In Limbo

Gourmet Heaven, wage theft, and the convenience of indecision
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Photo by Jacob Geiger.

Gourmet Heaven, like the heaven in the sky, means something different for each of its customers. It’s a cheap hot breakfast. It’s 90 varieties of artisanal chocolate. It’s a box of cookies from every country in the European Union. It’s your favorite sandwich. It’s where you go between Toad’s and your bed. It’s caffeine at any hour of the night. It’s the jocks and the party girls and the tourists all equal around the buffet line.
It’s buying a bag of Glenny’s Apple Cinnamon Soy Crisps almost every day, until one day, they come in a new, bigger size, and I realize that Gourmet Heaven is a living thing, a genie that grants my wishes without my having to say a word.

But I’m a customer. Customers are the gods of Gourmet Heaven. They come in drunk at three in the morning and scatter trash and foul up the bathroom, and then enter the next day to find the place celestially spotless once again.

Workers at Gourmet Heaven are not treated as gods; depending on your interpretation of recent news, you may conclude that they aren’t even treated as humans. Under Connecticut state law, working humans are owed certain things. Minimum wage. Employment contracts. Overtime pay.

This summer, one former employee — with help from Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), a local nonprofit focused on immigration and labor issues — filed a complaint charging Gourmet Heaven with failing its workers in all these respects. For the first time in years, the stores closed for an afternoon, while the owner’s lawyer searched for employment records at the behest of the Connecticut Department of Labor.

The Department’s investigation ended the day I finished this article. Something really was awry beneath those dusky red awnings: Chung Cho, the stores’ owner, will pay $140,000 in back wages and overtime pay in the next three months. And once you realize that a place with seven-dollar sandwiches was giving workers five dollars an hour, Gourmet Heaven becomes something else — a place where everything you buy becomes a blow to the world you wish you lived in.

***

Bruce Alexander ’65 wanted flowers on Broadway. He’d seen them in front of one of New York’s hundreds of specialty greengrocers, and he asked an undergraduate intern to scour the city for similar stores, handing out business cards to all the owners she could find. It was a shrewd strategy from Yale’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development — and it paid off, when Chung Cho took a card, thought things over, closed his stores in Gotham, and brought his heaven to New Haven.

This turned out to be a brilliant move. The city had recovered from the worst days of the cocaine trade, Broadway offered a safe location with a cheap lease (by Big Apple standards), and there was hardly any competition. Even today, after twelve years of Gourmet Heaven domination, the only similar stores on campus — J&B Deli, Taft Convenience, College Convenience — suffer from weaker locations, less variety, and ten to fourteen hours each day spent closed. The student body never sleeps, and Gourmet Heaven is our steadfast companion, through blizzards, hurricanes, and labor issues.

Cho isn’t unfamiliar with controversy. Last November, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement fined him nearly $6,000 for hiring workers without proper legal documentation. This was a minor blow to his business, but far from an existential threat. What came next was more dangerous.

On Aug. 7, the Department of Labor issued a stop-work order for both of Gourmet Heaven’s New Haven locations — the original Broadway store, dubbed “GHeav” by students, and the Whitney Avenue store near Timothy Dwight College (“TDHeav”), which opened in 2003, two years after the first. Both stores closed for lunch, but opened later once John DeSimone, Cho’s lawyer, told the state he was in the process of collecting the paperwork they had requested. And they’ve stayed open in the 2600 hours since the Department’s initial salvo — but now, their future isn’t so certain.

***

The first Friday protest sprang up in front of Gourmet Heaven on Aug. 23, led by members of ULA and the undergraduate social justice group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán de Yale (MEChA). I counted roughly 20 protestors in a local news video — enough to obscure the store’s produce and flower displays from the street. The Yale Daily News published its first report on the protests two weeks later on Sept. 3, meaning that much of the freshman class has never bought from Gourmet Heaven without knowing something about the violations.

Adin, whose last name has been omitted in this and other stories to protect his identity, spoke to the News for that report, and to The Yale Herald a month later. He earned no more than $400 a week during his time at the store, he said, for 72 hours of work — $5.56 an hour, about two-thirds of Connecticut’s minimum wage. He lived in a basement in a building also owned by Chung Cho, paying $50 per week and sharing the space with five other employees. After arguing over his salary with Cho, he left the store in December 2012, and eventually made the allegations that led to the Department of Labor’s investigation.

As of Nov. 18,  Adin is, unsurprisingly, the only worker to have come forth; he told the News that other employees either were earning more than he had — enough that they preferred to keep their jobs — or feared termination. He was also evicted from the basement soon after leaving his job, and that’s likely what would have happened to the other five employees Cho housed, had they resigned or spoken to reporters.

This power imbalance characterizes low-wage industries throughout New Haven and the rest of the country. In this city, the Taft Hotel and Café Goodfellas both recently paid tens of thousands of dollars to settle charges that they’d violated some of the same labor laws Gourmet Heaven is now accused of ignoring. In February 2009, a food and commercial workers’ union in New York City — GHeav’s hometown — won a $1.5 million settlement from nine gourmet grocery stores charged with wage theft. A recent Huffington Post piece puts these kinds of stories in devastating perspective: “Low-Wage Workers Are Robbed More Than Banks, Gas Stations, and Convenience Stores Combined.”

I find it difficult to keep this in mind as I walk through campus. Ronnell Higgins would warn us if nearby stores were being robbed; wage theft is almost completely silent.

