sales rep said, Wilkins told him to “get out.”
Wilkins said that he “never had any [sales rep] try to collect money at Angeluna” but acknowledged the debt to the vendor and said he has worked out a program to make payments “on a regular basis.”
Angeluna, according to Wilkins, has the steadiest business and profits of the three — not surprising, since it’s a natural choice for the Bass Hall crowd. “You just do volumes there that most restaurants don’t in short periods of time,” he said.
Wilkins figures that the other two restaurants will turn into major moneymakers as well, when housing developments like The Tower bring more downtown dwellers to the doorstep of Zoë and Zolon. For the moment, however, the downtown market remains “cost-sensitive,” and Wilkins continues to have to adjust his menu prices to try to accommodate that. “We changed our special from $5.95 to $6.95 last week,” he said, “and had 10 ladies come in and leave.”


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