By Derek Spellman
The closing of a Joplin restaurant has left former workers and customers with some questions.
For employees, just when they will get their last check likely is at the top of the list. For some customers, what to do about the gift cards they purchased is probably at the top.
Fender’s Roadhouse, at 3434 S. Range Line Road, is one of several Joplin restaurants to shutter doors in the past two weeks. Fender’s closed early last week, after falling behind on its rent and resultant court judgment that required it not only to pay that rent but also to vacate the premises.
The restaurant formerly had operated as a Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill franchise before the owners decided to convert the operation to Fender’s in September 2009, hoping that a revamped menu of different foods at lower prices would help the ailing restaurant.
“We basically have struggled there for the last couple years,” said Sheldon Oxner, who was the restaurant co-owner when the operation was both Whiskey Creek and Fender’s. Oxner is based in Overland Park, Kan.
The restaurant’s demise has left former employees like Dennis Barlow, who has worked for Fender’s as a dishwasher and prep cook since September, awaiting their final paycheck.
“I don’t know what these guys are doing,” he said of the owners, estimating that several dozen people worked for the restaurant.
Barlow says the owners owe employees for three weeks of work.
Oxner said he thought 10 to 12 full-time employees worked at the restaurant, along with another 20 part-time employees. A phone message left for Scott Umscheid, director of operations for Fender’s, was not returned.
Oxner acknowledges that the owners still owe employees, and he has pledged to pay them either by the middle of next week or the week after. The company, he said, is securing financing to pay the employees.
“We’ll get it handled one way or another,” he told the Globe, noting that the owners were “not running away or hiding” and that he knows “there are people who are upset.”
As for whether the owners were already supposed to pay the employees under law, Amy Susan, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said all wages owed to employees are due at the point they are no longer working for their employer.
If employees have not received those wages, they can lodge a complaint with the department’s Division of Labor Standards and trigger an investigation.
But while the department can investigate and find violations against employers, the state of Missouri lacks “wage collection authority” that can force the employer to pay the employees, she said.
Barlow, of Joplin, for his part said he is weighing whether to a file a complaint.
“I’m not going be quiet,” he said.
Barlow has landed another job at a restaurant, although he said a number of other employees are out of work in a difficult economy, especially for the restaurant industry.
Phone messages left for three other former employees, including one identified by Barlow as a manager, were not returned. Listed phone numbers for the former assistant manager are no longer in service, according to automated recordings.
In addition to outstanding wages, Fender’s also faces customers who have gift cards. Lucy Gilbert, for instance, purchased $75 worth to give as presents for Christmas. She bought hers Dec. 17, but the restaurant officially closed Dec. 27.
“Nobody said a thing to me that they were going out of business,” she said. “I guess you’re just out your money.”
Oxner said the owners also plan to refund money people paid for the unused gift cards, asking them to submit their information to Umscheid, director of operations for Fender’s, so the company can issue them a check.
“It will probably take us another 10 days to two weeks,” he said.
“We have every intention of” reimbursing people, he said.
Customers also can use their gift card at the only other remaining Fender’s location, but it is a good distance away in Paragould, Ark. That restaurant, too, was a former Whiskey Creek franchise.
The state of Arkansas last year filed a tax lien against the now-defunct Whiskey Creek operation there, alleging failure to remit more than $74,400 in sales and use taxes.
A phone message left for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration by the Globe was not returned, although Oxner confirmed the lien and the amount in his interview with the Globe. He also said the owners, including him, have agreed to a payment plan with the state and that they are current with that plan.
Barlow questioned why the company can’t pay its Joplin workers when it continues running an Arkansas operation.
Oxner said the Arkansas operation has been holding its own but never generated enough revenue to offset the losses in Joplin.
“We never made money in the Joplin store,” he said, partly attributing that to its location.
Situated in south Joplin near Interstate 44 and Business Highway 71, the restaurant largely attracted out-of-town patrons, but never took hold with local residents, Oxner speculated. Business further deteriorated after the recession hit.
The Joplin operation started falling behind on its rent back when it was still Whiskey Creek, according to Oxner. It continued lagging behind as Fender’s, prompting a suit last year by the property’s California-based owners, according to online court records.
“They basically gave us an ultimatum” to pay up or leave, Oxner said.
The owners failed to secure financing to keep Fender’s open, Oxner said.
A decision handed down just before Christmas in Newton County Circuit Court ordered the Fender’s operators to pay the property owners almost $28,000 in due rent, plus more than $1,306 in late fees and $5,500 in attorneys’ fees, according to online court records. Fender’s also had to leave the premises.
Barlow said employees received word Fender’s was shutting down on Dec. 26. It closed the next day.
Asked why he did not advise employees sooner, especially if the restaurant was floundering for well more than a year, Oxner said employees already knew the operation was struggling and were already starting to leave.
“They all knew it was in trouble,” he said.
“I wish to goodness we were not in this situation,” said Oxner, 64. “It’s not what I had in my retirement plan. My intentions were not to deceive or hurt anyone.”
Gift card steps
If you have an unused Fender’s gift card and would like to be reimbursed, write down your name, your gift card number, and address, and fax that information to Scott Umscheid, director of operations for Fender’s, at 913-599-0205.
By Derek Spellman
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