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.”
The 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.”