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Just Crust Stays Committed After Two Years Of Fair Practices

just crustJo Filho, general manager and head chef at the Just Crust, in front of the menu he created for the restaurant.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, co-owner of the Just Crust pizzeria in Harvard Square (49B Brattle St.), is not accustomed to being a restaurateur. In fact, she’s had much more experience suing restaurants than running them. Liss-Riordan is a lawyer who’s earned distinction defending waitstaff and workers from unfair pay practices, lately gaining notice for leading a class action suit against Uber in defense of drivers. So when she bought the Just Crust–formerly the Upper Crust, another company against which she led a class action suit–she was in for a bit of an awakening.

“You can kind of know something intellectually, but it’s different from actually experiencing it,” she told Scout in a phone interview. “Being in the trenches doing it has been a learning experience.”

just crustThe story behind Just Crust is alluded to in its logo: a beaming, aproned worker holding up a sign the way you would at a protest or rally. It’s a stark contrast from its predecessor, the Upper Crust, whose logo shows a dandy man in a top hat riding a bicycle. It’s poetic juxtaposition, considering the backstory that many Cantabrigians may recall. More than five years ago, the rapidly expanding Upper Crust franchise based out of Waltham became steeped in controversy for hiring undocumented workers and underpaying their staff. After the Labor Department forced the company to pay almost $350,000 in back pay, they reportedly cut wages to make up for what they would lose in the federally mandated payouts. Upper Crust would ultimately declare bankruptcy, and its locations were auctioned off.

One of those locations was scooped up by Liss-Riordan and her husband. Since then, they’ve stayed committed to two main tenets of what she believes are essential to best practices for a business: fair wages and sustainability. They’ve standardized wages to $15 an hour (after a few months work), which is almost double the current minimum wage, and employees have a share of the profits.

“We’re trying to impart to the community that businesses can be run with a focus not just on the bottom line but on supporting the people who are making the businesses what they are,” says Liss-Riordan.

As for sustainability, the Just Crust sources its ingredients from local or regional farms. From the flour in the dough, to the tomatoes in the sauce, taking a bite out of a Just Crust slice is like getting a taste of the farms of New England.

“The idea of dealing directly with the farmers is, I think, hard for corporate restaurants, because they always want to make their place more profitable,” says Jo Filho, chef and general manager at the Just Crust. Filho, who has worked under celebrity chef Todd English, says he was attracted to Just Crust based on story alone. He worked first as a consultant to the owners, having worked at a number of restaurants in the area, in March of 2014, and has since stayed on full time.

“This is much more what I am,” says Filho, who grew up on a farm in Brazil, the same country where many of Upper Crust’s exploited workers came from. When he was young, a missionary group from Holland arrived in his area and set up an organic agriculture school. He left Brazil for the United States in 2004, but has always retained a love of fresh, sustainable produce. Now, he says, working at a small restaurant like Just Crust gives him an opportunity to work with local and regional farmers. “I’m happier doing this, changing the experience with the farmer.”

Like any business, the Just Crust has struggled in its first couple of years, but both Filho and Liss-Riordan are optimistic. They’re planning a celebration of their second anniversary on June 30 that they hope will get their neighbors talking again. ROC United Boston, an organization that serves to help improve working conditions for restaurant workers, will be there to recognize the Just Crust as a “high-road” employer. They’re hoping that, with this little reminder, Cambridge residents will pony up and buy some progressive pizza.

“People are making choices every day of where to put their dollars. I think they want to be supporting businesses that are trying to do something good for workers and for setting an example for others,” says Liss-Riordan. “We’re hoping that people will continue to value having a place like this in their midsts and make their choice with their feet and with their money.”

Extra large mushroom – with an ownership share 5/1/13

Harvard Law Bulletin | May, 2013

Although lawyers might scarf down a lot of pizza while working late nights, they don’t often sell it.  But Shannon Liss-Riordan ’96 is planning to do just that from a Harvard Square pizzeria, where she is hoping to turn an infamous case accusing a pizza chain of stealing workers’ wages into an example of how giving employees a voice can be both fulfilling and profitable.

