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Bad hospitality: Working in Manchester’s bars and restaurants - and not getting paid for it
‘You just said you can’t pay us but you’re going to sit in front of us and eat £200 sushi?’
By Jack Dulhanty, Mollie Simpson and Libby Elliott
We’re sitting in MUSU, “very possibly the most expensive restaurant in Manchester,” according to the Guardian, whose recent review found the food here “exquisite”. In the far corner, Gary Neville is drinking a very large glass of red wine behind a retractable glass wall, part of the gaudily elaborate fit-out on which MUSU’s founders claim they spent more than £3 million.
The dining at this high-end Sushi palace on Bridge Street is long and narrow like a catwalk and the music pulses like the beats at a fashion show. Diners are meant to “feel the mood and sexiness of the venue,” according to its creators. Some of the walls are covered with giant plasma screens playing panoramic shots of the Tokyo skyline or the inner sanctum of some canopied forest.
MUSU’s Kaiseki menu — an 11-course “seasonal journey through the flavours and techniques of Japanese cuisine” — costs £150 per person, plus £120 each if you add the premium wine pairing. That comes to £540 for two, pitched perfectly at Manchester’s burgeoning class of football millionaires and property moguls. Pep Guardiola has dined here recently, as have many of his Manchester City stars.
Since this place launched late last year, the city’s hospitality hype machine has swung into action. The Manchester Evening News called MUSU “dazzling”, admiring the “stunning interiors”. “Whether it’s your cup of tea or not MUSU is a sign of where Manchester is as a city and where it’s going,” declares the website Manchester Confidential.
But if that’s true, we have a problem. Because according to multiple accounts we’ve heard and documents we’ve seen, MUSU has a bad habit of not paying its staff. “I was just begging anyone,” one former worker remembers after her wages didn’t get paid last year, not long after MUSU opened. “The accountant wasn’t answering to anyone because she was flooded with emails.”
“If I don’t get the money, I’m fucked, basically,” says someone who is still waiting for their money, having worked there very recently. “I won’t be able to pay my bills, or my friends, because I’ve been borrowing so much money from them.” They’ve sent plenty of emails — polite and patient — but nothing. It’s being “chased up”. More emails. Still nothing.
Hospitality is one of Manchester’s biggest and most prominent industries. It receives significant political backing from mayor Andy Burnham and his nightlife economy advisor Sacha Lord, and it employs tens of thousands of people, many of them young and almost all of them low earners. But in recent months, we have had dozens of conversations with people at a variety of businesses who are being paid late, paid less than they’re owed or not paid at all, heaping stress and misery on the workers concerned.
In the case of five venues, we have gathered enough evidence to name the businesses in today’s story. MUSU might be the most striking example because of the grotesque contrast between paying millions of pounds on decor while low-paid workers miss their rent payments and fall into debt. But the problem of hospitality operators seemingly prioritising everything else over paying their staff seems to occur in every type of venue — from student bars to popular brunch spots and coffee shops.
“The hospitality industry is a key part of what makes this a flourishing city where people want to be — but that success must not be at the expense of the workers it relies upon,” Bev Craig, leader of Manchester City Council, told us after we shared the findings of our story. And yet, in the cases we’ve investigated, that seems to be what’s happening.
Super luxury on Bridge Street
“When you talk about something that’s super luxury with class there's not that much around,” MUSU’s co-founder Vincent Braine told the MEN when the restaurant launched late last year. “We see a gap in the market, there’s not much at this sort of level.” Braine, 40, opened the restaurant with his business partner Marius Kamara, 41, having worked together for many years. Their most notable venture before MUSU was the Milton Club — a late-night members club on Deansgate which shut in 2018.
The pair certainly know how to generate buzz. Before MUSU launched, members of the local and national press were treated to “a host of small preview dinners,” both in London and at Braine’s home in Lydgate, according to one report. The hype-building was taking place inside the business as well. Early staff remember being sold the idea of a top-tier restaurant, billed internally as “Michelin-leaning”, whose destiny might just be to grab Manchester’s second Michelin star after Mana in Ancoats. When they started, the staff found a place with something of a split personality: a luxurious dining experience by day and a raucous nightclub by night.
