The popular Center City nightspot Porta, closed for three months, created an online stir Wednesday by advertising for new employees while at first ignoring its old employees and then by telling them that they could reinterview for a job.

And the scenario — perhaps minus the gaffe that drew hundreds of outraged comments to Porta’s Instagram posts — is likely to be commonplace as restaurants return after the shutdowns with smaller staffs.

Porta, at 1214-16 Chestnut St., laid off about 100 people on March 18, two days after restaurants were shut down. As it ramps up for a reopening including sidewalk dining and takeout food, it needs to hire only 14 to 20 people, management said.

The crux of this week’s kerfuffle is communication. In interviews, Porta workers said they heard little from management, aside from a March 23 email describing the creation of an employee relief fund. “I look forward to seeing you in person on the other side of this,” the email read, offering a glimmer of hope.

But then came the post on Porta’s account, saying it was hiring for all positions: “Interested in joining our team? Send your resume.”

The reaction was swift from Porta’s former staff, which by all accounts was a close-knit bunch, bound by late nights of accommodating hundreds of revelers. Many had been there since Day One in late 2017.

“How could you let go of all your employees, and never tell them, but [hire] all new ones?!” wrote one. “As someone who works in human resources I will not spend a dime here anymore!” wrote another.

Three hours later, management posted a follow-up: “We messed up. Our last post about beginning to hire again was meant to start building excitement for Porta Philly’s reopening plans, but we didn’t properly communicate with our former staff before doing so, which made it seem like we were hanging them out to dry. We’re very sorry about that — it was not our intention, and we understand how it could be taken that way. To be clear: All of our former employees will be given the first opportunity to be reinterviewed, before we interview anyone else.”

This message did nothing to mollify the masses. In fact, wrote one commenter, “you actually found a way to make this worse.” One former worker said she was “truly laughing out loud at the thought of ‘reinterviewing’ for a position I’ve held for a year and a half, along with the rest of my overqualified coworkers. Just say you want to pick & choose who you bring back and go.”

One former manager, in an interview, called the new round of interviews a ploy to renegotiate salaries.

Bartender Lauren Branick said she was “shocked” when she saw the post, but in retrospect was not surprised. “The dedication we put into that place far exceeded what we got back from management,” she said. “I mean, finding out through email would have been weird enough.” Although laid off, Porta employees could still get messages through Schedulefly, the scheduling software used by the restaurant.

Dallas Hlatky, a spokeswoman for Porta’s parent company, the Asbury Park, N.J.-based Smith Group, conceded that management was not as forthcoming with former workers as it should have been. “This was a big miscommunication,” she said. “I appreciate how sensitive this was. We were hoping that [the shutdown] was a pause. It was never the intention to make promises.”

Hlatky said all the workers, as well as the 52 employees at Brickwall Tavern, located behind Porta on Sansom Street, had been laid off, not furloughed. She said the company also created a relief fund for Smith’s seven restaurants, which gave out about $33,000, in amounts from $50 to $500, to former employees based on need and length of service.

Management also has not decided a plan for Brickwall, where about 50 people worked.

Hlatky did not have a reopening date for Porta. Initially, the restaurant will offer sidewalk dining and takeout. Social distancing will eliminate packed bars, and so fewer bartenders will be needed. She said some bartenders at the company’s newly reopened Asbury Park locations have been hired as servers, with the understanding that they could resume mixing drinks when the time is right. She also said the restaurants have struggled to find workers because some employees fear the coronavirus while others are collecting unemployment and “don’t know what kind of money they’ll make.”

Whether at the Smith restaurants or elsewhere, “there won’t be a job for everyone,” she said.

Porta means "door," hence the use of doors in the decor at the Chestnut Street restaurant.
MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Porta means "door," hence the use of doors in the decor at the Chestnut Street restaurant.