- JENNIFER SILVERBERG
- Sushi Ai's offerings.
A lawsuit filed against Sushi Ai Friday alleges the restaurant chain didn't just force servers to share tips with sushi chefs — but also required those servers to pay monetary fines out of their tip money.
Servers at the St. Louis-based chain were fined if they were late to work, broke dishes or waited on customers who returned their food because of a server error, among other alleged infractions, the lawsuit alleges. The fines were taken out of the tips those servers had earned.
That's illegal, the suit says. And now a former server claims she was retaliated against for complaining about the policies — and has filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status to represent others like her.
Sushi Ai opened in 2010
and has grown to three locations in the metro area, with restaurants in Midtown, Clayton and St. Charles.
As the suit details, federal law allows restaurants to pay servers less than minimum wage if they benefit from gratuities given by patrons. But restaurants that take advantage of those lowered wages have to meet certain conditions — among them, that servers get to keep their tips.
Tip sharing may take place — but, by law, only employees who directly interact with customers are allowed to be a part of it. Chefs and food prep workers do not qualify.
At Sushi Ai, the lawsuit says, customers don't place orders with sushi chefs, and the chefs don't hand them their food directly. In fact, most of the sushi chefs don't speak English, the suit says, and cannot "communicate effectively with patrons." Still, the suit alleges, sushi chefs were included in the restaurants' tip pool.
Loretta Gratta, who lives in Alton, worked as a server at Sushi Ai from March 2016 until March 8, 2018. In the suit, Gratta alleges that she was fired after she complained about the tip-sharing and the fines assessed out of the tip pool.
Gratta is being represented by Russell Riggan of the Kirkwood-based Riggan Law Firm. Her suit names the company's owner, Chen's Inc., as well as owner/managers Jian Li Chen and Ron Huang.
The company did not respond to a message at its Clayton location seeking comment this morning. The Midtown voicemail box was full and unable to accept messages.
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