At first, staff were paid as usual. But after launching in November, the number of staff members exploded. “After the first of November they hired everyone because we launched on the 18th,” remembers one person. MUSU’s budgets were based on enormous revenue forecasts, and before long the numbers were being missed. Some staff were laid off, and it became clear that the company wasn’t making payroll.
One day, staff recall being asked into a boardroom to meet Braine, where they remember him saying: “How desperately do you need your wage this month?” Later, workers were gathered in MUSU’s dining room for a meeting, the day before they were expecting to be paid: “We got told that none of us were going to get paid tomorrow,” recalls one person who was there.
Plenty of businesses struggle to make payroll when they are short of cash. But what made MUSU’s underpayment particularly galling was that Braine and Kamara weren’t acting like the founders of a company in trouble. “The owners came in every week and racked up £4,000 bills, but couldn’t pay their staff,” one former staff member recalls. “The owner (Braine) came in on the day we found out we wouldn’t get paid and ate at the sushi counter. And we were all just like: ‘That’s disgusting. You just said you can’t pay us but you’re going to sit in front of us and eat £200 sushi?’”
Staff do recall Braine trying to give advances to those who were desperate for their wages, often to make rent payments. But, they say some of these payments were made from his personal account. The Mill has seen bank statements showing payments from an account named “BRAINE V”. When we asked Braine how these payments were accounted for with regard to tax, we didn’t receive an answer.
In a statement in response to our questions, Braine said that the delayed December payments were down to human error, specifically the errors of his management team. “When MUSU opened in November, we had 76 new staff members. Unfortunately, the management failed to gather all the necessary information for our payroll team to process their wages. As a result, we informed the staff and ensured that their wages were paid the following week. This mistake was due to a genuine human error, and we rectified it as soon as possible. Since then, we have consistently paid staff wages on time every month, and such an error has not recurred.”
Staff were given this explanation at the time — that payroll information hadn’t been gathered — but people we’ve spoken to don’t think it explains what happened. It wasn’t only the new staff members having their wages delayed, but staff who had been with the business for the monthslong pre-launch period. And it doesn’t explain the more recent instances of non-payment, which MUSU denies.
"We have managed to retain the majority of our original restaurant team since our opening, which speaks to the positive relationship we share with them,” says Braine. “However, like all brand new concepts, we don't always get the staffing levels right and have had to adjust accordingly to match the business levels that have materialised. Regrettably, this means letting some members of staff go.”
‘Has anyone been paid yet?’
Around Easter this year, there was a flurry of messages in a WhatsApp group for staff members at HAUS, a cafe and bar in Fallowfield just off Wilmslow Road. The chat was created so the staff, who were mostly students, could swap shifts and gossip about work. But recently, it had taken on a new role — to see if other staff members hadn’t been paid on time either.
HAUS may not be a familiar name to many readers, but it is one of the most popular hangouts in student land. University sports teams throw their end-of-year parties there and leaflets advertising big party nights at HAUS line the walls of student flats. The venue’s owner, Benjamin Hourahaine, gives lots of work to students and offers hours that work around their schedules. But his business has gained a reputation for messing workers about, particularly when it comes to pay.
“HAUS made me quite anxious,” one student told us. “Am I going to get paid right? Am I going to get paid today? You could never quite rely on them to pay you properly.” A couple of days after the group chat, the students got paid and the chatter died down. But it reflected a pattern. “Everyone in Fallowfield knows how they treat their staff,” one source told us. “People are just desperate for money, that’s why they do it. It’s such a convenient job.”
Another ex-employee recalled her pay varying each week, despite working the same hours. “I didn’t understand how that could happen,” they said. Last year, a different ex-employee reached out to Hourahaine about being underpaid by nearly £200. His response was dismissive, questioning why they were raising it weeks after payday.
Hourahaine denies these claims. “We have never missed or been late for a payday since we opened,” he told us via email. “We do not have any current or previous employees who are owed any money for wages.”
But in messages seen by The Mill, Hourahaine seems to acknowledge problems with pay. Last summer, he sent a long message to staffers telling them it was their responsibility to make sure they were clocking in and out correctly, and that “if you have a problem with your wage for any reason, it must be brought to my attention by the end of Thursday,” he wrote.