A partner at Boston-based plaintiffs’-side employment and labor law firm Lichten & Liss-Riordan, she will open The Just Crust pizzeria on Brattle Street in Cambridge, just down the block from where she lived with her now husband, Kevin, while she was in law school.

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Former Upper Crust Employees Aim To Avenge Wrongs With Bigger Slice Of The Pie

NPR | February, 2013

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the ashes of the Boston pizza chain that wronged them, some former Upper Crust Pizzeria employees are trying to get their just desserts. They’re opening their own restaurant, hoping to show up the previous owners with even bigger success.

The restaurant sits on a Brattle Street in Harvard Square. Carpenters have been busy renovating the space before the scheduled opening next month.

“We’re trying to have the business continue but give it, give it a new life,” architect Alex van Praagh said of the redesign.

The restaurant’s old life was part of a once fast-growing local chain. But the owners may have been taking the “upper crust” name too literally. They may have been trying to get rich at the expense of workers.

In 2009, the federal government investigated and ordered Upper Crust to pay its employees $341,000 in back wages for uncompensated overtime. After that, workers accused ownership of taking that money right back out of their paychecks.

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Upper Crust To Reopen as ‘The Just Crust’

Harvard Crimson | January, 2013

Harvard Square’s Upper Crust Pizzeria, which closed in the wake of a company-wide legal scandal last November, will reopen as the renamed and partially worker-owned The Just Crust, ushering in a new era for employees of the embattled chain.

Shannon E. Liss-Riordan ’90, who represented Upper Crust employees in a labor abuse case against the management, spearheaded a fundraising effort to purchase the Harvard Square location when the pizza chain’s ten leases were auctioned off in December 2012.

“It’s an exciting new way of supporting the workers we represent,” Liss-Riordan said. “I’m really hoping that we can make a success of it because I’m hoping this can serve as a model.”

In 2009, the Department of Labor mandated the company to pay approximately $340,000 to a number of workers who claimed they were not paid overtime. Liss-Riordan, who is also a graduate of Harvard Law School, filed a lawsuit against The Upper Crust in July 2010, shortly after founder Jordan Tobins allegedly demanded that the employees pay back their overtime wages in order to keep their jobs.

The case was eventually granted class-action status in July 2012, allowing Liss-Riordan to represent all of the aggrieved workers. When The Upper Crust filed for bankruptcy in October and the company closed its 10 storefronts, Liss-Riordan started thinking about a way to reopen the restaurants and further help the employees she had represented.

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Upper Crust pizza case now topped with poetic justice

Boston Globe (editorial) | December, 2012

It’s a real-life twist of fate so delicious not even a Hollywood writer could have crafted it better: After years of legal sparring with Jordan Tobins, founder of the embattled local pizza chain Upper Crust, former employees of the bankrupt company are now poised to take over the restaurant’s Harvard Square outpost. It’s a long way from 2009, when the company was compelled by the US Department of Labor to pay workers around $350,000 in back wages. Employees later maintained in a class-action suit, which is expected to go to trial next summer, that company executives had pressured them to give the payments back.

The plan of redemption was engineered by Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney who represented the employees in their lawsuits against the company. Along with another investor, Liss-Riordan outbid Tobins and other interested parties to take control of the Cambridge restaurant at an auction this week. She has already announced her intentions to offer ownership shares to the chain’s former employees.

Hopefully, the good news doesn’t end there. Liss-Riordan hopes to transform the restaurant into a “model workplace for the benefit of workers.” If she can pull that off, the story won’t just be a feel-good tale fit for the silver screen, but a textbook model of how a company can churn out a profit that benefits all of its employees — while making a killer pie, as well.


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Upper Crust chain divided up at auction

The Boston Globe | December, 2012

The bankrupt Upper Crust pizza chain was sliced up at auction Wednesday, as a private equity firm with ties to ousted founder Jordan Tobins won leases for four restaurants, while an attorney who filed a class-action lawsuit against Tobins and the company for allegedly exploiting workers purchased the Harvard Square location.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, who sued Upper Crust in 2010 on behalf of immigrant employees who claim the business took advantage of workers and seized back wages from them, said she plans to give employees ownership shares in the restaurant.


