Working at the upscale Italian eatery Altamura made Jamie Risbourg fall in love with the restaurant business again. She was a server at the Lower Garden District restaurant, housed in the stately Magnolia Mansion, and she said what made the difference was the tight-knit staff and the way her co-workers always had one another’s backs.
“I really loved the restaurant,” said Risbourg, who started waiting tables there in the spring. “Everyone was in it together, and they really tried to make it work. But there was obviously trouble coming.”
By the end, some of Altamura's staff were accepting less pay and delaying depositing their paychecks in an effort to keep the restaurant going.
Altamura closed at the end of July, just shy of a year from its debut. Employees like Risbourg said they received scant advance notice, lost out on pay and never got answers to their complaints from the restaurant's owner, Jack Petronella.
“We found out three days before the restaurant closed, and when I deposited my last paycheck, it bounced,” she said.
About a week later, on Aug. 7, Altamura’s sibling business, the Uptown bakery and café ManhattanJack, also closed. Its employees also report not receiving their final paychecks.
At the outset, both closings appeared to be casualties of the city’s ever-more-crowded restaurant scene and the typical summer lull. However, employees describe chaotic final weeks at the restaurants, and an aggrieved investor is blaming mismanagement for the cafe's failure.
"ManhattanJack didn't close because there were too many restaurants or because it was unpopular; it closed because of mismanagement by Jack Petronella," said McKenzie Lovelace, a local businesswoman and investor in Altamura.
ManhattanJack was part of the surety on her investment in Altamura. If the restaurant failed, she would get a piece of the ownership of ManhattanJack. When Altamura did close, she began working with ManhattanJack co-founder Coleman Jernigan to reopen it. However, she said those plans are now dead.
“We wanted to open with new ownership and, hopefully, save the jobs of the employees here,” Lovelace said. “But when we got into the books, we found too many problems to keep it a viable business. We found that the business wasn’t being run properly. There were draws from its cash flow by the managing partner to pay for personal bills and expenses.”
Petronella, the co-founder of ManhattanJack and owner of Altamura, denies claims of mismanagement, attributing the complaints to sour grapes from an investor who lost money.
He said Jernigan was in charge of finances at ManhattanJack, while he was the “face, name and creator” of the brand. While he owned Altamura, he said he had little involvement with its day-to-day operations.
Petronella said he did not receive paychecks from ManhattanJack through the years and so drew money from it to cover his expenses, which he said were recorded in ManhattanJack’s books and reviewed by an accountant.
He said the costs of running Altamura led to the downfall of ManhattanJack, as money from the café went to prop up the Italian restaurant, although the two restaurants had different partners involved.
“Altamura and Magnolia Mansion cost too much money and bled ManhattanJack dry, and that’s it,” Petronella said. “Before you know it, it killed both of them.”
Jernigan said he couldn't discuss the matter but confirmed he had ended his business partnership with Petronella earlier this summer.
Petronella and Jernigan opened ManhattanJack early in 2013. It drew a following as a laid-back spot for breakfast and lunch, for a study session over coffee or for a sweet treat from a long counter of pastries and candy.
Altamura was a much more upscale venture. It opened last summer in the ground floor of Magnolia Mansion, an antebellum landmark at Prytania Street and Jackson Avenue. It served Italian cuisine with a focus on the styles of the Northeast, as distinct from the local Creole Italian standard. It had a midcentury modern look. Jernigan, who was not an owner, served as chef.
In interviews, former staff members at Altamura and ManhattanJack described the decline of the restaurants and said they went unpaid for weeks of work.
From Mardi Gras through Jazz Fest, typically a busy time for New Orleans restaurants, business at Altamura remained slow.
“Our paychecks weren’t clearing. We were asked to wait for days to deposit them,” said Catherine Wheeler, who was a bartender at Altamura until she left in April.
“There were things that didn’t make sense,” she said. “Why isn’t the owner here trying to make this work? Why do we have to run out to the store to buy wine to get through the night? Why is there hardly any food in the walk-in? But the staff that was there everyday was the reason we stayed. They were very supportive and caring.”
Courtney Stagg, the former manager of Altamura, said employees rallied to keep the restaurant running, even as they were advised to hold off on depositing paychecks. Stagg said she decided not to take her own last four paychecks, covering two months of work, so that other employees could get paid. She assumed that her back pay would be made right eventually.
“We all fought so hard to make it work,” Stagg said.
Problems soon came to a head 2 miles up Prytania Street at ManhattanJack, too. Pay became sporadic, former employees said, and the staff dwindled to just a handful.
Former employee Ryan Moulder, who is the brother of Jernigan, said he received a text message from Petronella on Aug. 7 informing him that ManhattanJack would close and that there was no money left to pay employees.
“The most frustrating thing is I, as well as my co-workers, could have all been looking for another job sooner,” Moulder wrote in an email. “But everyone stayed and kept working because he personally promised everyone they'd be paid Monday if they just stuck it out.”
Petronella said he tried to keep ManhattanJack open so he could bring in revenue to pay the employees. He said he's now working to start a new business and intends to pay former employees when he can.
“I wouldn’t carry on if I couldn’t do that,” Petronella said. “That’s exactly why I’m working to do what I’m doing. My heart and soul was to take care of my employees."
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