***

But even a few dedicated people can make enough noise to keep the silence at bay.

It’s the Day of the Dead, and the ULA/MEChA contingent is gearing up for a change of routine. Megan Fountain ’07, an organizer for ULA, puts together the second of two life-sized skeleton puppets. An older man with a Phantom of the Opera mask joins a middle school student in Jason garb; both hold signs on short wooden poles. Evelyn Nuñez ’15, not in costume, nestles one of her flyers into a stack of oranges.

Before the shouting begins, Nuñez — MEChA’s community action chair — tells me of her work in preparing a detailed report on wage theft in New Haven that will cover other low-wage industries in addition to restaurants. Dozens of businesses are probably committing violations at any given time, she told me. By surveying hundreds of their workers, she hopes to prompt a change in the way the city handles labor issues.

“There are talks of passing some kind of ordinance in New Haven that would help combat wage theft,” she tells me, “but as of yet there’s no concrete plan.”

The protestors’ plan, however, is rock-solid. “Boy-cott!” bellows the Phantom, projecting his voice with a flair that hints at stage training — or many years’ experience with outdoor protest.

“Gourmet Heaven!” replies the group — sometimes all seven, sometimes one or two, as the spirit moves them. They march in a ragged oval; their numbers have dwindled since August, but the skeletons draw plenty of attention, and Nuñez distributes flyers by the dozen. GHeav cashiers watch from inside, their expressions unreadable. A group of female athletes stops to chat, and the student at its head declares that the whole team has joined the boycott.

The scene testifies to the passion of Gourmet Heaven’s most ardent foes. But Café Goodfellas remains open; none of its Yelp reviews even mention the scandal. And the Department of Labor doesn’t often check up on past violators once the case is closed. Will Chung Cho escape from the limelight, or will the boycott force him to behave even after his fines are paid?

In an online poll to which 93 undergraduates responded, 77 respondents had both heard about the violations and bought food from Gourmet Heaven in the past. 15 of those were boycotting the stores, and 31 who still shopped there said they were “buying less often.” This comes out to 57 percent working to resist GHeav’s pull — impressive, but not lethal. The stores are still crowded at mealtimes and on weekend nights; the cashiers still handle a purchase every minute or so.

And the protests might be losing momentum: several students polled said they were finding it difficult to avoid the stores, and one, though admitting it was “not an opinion I’m proud to attach my name to,” said he had completed a one-month boycott and then resumed shopping. “That probably cost them about $100 in business,” he continued. “But no crime deserves indefinite retribution.”

But $100 times 1000 ex-customers is painful math for Gourmet Heaven. Whether any given student decides to boycott depends on many factors: willpower, study habits, access to groceries, and even philosophy. Still, if you’d like to hit the owner where it hurts, the simple answer seems to be the one suggested by ULA and MEChA: “don’t buy.” And Bruce Alexander’s University Properties office released an October report implying that Yale is prepared to hit even harder: “We will not renew the lease of any tenant not in complete compliance with the labor laws regarding fair treatment of employees.”

***

Fines, protests, and the threat of eviction may suffice to keep Gourmet Heaven in line. But what about the rest of New Haven’s restaurants, most of which don’t rent space from Yale? What if it comes out that Alpha Delta or Ivy Noodle stiffs its staff?

“It’s not possible to be completely informed about the practices of every business you visit,” Fountain, the ULA organizer, said, “and it’s generally not worth worrying about the mere possibility that something is wrong.”

But boycotting businesses whose workers have publicly accused them of wrongdoing is simple common sense, she says, and so is supporting practices that make it easier for workers to help themselves. Fountain and Katherine Aragon ’14 (MEChA’s “moderator” and official spokeswoman) both agreed that supporting unions, and those who wish to form them, is the best long-term solution to labor violations.

And even if unions at GHeav are a long way off, there’s no reason boycotting has to mean deprivation. Aragon proudly announces that she’s “learned a life without Gourmet Heaven”: Alpha Delta is open late, Durfee’s sells toothpaste on campus, and plenty of places have better sandwiches.

“I’ve told some people I’ll make them sandwiches myself if they need late-night food that badly,” Aragon says. No one’s taken her up on it, but she’s won some students to her side just the same.

***

The outcome of this case will not make or break New Haven’s future policies regarding low-wage workers. It will not inspire a national movement that makes life better for millions of immigrants. These refrains run through my head whenever I stop into GHeav for a bag of soy crisps and a pack of gum, which is at least a dozen times over the past month.

Sometimes I see friends there, and mention the violations. They nod sadly, respond that it’s terrible, yes, but this is the only game in town, right? New Haven is dead after midnight, and we are not, and neither is GHeav. I tell myself that there is no guarantee workers are treated better elsewhere. That I will not finish my problem set without late-night sustenance. That the good Gourmet Heaven does — sponsoring student groups, providing a public meeting place and public bathrooms, bringing hundreds of people small happy moments each day — somehow compensates for the injustice behind the counter and out of my sight.

I tell myself these things, and sometimes I believe myself, and sometimes I do not. I visit my buttery more often. I buy from Taft Convenience when I can. Rachel is a sweetheart, even if they only stay open until six. I smile more freely at the Gourmet Heaven checkout counter, giving my best wishes to the night shift cashiers.

And then I leave the store, but they do not. And in 18 months I will graduate from Yale, and someone will still be behind those cash registers. Perhaps making $5 an hour. And some of the blame will be mine.

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