“We are very excited about buying back the Harvard Square location and making it into
a model workplace for the benefit of the workers,” Liss-Riordan said. “I hope this effort
will provide at least one bright spot in this sad and troubling story.”


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Doors shut at 10 Upper Crust restaurants, about 140 employees are out of work

Boston Globe | November, 2012

Upper Crust has abruptly closed most of its restaurants, let go about 140 employees, and will shut down permanently unless the gourmet pizza chain gets a cash infusion in the next few days, according to a trustee overseeing the Boston-based company.

At a hearing in US Bankruptcy Court Tuesday, the trustee, Mark G. DeGiacomo, said Upper Crust shut restaurants Monday night because it had just four days of supplies and only $14,000 in cash after company executives paid themselves a month’s salary in advance.

The business, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month, needs $120,000 to keep doors open. If the company can obtain funding within few days, it could avoid a permanent shutdown. So far, Upper Crust has closed 10 of 16 locations.

“We do hope that if an investor comes forward, the stores could re-open,” DeGiacomo said. “As a trustee, my job is to sell the business any way – either sell it open or sell it closed.”

No one answered the phones at Upper Crust locations on Newbury Street in Boston, Hingham, Lexington, and Wellesley. Some restaurants, including those in Boston’s Fenway and South End neighborhoods, are routing orders to locations in Beacon Hill and Brookline, which are operated separately by company founder Jordan Tobins and are not part of the bankruptcy. Four other franchise stores in Newburyport, Plymouth, West Roxbury, and Portsmouth, N.H., remain open as well.

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The fault lines under the crust

Boston Globe | December, 2010

MARILAC, Brazil — In this remote valley of sugarcane fields and cattle farms, where horses and bicycles outnumber cars and poverty binds the community like mortar, people searching for a better life have one choice: They can leave town.
The most coveted destination has long been Boston — more precisely, one high-end local pizza chain. The promise of a job at an Upper Crust shop, passed by word of mouth from one villager to the next, offered the possibility of wages unheard of in Marilac, a community of 4,140 people in the mountains of southeastern Brazil.


Over the past decade, dozens of men from Marilac have made the 7,500-mile trek, risking arrest, deportation, and, in rare cases, death. And Upper Crust, founded by Sharon native Jordan Tobins in 2001, welcomed them.


Tobins needed lots of kitchen help; the Brazilians worked hard and didn’t complain about workweeks that routinely stretched to 80 hours. Marilac prospered as Upper Crust’s immigrant employees sent thousands of dollars home, and the company swiftly expanded from its original store in Beacon Hill to one upscale suburb after another.


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Suit alleges Upper Crust took back workers’ pay

Boston Globe | July, 2010

Two former cooks at Upper Crust pizza today filed a lawsuit that accuses the popular chain of taking back thousands of dollars in overtime payments that were ordered by the US Department of Labor following an investigation into the company’s compensation practices.

The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, comes nearly a year after Upper Crust paid more than $341,000 in back wages to about 121 workers for uncompensated overtime, following a US Department of Labor investigation, according to John Chavez , a spokesman for the agency. The chain has 17 restaurants in the Boston area.

Valdeir Pereira Pinto, of Allston, and Cleverson Batista, of Somerville, contend Upper Crust management, after making the lump restitution payments for overtime, told employees they would have to pay it back if they wanted to keep their jobs. Management then began deducting hundreds of dollars from their weekly checks, according to a copy of the suit filed in Suffolk Superior Court. Pinto and Batista, both immigrants from Brazil, said in court papers that they were fired this spring weeks after the company recovered its money.

“It’s not fair that the guys take my money. I work for this money,” Batista, who worked at restaurants in Brookline and Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, said in an interview.

Josh Huggard, one of Upper Crust’s owners, said the chain “learned from its mistakes in the past” regarding the Department of Labor investigation into its overtime payment practices. But Huggard said the company “never ever said [employees] couldn’t work for us or that they had to pay us back.” Huggard said Pinto, who worked at Upper Crust on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, was fired because “he was lazy. He was an awful worker.”
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