Former Comet Cafe workers protest seeking severance pay and support

The closure of two Milwaukee-area restaurants is fueling a local labor movement

Former Comet and Fuel Cafe workers protest outside of a Bel Air Cantina location, owned by the Mojofuco Inc. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Former Comet and Fuel Cafe workers protest outside of a Bel Air Cantina location, owned by the Mojofuco Inc. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Former workers of Milwaukee’s Comet Cafe are putting continued pressure on the owners of the restaurant after scores of employees were fired or let go when the long-time cafe closed in early July. Owned by the Mojofuco, an umbrella company encompassing more than five Milwaukee-area establishments, Comet Cafe, 1943 N. Farwell Ave., shut its doors and just a few days later was followed by the company’s Fuel Cafe on Center St. closing down, with the owners reporting concerns over COVID-19 and profitability.

While employees dispute that explanation, Leslie Montemurro, who co-owns Mojofuco Inc. with Scott Johnson, told WISN 12, “This decision was difficult, but necessary, as both restaurants have struggled to remain financially viable during the COVID-19 health crisis. We are grateful to our customers for their loyalty and support over the years and for our staff who has always worked hard to make these restaurants a welcome gathering place in our communities.”

Former Comet and Fuel Cafe workers protest outside of a Bel Air Cantina location, owned by the Mojofuco Inc. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Former Comet and Fuel Cafe workers protest outside of a BelAir Cantina location, also owned by the Mojofuco Inc. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Montemurro added, “Staff has been informed of the closures. We hope to resume operating at both locations at some time in the future when it is appropriate to do so.”

A growing contingent of former employees turned activists aren’t buying the explanation, however. They feel the closures have more to do with their push to improve the working conditions for staff, particularly at Comet Cafe. William Dugan, a former employee better known by his nickname “Judge Dugan,” saw the buildup to the closure happen first-hand.

Dugan, who has been speaking for the terminated employees, had worked at Comet Cafe since 2019, first as a dishwasher, then as a line cook. “I was a general back-of-house person,” he told Wisconsin Examiner, “I could do it all.” The 22-year-old explained that discontent among staff had grown due to serious problems with the vent fans in the kitchen that created hot stagnant air that the workers were forced to tolerate. “It basically made the entire kitchen a giant oven,” said Dugan. “So that was one thing that people started to call out there. In general, the equipment there was either completely non-functional, or barely functional.”

William “Willbo” Marsh, who worked at Comet Cafe for roughly six years, also saw how older establishments under Mojofuco languished as the restaurant empire continued to expand elsewhere in Milwaukee. “I would say that the biggest problem is that they constantly are trying to expand their business, buy new land and start new projects there,” explained Marsh, “while leaving their older businesses like Comet and Fuel in disrepair.”

William "Willbo" Marsh (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
William “Willbo” Marsh (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Over time, the employees began focusing attention on the issues around their store and communicating with managers about them. Some brought thermometers to spot check the kitchen temperatures, which they say would exceed 100 degrees on hot days. Dugan highlights that the workers then compiled a list of demands and set up a meeting with the owners. The issues, he says, went beyond non-functional heat vents, dishwashers and other equipment.

Isaiah Santiago, a 23-year-old former Comet employee, described how the failing heat vents would also worsen smoke produced by cooking food. In one instance, said Santiago, an oven cleaner used by staff began to smoke up the entire restaurant.

“We were used to that process happening and the back-of-house being smoked out. We were used to it to the point where we would plan our breaks around this,” said Santiago. “Except this particular time it got really bad, and it leaked into the dining room, where the front-of-house saw it. And the customers could see it.” A decision was made to close the restaurant early for the day due to the emergency circumstances. “That right there is an indication that you need to fix the hood vents,” said Santiago.

However, closing early is no light matter at Comet, and Santiago recalled that there have been managers who’ve closed early in the past and lost their jobs as a result.

“Our second point of contention was, what we see as the failed response to the COVID-19 crisis,” explained Dugan. “We opened very hastily and we were informed at the last minute that we would be open for dine-in.” One example, Dugan, Marsh and Santiago all described was the store receiving shipments of hand sanitizer, but not the proper dispensers.

Coupled with cooks having to pull double-duty by serving as dishwashers as well, it made some staff feel increasingly uneasy about their working conditions amidst a pandemic. “Even with the gloves, even with washing my hands,” says Dugan, “that [expletive] still doesn’t sit right.” Santiago adds that Comet felt understaffed, because fewer people were being scheduled. Those who did work were, however, getting paid more, at what Santiago said were labeled “COVID rates.”

During the meeting, Dugan felt that the owners seemed receptive to their requests. Prior to it, employees had begun airing their grievances on social media, which he thinks put pressure on the owners.

William "Judge" Dugan (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
William “Judge” Dugan (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“You own this place,” said Dugan, recalling what was discussed. “You’re supposed to be in-tune with what’s going on there.” Despite having an opportunity to speak to the owners, Dugan said he and others were shocked to discover that they were going to lose their jobs days later. Some found out through a message sent through a scheduling app used by staff, while others found out through news coverage being shared on Facebook.

The former employees are skeptical that the closure had to do with either COVID or financial concerns as the owners claim. “They’re planning on having a grand opening for their new taco place in Shorewood,” said Dugan. Former employees, however, weren’t ready to walk away quietly into a new reality of being unemployed. On July 28, dozens gathered outside a Mojofuco-owned BelAir Cantina location on Milwaukee’s East Side to make sure their voices were heard.

Chanting “Mojofuco, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side,” as well as the names of the owners, the protesters picketed in front of the restaurant for several hours. With the support of local labor and union activists, the former workers arrived with a new list of demands. Among them were a one-time severance for dismissed employees, improvements to the system of reporting faulty equipment at their restaurants to management, assistance from the company for former employees who did not qualify for unemployment and the prompt re-hiring of former staff at or above their previous pay.

Marsh said the owners are disconnected from the needs and struggles of the people who work in their restaurants: “They are not us. Maybe they’ve earned it, maybe they haven’t, that doesn’t really matter in this case.”

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He added that mismanagement and lack of communication at Mojofuco’s older restaurants are to blame for his lost source of income. “It’s upsetting that they aren’t keeping in contact with their employees to see who’s struggling the most, who needs help, when we have given so much of our time to help them make money. We know where the profits are, we know how poorly we were being paid.”

Montemurro told Urban Milwaukee that each restaurant under the Mojofuco umbrella has its own unique debt and operating costs. “We wouldn’t close a restaurant to avoid making repairs,” said Montemurro.

Regardless, the group of former workers turned young activists plan to keep up the pressure on Mojofuco restaurants and its owners, but are not revealing any details. Plans for the July 28 action, for example, were closely guarded by the organizers so it would be a surprise for the owners.

“We’re organizing the workers,” Dugan said. He noted that union organization is rare in the food industry in Milwaukee. And he encourages more service industry workers across Milwaukee County and Wisconsin to organize for their own cause if they feel their needs are being ignored or if they are being mistreated. Now is the time to do it, asserted Dugan: “It’s the global pandemic, stakes are higher, lives are on the line. Organize and fight for better conditions.”