In a statement, he told us: “Messages where I'm encouraging people to come to us with issues as soon as possible demonstrates a positive management system where we are quick to resolve problems."
Former employees of Grindsmith — who have a coffee shop in MediaCity and also own the espresso bar Takk in the Northern Quarter — recall a stretch of three months in 2019 where some staff weren’t paid and pension contributions went missing. “The reason we weren’t receiving salaries, or any payments at the time, was because one of our sites had been closed by the landlord,” a staff member from the time recalls.
When we asked if they have since received payment, they said: “No. I haven’t received any of those months of salary. And I — to this day, I mean, this was four years ago — still haven’t had my pension repaid.”
Sources from across Grindsmith’s operations recall pension contributions not being made by the company. “There was a point where a lot of staff were getting in touch with Nest, the pension fund Grindsmith used, but nothing really happened,” one person said. “And even last year I got a letter from Nest saying: ‘we’re investigating Grindsmith because of historical pensions that weren’t paid.’”
In a written statement to The Mill, the owners of Grindsmith said: “We don’t recall ever not paying the team and in fact we took out personal loans to keep the team paid and meet payroll as we didn’t want to make the team redundant especially in the new year (2019) just because of the delay in opening.”
On the issue of unpaid pension contributions: “Nest contributions where [sic] effected at the Bridge Street site due to continuous lease issues and in particular during Covid however employee wages always came first. The Nest system is very ‘clunky’ and there is no fast way to send lump sums online and we are in talks with them on how to improve their systems and correct any issues.”
When we followed up to specify that our sources described unpaid pension contributions predating the pandemic and asked whether the owners recognised those accounts, we received no response.
Boujee, the bright pink made-for-Instagram restaurant on Bridge Street closed in October last year. In July, the Manchester Evening News had reported that its owners sent an email to staff saying they would be paid just 40% of their wage for the month of May due to “cash flow issues”.
One former staff member told us that the month of May was filled with anxiety. They depended on that money to pay rent and bills, and when they saw the money hadn’t come through on their bank statement, they experienced a sinking feeling. They were squeamish about borrowing money from their parents and cringed at the thought of getting into debt. Still, they started to fall behind on credit card repayments: £50 a month, which might not seem like a lot, but felt like a huge amount of money at the time.
Later that month, a debt collector called asking for an explanation. Fortunately, the debt collector was understanding: after they explained the situation, they were told they could put a hold on it, but the experience left them shaken. “I’ve never had anything go to a debt collector before. I just panicked.”
A second ex-employee, who left amid the chaos, is still owed thousands. They say it felt as though Boujee had prioritised its flashy decor and press buzz over the welfare of its workers. “I’m not staying here to work for someone who’s driving a flashy car, you’re filming in the building, and I’ve got no money for food. It’s not okay,” they told us.
“It played on my anxiety and depression really badly,” one person says, remembering worrying about whether he’d have enough money to pay the bus fare to visit his granddad in hospital. He thinks the business paid for everything it needed to get each month, including stock, and staff came last. “We would be at the bottom of the barrel, fighting over whatever scraps are left.”
Co-owner Lystra Adams, a star of The Real Housewives of Cheshire, did not respond to the claims in this story, nor did the other two owners of Boujee. Judging by her Instagram account, Adams is currently at a luxury hotel in Ibiza.
When workers aren’t paid, they face a dilemma about how to recoup the money. Will polite emails work? What about firm ones? In many of the cases we’ve heard about, the staff members eventually stop receiving any replies. Many of the sources describe a sense of powerlessness. Former staff wonder whether they could club together to afford legal teams, but then wonder if they’d just end up spending more than the money they are owed.
Some have stayed in constant contact with their former employers, but fear making too much noise will mean they won’t get anything. Others have been less cautious. In the case of MUSU, Google reviews began to pop up saying the restaurant wasn’t paying its staff. These reviews, now deleted, sat incongruously beside reviews praising the sushi and a five-star review from an account named “Vinnie Braine”.
