Salvador Robledo, 60, had worked as a bartender at the Midtown branch of the Hillstone in Manhattan for a staggering 22 years. On Jan. 14, 2023, a Monday, he was called into work by the general manager. Although it wasn’t his usual shift he obliged and arrived at work at 11:30 a.m.
On the door of the restaurant, his workplace, he saw a printed sign that said that it was closed, for good. Bewildered, he walked in and saw some familiar faces clearing up and packing. No one knew what was going on. He was called into the general manager’s office where she was waiting for him with a representative from the human resources department.
Jobless, with no notice
He was told that the Midtown branch of Hillstone would be closing and that he along with most of the other workers would be unemployed. They then handed him a document written in English, chock-full of legalese. It was his severance package.
“I don’t think this is fine,” says Robledo, “but all of this was written by a lawyer so it was very confusing. Lawyer’s vocabulary is hard to understand.”
Since he wasn’t a salaried employee and was paid on an hourly rate, Robledo wasn’t legally owed any severance. The general manager told him that the company was offering him $18,900 because they really appreciated his years of service. They told him he had to sign the document within 21 days or he would forfeit his severance package.
“So I signed it right there and they deposited it in my account. I think they took out taxes. They took out like 51%, so it wasn’t $18,900, it’s just around $9,000,” shares Robledo. He added that it would sustain him for just 2-3 months. He was also very concerned that they canceled his health insurance on the same day, leaving him in a precarious position. At the time, Robleo was not provided with a copy of the severance agreement he signed. New York is an at-will employment state, meaning an employer can legally terminate an employee at any time for any reason.
An experience like no other
Walking into a Hillstone is considered an experience like no other. The tastefully minimal lighting, consistently delicious food, impeccable service in a setting where every table feels like a VIP section draws loyal customers back again and again. This is a chain with almost 40 locations across the United States. It has won over the most cynical people in the restaurant industry from celebrity chef David Chang to Danny Meyer, the owner of Shake Shack.
Jim Lambert, 65, is an artist who has been a Hillstone devotee for 30 years, often visiting multiple times a week with his wife or alone. His love for the brand runs so deep that he has crafted an 80×60-inch oil painting of the Mona Lisa, incorporated with the initials of 503 Hillstone servers that he proudly calls his dear friends.
“They were so incredibly kind, they got to know me and they were the greatest people. I personally go for the community,” says Lambert, “I mean, the food is great but it isn’t just that. They have like a three-layer interview process and they kind of weed out the people [to find those] that really fit their mold. They’re team players, friendly, personable and optimistic.”
This is evidently a restaurant chain that puts a lot of emphasis on the customer experience. It has a stringent selection process and expects its employees, whether in the kitchen or front of house, to pay close attention to the tiny details that make Hillstone unique. The freshly squeezed orange juice, the martinis, the perfectly seared Hawaiian ribeye steak, the trademark dips that leave seasoned chefs weak in the knees.
These details are all made possible by a highly motivated staff of employees and daily wage workers, who work tirelessly to provide the Hillstone experience. Among them was Robledo, who worked his way up from busboy to bartender, a job he loved.
“I worked as a service bartender, so my job was to prepare everything for the main bar station. I was also in charge of receiving deliveries like wine, liquors,” he says, his brow furrowed, “Making drinks is my thing. I was born to make drinks. I made thousands of drinks, maybe even millions.”
So how did a beloved national chain with an impeccable reputation end up closing one of its branches with absolutely no notice to its longtime workers?
“They probably knew for three to four months. I believe that they planned to not tell anybody until the last minute of the last day. To take people by surprise, so they have no reaction,” explains Robledo.
Hillstone did not respond to requests for comment.
For Lambert, one of Hillstone’s oldest and most loyal customers, this was unacceptable. He was on his way to the Midtown branch on a lunch reservation when he received a call from the restaurant informing him that it was closing down. “It just strikes me as wrong, that people give their blood, sweat and tears to a company. To be told that there’s no more job and that today’s your last day,” he says.
Robledo lives in a modest basement apartment in Cypress Hill, Brooklyn. In this spartan, but comfortable space where he resides alone, the only self indulgence was a home gym that he says keeps him fit. Given that he looks a good 15 years younger than his age, it seemed to be working. He told Epicenter-NYC that he was okay, but had no idea what he would do next.
Returning to a changed job market
What he really needed was to find another job but that had its challenges. “I haven’t applied for unemployment yet. I need to understand the market now because I’ve had my job for 22 years. Before, I used to go to the Village Voice when I needed to find a job. But now it’s different,” says Robledo, adding that he needed help putting together a resume and applying for jobs online.
While Hillstone did not do anything illegal, its last-minute closure has raised questions about their business practices and how they treat their longtime workers. Lambert expressed anger at the way the closure was handled and demanded a shift in the company’s policy.
“First of all, an apology. And make a commitment to change their future behavior. If you’re going to put these people through the hoops just to keep their employment. You want them to treat guests like royalty, and you turn around and treat them like trash,” says Lambert.
If you find yourself unexpectedly unemployed, the New York Public Library offers job search and resume writing classes and programs. The Brooklyn Public Library also provides free one-on-one assistance with resumes, cover letters and job searches. We provide some additional resources below. If any of our readers know of potential job opportunities for Robledo, contact us at email@example.com
NYS Labor – How to File For Unemployment Benefits
Access NYC – Unemployment Insurance
NYS Labor – FAQs on COBRA (Continuation of Health Care for Workers)
Make the Road NY – Workplace Justice
Bushwick Ayuda Mutua – Free Food Bank and Employment Assistance
Legal Aid Society – Provides legal assistance to low wage and unemployed workers