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November 27, 2014

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THE ECONOMY:

Restaurants in a time of struggle

With no ‘template’ for closing, process got ugly — especially for workers who haven’t been paid

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Leila Navidi

Adam’s Ribs, a restaurant owned by a UNLV professor, is temporarily closed for business, as indicated by the words written on a chalkboard outside their location across from UNLV Thursday, April 9, 2009.

Closing of Adam's Ribs

A bundle of new magazines sits outside Adam's Ribs, which is apparently closed for business at their Summerlin location Thursday, April 9, 2009. Launch slideshow »

In Today's Sun

This story is one part of a two-story package on how restaurants are faring during the current economic downturn.

Enter stage right: Recession is stress-testing owners’ plans for start-ups

Imagine going into a popular rib joint and being told you can order anything you like — except ribs.

That’s what happened to customers of the two Adam’s Ribs restaurants in town, a foreboding sign of what was coming.

Employees had seen the grim future when the cupboards grew so bare the cooks dashed to the grocery store to buy flour.

Both restaurants have since closed — the store at Grand Canyon Drive and Flamingo Road, near Summerlin, five weeks ago and Adam’s Ribs on Maryland Parkway, across from UNLV, last week.

“It’s not an easy time,” owner and UNLV adjunct professor Adam Carmer said. “We’re changing the plan, rethinking how to get our goals of having a great place accomplished.”

But while Carmer, who teaches beer and wine at UNLV, tries to figure out what to do with two closed restaurants, his employees — including former students — are trying to figure out what to do about him. At least 11 workers filed complaints with the state labor commissioner’s office, saying they are owed weeks of back pay. The state investigated and agreed.

In other words, this hasn’t been the most graceful of restaurant closings.

“There isn’t a template for closing,” Carmer said. “No one plans on closing down.”

• • •

Carmer opened the Freakin’ Frog and Whiskey Attic bars six years ago, before getting into the barbecue business. The Adam’s Ribs near Summerlin opened in September 2007 and the one across from UNLV opened 11 months ago.

Each location experienced troubles. The restaurant near Summerlin was given an F in January by the Southern Nevada Health District — and closed for a day — for violations including cockroaches, buildup of food debris, dirty utensils, poor food storage and other sanitation shortcomings. And the UNLV location was cited multiple times, and employees fined, for violations involving underage drinking.

Carmer was a constant, active presence at all four operations, former employees say. But about two months ago, he “just kind of disappeared and became more secretive about what he was doing,” said Tom Hirschfelder, the manager of the Adam’s Ribs on the west side of town when it closed.

As his presence dwindled, so did the inventory at both restaurants.

Corey Manning, head cook at the UNLV location, said the kitchen was falling short on supplies for at least a month before closing. On occasion, for instance, he had to fetch french fries from the Freakin’ Frog next door.

Carmer said the small adjustments normally required to keep a business afloat started to get beyond his capacity and resources.

On March 6, both locations ran out of ribs. Jessica Bernstein, a server at the UNLV Adam’s Ribs, remembers the reaction when she gave the news to a party of 40. “You seriously don’t have ribs?” Bernstein said they asked. Sorry. French fries? Um, no.

“I had a guy ask for five liquors, and I had none of them,” bartender Toby McCracken said.

Similar stories echoed at the Adam's Ribs near Summerlin, the first to collapse.

On March 7, Hirschfelder called Carmer about reordering food but was told to make do. That same day, word was spreading that the UNLV location was going to close the next day, a Sunday, for “restructuring.” Bartender Michael Rauner said Carmer told him that some workers would be laid off.

On that Sunday, Manning, the cook, said he was on the bus heading to Adam’s Ribs at UNLV for his shift when he got a text message from a co-worker: Everyone had been fired.

Workers drove by the restaurant and confronted Carmer, who was moving items into a van. Carmer told them not to overreact, that he was just moving some things around.

Back in the west side of town that same Sunday, Hirschfelder called Carmer with the latest sales figures. Hirschfelder said he was told not to come in the next day because that restaurant, too, would be closed a few days for “restructuring.”

The restaurant near Summerlin hasn’t reopened since that Monday, March 9.

That Monday was also payday, but nobody was paid. Instead, at a staff meeting, Carmer announced that there were only enough hours to keep two employees busy at the UNLV location.

Workers — some of whom said they were owed upward of $1,000 — demanded to know from Carmer when they would be paid.

He told them to return to the UNLV restaurant on that Friday, March 13.

They did. But Carmer didn’t.

Employees said they confronted him at the Freakin’ Frog. He pleaded with them to have faith that he’d pay them when he could. The Freakin’ Frog and Whiskey Attic are still open, but Carmer hasn’t turned to them to help pay the Adam’s Ribs employees. “It’s complicated,” he said.

The Adam’s Ribs by UNLV would eke out its final days with a staff of just two. It had discarded its regular menu — one that featured a photo of Mayor Oscar Goodman giving a thumbs up — in exchange for what turned out to be a going-out-of-business menu offering only five items. The only one resembling barbecue was rib tips.

And the bar’s rotating selection of 4 beers on tap was down to a lonely keg of Black Butte Porter by the end of March.

Finally, last week — as the restaurant’s liquor license was expiring — the restaurant closed. That was that.

And still no one has been paid.

Hirschfelder says Carmer hung up on him when they last talked — and then Carmer called him demanding to know why Hirschfelder was “hunting him down” at his other restaurants.

For his part, Carmer says “everybody who is owed money is going to be made whole.”

But the labor commissioner’s office, which opened its investigation March 16, said Carmer has failed to respond to any of the 11 letters the agency has sent him.

Larry Dizon, the lead investigator in Southern Nevada, said Carmer has brushed off the agency when reached by phone, asking to be contacted later.

Every delay is costing Carmer money. The state found that Carmer owes 11 employees a total of $24,000. The amount would have been $9,000 were it not for late fees, Dizon said.

The drama has generated bad publicity for a man who is accustomed to good ink.

“Here’s the reality: when you’re learning how to walk you fall and scrape your knee. I’m not embarrassed,” Carmer said. “My eyes are open. Yes, there are some huge things here that have to be dealt with that aren’t the most positive things in the world.”

Carmer’s corporation, meanwhile, is listed as the owner of Oh Zone, an organic restaurant that hasn’t yet opened.

Carmer says he is only an adviser.

This story has been corrected to reflect the exact location of the Adam's Ribs on the west side of town. It is not in Summerlin.

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