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Former waiter sues Wm. Mulherin’s Sons over his firing, also alleges tip-skimming

The onetime waiter at the popular Italian restaurant in Fishtown claims that management skimmed tips and also defamed him during a sexual-harassment scandal last year.

Wm. Mulherin's Sons is situated on Front Street, beside the Market-Frankford El in Fishtown.
Wm. Mulherin's Sons is situated on Front Street, beside the Market-Frankford El in Fishtown.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

A former waiter at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Fishtown claims, in separate lawsuits filed Monday, that management defamed him during a sexual-harassment scandal last year and also skimmed tips from workers.

In the defamation case, filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, Michael Cona, who worked at the popular restaurant from its March 2016 opening until last March, says Alex Tewfik, the food editor of Philadelphia Magazine, had met with restaurant owners Randall Cook and David Grasso in February 2018 to discuss allegations by four former female employees that they had been harassed by the restaurant’s then-executive chef, Chris Painter, its then-general manager, Michael Jreidini, and two unidentified staff members.

The suit claims that Cona was suspended March 1, 2018, the day Tewfik’s article appeared online, and that he was fired two weeks later. The suit says it was “an editor from Philadelphia Magazine” who reported the harassment allegations to Cook and Grasso, not the former workers themselves. The suit names Tewfik and the magazine’s parent company, Metrocorp. Holdings Inc., as well as Cook, Grasso and their company, Method Hospitality.

Cona denies having harassed anyone.

As possible motivation, the suit suggests that Tewfik had worked for Painter at Il Pittore restaurant and had contentious dealings with him. This gave Tewfik “his own axe to grind,” says the suit, filed by Center City lawyer J. Conor Corcoran and seeking damages in excess of $1 million. It alleges defamation, conspiracy, commercial disparagement, and intrusion upon seclusion — effectively invasion of privacy.

In response to the allegations last year, Cook and Grasso issued a statement that read, in part, that “the suspensions were put in place after Philly Mag notified Cook and Grasso of the allegations.” The suit says Cona was never contacted about the allegations before the article’s publication and was never questioned.

“Instead of questioning [Cona] about the allegations, [Grasso and/or Cook] lubriciously attempted to cover their own hides with [a statement] to both the reading public and the Philadelphia restaurant industry at large, and the other employees at the restaurant, more specifically, throwing [Cona] under the bus,” the suit says.

Though Cona was not mentioned by name in the article, the suit claims that others in the restaurant industry knew that he was among those suspended and later fired. He was unable to find work for at least three months, the suit says. Courts have held that the use of someone’s name is not required to constitute libel or defamation.

Grasso, speaking on behalf of Cook and Method, said he had no comment.

“This frivolous lawsuit is nothing but a baseless conspiracy theory," said Tom McGrath, editor of Philadelphia Magazine, speaking on behalf of the magazine and Tewfik. “Philadelphia magazine carefully reported on serious allegations of sexual harassment by a chef and staff at a well-known Philadelphia restaurant. The plaintiff, who was let go by the restaurant, was not named in any of our articles. Yet he now claims the magazine should pay him no less than $1 million as a result of being out of work for three months. The magazine will not be bullied. We’re confident that all claims against the magazine will be swiftly dismissed.”

In a separate suit filed in U.S. District Court, which names Grasso, Cook, Method Hospitality, and Jreidini, Cona claims that Mulherin’s management forced waiters to give a portion of their tips to other restaurant staffers, such as busers, runners, and polishers.

It’s called tip-skimming, and violates both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and Philadelphia’s Gratuity Protection law, as well as a Pennsylvania law protecting employee wages. The suit seeks damages of at least $150,000.

The suit claims that when the restaurant first opened, tips were put into a bartender pool and a servers pool. Two percent from each pool went to the host or hostess, and 14 percent of each pool went to support staff.

Then, 8 percent to 12 percent of the server pool was moved to the bartender pool at a rate of 4 percent per bartender, per shift.

The suit says Jreidini later used a formula to allocate the tips for those in the support staff pool, based on their role at the restaurant.

The suit claims that some of the money went “straight into the pockets” of the defendants.

Cona says in the suit that he believes that servers had walked away with less than 50 percent of the tips.

Grasso, speaking on behalf of Cook and Method, said he had no comment. An attempt to reach Jreidini, who is now general manager at Suraya, was unsuccessful.