We’re standing outside Gourmet Heaven on Broadway in New Haven at around 6:30 at night.
It’s dark, it’s freezing, and everyone passing looks like they’re in a hurry-probably to escape the cold. But the handful of protestors-about 10-15 this time-are undeterred by the elements. They’ve been at it since the end of August, when allegations regarding wage theft at Gourmet Heaven first surfaced and prompted a Connecticut Department of Labor investigation, and members of the organizing group Unidad Latina en Accion, (ULA) say that the weekly Friday demonstrations will continue until the workers are given the compensation they are owed.
“It’s a really big problem,” says Creighton Chandler, a Yale Divinity Student running the protest this week. “If you came in and stole $30,000 from this place, they’d arrest you, and he’s stealing tens of thousands of dollars and he’s not getting arrested.”
“He” is Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho, who brought a branch of the franchise-which has stores in Providence Rhode Island and New York City, as well as an additional Whitney Avenue location in New Haven-to the Elm City on the request of Yale University.
“Yale has a lot of power,” says John Lugo, an organizer with ULA, at one of the group’s weekly meetings at the People’s Center on Howe Street. “They can say ‘we brought you to this campus, and we can kick you off this campus.”
The store-a 24/7 business-has been a draw for college students looking for a quick snack during all-night study sessions, but the convenience has translated into longer hours for store employees who aren’t getting their buck for their bang.
The allegations are that Cho has been paying them $5 an hour to work six days a week. Employees are on for 12 hour shifts and are owned more than $200,000 in minimum wage back pay, according to ULA, which campaigns for immigrant labor rights in the New Haven area.
“Just think about how much money he has taken for the past 10 years,” Lugo says. “He’s been able to open up three other stores.”
They just got some of that-the statute of limitations allows them receive reimbursement for up to 2 years-but this week a new development has come up. Gourmet Heaven has fired four of the workers, allegedly as retaliation for raising the issue.
“That’s a common practice,” Lugo says. “You speak out, and they fire you. You don’t have the power, so they try to do whatever they want.”
At the protest, that’s added more fuel to the fire. One customer walks out of Gourmet Heaven with a bag of chips and is met with a picket line.
“Look, that’s got nothing to do with me,” he says to the group. “I just went in there to get my chips.”
Chandler points out Julio, one of the workers who has been fired and is protesting tonight.
“Do you remember Julio?” he asks the customer. “The guy who always made your sandwiches? Well he just got fired.”
“Wow man, I’m sorry,” the patron says. “I support your right to be here.”
For ULA, the responses have varied. Passing cars honk their horns in support at the site of the circling picket line chanting slogans such as “Mr. Cho, pay what you owe!” Demonstrators even convinced a couple of New Haven cops assigned to police the picket to take their business elsewhere when they wanted a bite to eat one week.
“Sometimes people go ahead and go in,” Chandler says. “I even left a flier in the fruit. He [a would-be customer] just looked at it and left. It’s small victories, but I think it’s keeping the owner on notice with publicity.”
As the campaign has gone on, the list of demands has grown with the allegations stacking up against Cho and Gourmet Heaven. While the campaign has shifted to demanding that the workers be rehired, now the store is being accused of withholding overtime wages. While the workers have filed separate Department of Labor complaints for both the overtime and firings, ULA is at the table looking for ways to levy even more pressure on the chain.
It’s the Monday meeting following an eventful week for ULA and the fired Gourmet Heaven workers. A press conference in the middle of the week to announce Cho’s dismissal of the employees brought students and other supporters out en mass for that Friday’s picket. Julio, who sits around the crowded table at the People’s Center, is pleased with the reaction.
“I think we made a big accomplishment that day,” Julio says to the other members. “Many people came together-many students became aware of what is going on. You could tell there was a difference, and I’m happy people are supporting.”
The next step is to figure out how to best use the momentum they’ve harnessed, Lugo says.
With that, ULA members begin discussing ways to hit the franchise as a whole.
“The goal would be to have a boycott in all four locations,” Lugo says.
In Providence, Gourmet Heaven’s niche of customer’s is nearly identical-the store is frequented by students from Brown University. They can turn that base against the business, and rallying the employees should not be difficult either, Julio says.
“He’s probably paying the same exploitation wages in Providence,” he says.
Cho could not be reached for comment.