“I was just begging anyone,” remembers one staff member. “The accountant wasn’t answering to anyone because she was flooded with emails from Dive because no one was getting paid from Dive,” remembers one. Dive NQ was a bar and grill, now liquidated, that was also owned by Braine and Kamara. When payments at MUSU were delayed, payments at Dive were stopped altogether. “The December pay just didn't happen,” remembers one worker.
It was a busy month, with the World Cup showing, but sources say they still haven’t received any payment for a month in which some were working 60 hour weeks. “[Braine] would just make promises like: ‘I’ll make sure to pay you next week’ or ‘we’re going to set up instalments’ or whatever. And, the majority of the time, the instalments wouldn’t even come through and we’d just be left in the dark.”
At the turn of the New Year, Dive began to collapse. Staff were being paid cash in hand directly out of the till behind the bar. The cash payments brought with them another set of problems for employees, doled out in envelopes each week. “It looks like, since December, I've not paid any tax. I mean, it's just not okay,” says one former staff member. Some have also been contacted by Student Finance England, asking why they have missed loan payments.
Braine continued to implore the staff to stick with him, “He would reiterate that if we stuck with them, and if they get through this crisis,” remembers one source. It wasn’t only staff missing payments but suppliers too. “When we got to January, it came crashing down,” a source says. The bar’s alcohol suppliers were threatening to stop delivering because they had their own backlog of missed payments. “Even our Spotify — which is 15 quid a month — got cut off.”
The company ceased trading in March. In a statement, Braine told The Mill: “Regarding the allegations related to Dive, many of them are untrue and unjust. We made every effort to make the venture successful but were severely impacted by tripled utility bills, rising costs, and a significant decline in trade due to the cost of living crisis. Unfortunately, we could not sustain Dive, and it was a heartbreaking decision to proceed with liquidation. We are actively working with the liquidators to contact all employees and suppliers. We are deeply saddened by these allegations and have always been committed to doing right by our team, suppliers, and customers.”
One former staff member at Dive, who was owed thousands in wages and was being paid envelopes of cash — notes and pennies — made up from the weekend takings, was three months behind on rent. “I had a second job working for Iceland, delivering food, just to be able to be getting through and that wasn't enough.”
Ultimately, the staff at Dive were left feeling powerless and disrespected, and say they have been trying to reach Braine and others involved with Dive, to little avail. “I feel like, I am 20 years old,” says one, “but you should treat me as everyone else, not like a kid. If I’m coming to work in a bar and grill, and in the nightclub as well. You should at least treat me like an adult and pay me.”
A few bad apples?
Insiders in the hospitality sector stress that the cases we have highlighted are worrying, but don’t represent the industry as a whole. “I think there has always been an awareness of a few bad apples,” says one person who works closely with hospitality businesses in the city. “But they don’t tend to be part of the core industry.” They point out that hospitality businesses are under unprecedented pressure because of skyrocketing energy prices and food price inflation. They also say that because of staff shortages in hospitality, good workers can walk out of bad jobs at any moment and find work elsewhere.
John Hamilton, chair of the Manchester Pub and Club Network, a lobbying group on behalf of Manchester’s hospitality venues, told us the difficult conditions in the industry are no excuse. “While times have been tough over the past couple of years, all of us have been working hard to keep people employed, to bring new people into the sector and to treat and pay them correctly for the work done. It’s very disappointing to hear about a small number of businesses who haven’t been true to this ethic.”
When we shared some of our reporting with Bev Craig, the leader of Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester’s lead member for Economy and Business, she said: “Without being able to comment on the details of individual cases, the suggestion that people are not being paid in a timely fashion for their work is of course a very concerning one. The hospitality industry is a key part of what makes this a flourishing city where people want to be — but that success must not be at the expense of the workers it relies upon, who must be recompensed in a fair and timely manner.”
“None of this is a Manchester issue,” the industry insider says, and he’s right: the kinds of abuses reported in this story happen in towns and cities across the country, especially to young and low-paid staff. Nevertheless, it’s an issue that is happening in Manchester — a city that markets itself as a nightlife capital and where hospitality venues are lionised by the culture and hyped to high heaven by the press. If the people whose hard work stands behind so much of the city’s recent growth aren’t getting treated properly, isn’t that enough of a reason to sound the alarm?
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