After eight years in Montrose, Tex-Mex restaurant El Real has abruptly closed its doors, and multiple former employees of the restaurant are claiming that they’re owed unpaid wages.
Restaurateur Bryan Caswell announced the “indefinite” closure of El Real in a press release on Monday, saying that he is experiencing “extreme grief and sorrow” as the restaurant shutters. “El Real has been a rewarding endeavor, but I have decided the best recourse is to focus on Reef, my family, and my health,” Caswell said in the statement. “I am grateful for those who have been loyal from beginning to end. This is simply the right thing to do at this time.”
In the days before El Real’s closure was announced, multiple current and former employees reached out to Eater claiming that they were owed hundreds of dollars in wages from the restaurant. Niara Hubbard, a former El Real server, told Eater that her October 11 paycheck from the restaurant bounced after she deposited the check a few days later. Hubbard provided screenshots of her bank statement that confirm that the payment was returned unpaid and that she incurred a fee related to the bounced check. A photo of the check confirms that it was issued by 1201 Westheimer Partners, the entity that operated El Real.
Former employee Justin Jackson says that he experienced similar issues after starting at the restaurant about a month ago. “The checks were supposed to come on payday, and they didn’t,” Jackson says. “We waited a couple of days and then the checks came, but they started bouncing.” According to Jackson, El Real management sent employees to Reef, Caswell’s Midtown seafood restaurant, to be paid in cash.
This past Friday, both Hubbard and Jackson were expecting their regular paychecks from El Real and didn’t receive them. Hubbard says that she was given cash for one of the two paychecks that she says she is owed, but is still short about $400. In a text message sent to former El Real staff on Sunday night, Caswell said that the restaurant would be mailing employees their final paychecks. After this story was published on Monday, at least two more El Real employees reached out to Eater with similar accounts.
This isn’t the first hint that Caswell’s restaurants were struggling financially, either. Earlier this year, the chef was sued by his longtime business partner Bill Floyd after allegedly failing to make more than $200,000 in payments owed to Floyd after their partnership dissolved earlier this year. That litigation is still pending.
On Monday morning, ABC13 reporter Miya Shay posted video of former employees protesting outside of El Real and Reef, holding signs that read “We Need Our Paychecks.” Scope out that video below:
Happening now: the sudden closure of Montrose restaurant El Real has left servers high & dry: they are demanding their final paychecks. Keep up with #abc13 for the latest on this sudden closure!Posted by ABC13-Miya Shay on Monday, October 28, 2019
I’ve talked to Chef Caswell. He says employees will get paid. Checks to be mailed at end of the week. Employees are protesting at Reef, chef says that’s a different company and they can’t pay one restaurant with another. pic.twitter.com/DFELWsHb2v— Miya Shay (@miyashay) October 28, 2019
This afternoon, members of the Houston chapter of Democratic Socialists of America gathered with workers outside of Reef to protest. One former employee of the restaurant said in a video captured by Houston DSA that Caswell promised to pay her what she was owed, then stopped returning her phone calls and messages.
We are out here demanding that Bryan Caswell pay the workers of El Real. Caswell has closed down El Real to “focus” on his other restaurant, yet workers have gone weeks without pay.— Houston DSA (@HoustonDSA) October 28, 2019
Join us at Travis and McGowen at Reef!
Share this story and demand that #CaswellPayUsNow! pic.twitter.com/hGQ3HFIeCY
El Real staff impacted by the restaurant’s departure will apparently be “provided with as much support as possible in order to secure opportunities in other establishments.” In a statement provided to the Houston Chronicle, Caswell denied that any of his employees were owed money, saying that the restaurant has “no back pay issues at the moment.” When reached for comment by Eater, the chef did not provide any additional details beyond the press release announcing El Real’s closure.
Update: 11:30 a.m: This story has been updated throughout as additional details have become available.