South Austin Institution Whip In Under New Management
Beloved brewpub faces new challenges and former employees’ grievances
On a Monday afternoon at Whip In, a small crowd dines at the beloved no-frills joint, seemingly unaware of the trouble brewing behind the scenes.
On one side, a couple of longtime employees cite positive improvements – including upcoming upgrades to the notorious single-occupancy restroom – since Quickie Pickie owner Zahir Prasla purchased the South Austin institution and appointed Martine Pèlegrin (a former Quickie Pickie employee) as general manager. On the other, several former employees believe the recent changes are a disastrous foretelling of the downfall of an icon.
For 30 years, Whip In was owned by founder Amrit Topiwala, affectionately referred to by employees as "Pops." He converted a simple convenience store into a unique bar/restaurant/convenience store model, which eventually included beers brewed on-site. That mixture of Indian cuisine, craft brews, and local live music has led many patrons to hold it up as the best of the "Old" Austin – quirkier and grittier than the newer, more polished hot spots.
Under the management of Topiwala's son, Dipak, Whip In began to struggle, incurring large amounts of debt and hemorrhaging money. About two and a half years ago, Dipak was replaced as general manager by MJ Smith, who made a point of paying all workers at least a living wage and using higher-quality – albeit pricier – ingredients. Months after Prasla took over, he fired or demoted a number of managers and cut wages, to varying degrees, for both managerial and hourly employees. In addition, the restaurant ditched the high-end, locally sourced foodstuffs, cutting ties with local businesses like Farm to Table, presumably to reduce food costs.
Smith believes Prasla was frustrated to find out the business was not a "golden goose" guaranteed to produce endless profits. She claims that during her two-year tenure as GM she helped dig the restaurant out of the deep hole left by her predecessor, Dipak. She says her efforts to raise the quality of food (accompanied by higher menu prices) and boost staff morale had the restaurant breaking even for the first time in years. "When you pay them right, you make more money," she says. "They don't feel abused. They don't walk out with a jug of olive oil." Prasla, she says, didn't have time for that model of management. He wanted high profits immediately and saw locally sourced food and high wages as obvious barriers.
Several former Whip In employees who talked with the Chronicle concur with Smith's assessment. According to their version of events, Prasla was largely absent from the operation during the first three months of owning the restaurant, and even made assurances that things would keep running as before. Gradually, however, he and the consultant (a former Whip In and Quickie Pickie manager) he brought on began to make changes, culminating in a May staff meeting in which Smith was fired and others were told to accept pay cuts or leave.
"Thank goodness, I got out," says Devin Steuerwald, a former manager. "They're not looking at what works, they're just cutting things to save money." After Smith was fired, he says, the restaurant went over a month without live music. The new GM, Martine Pèlegrin, charged him with securing bookings but then, two months later, sent an all-staff email announcing that Steuerwald would be removed from the position. She also proposed making waitstaff pay the credit card fees charged for their tips, a plan she backed off of later.
Steuerwald and Shaun Verespej, the former head chef who also quit in response to the new ownership, say they are both owed pay for vacation they didn't take, as per the contracts they signed with Topiwala. Verespej recounts tracking down Prasla at Quickie Pickie to discuss the money he is owed, only to be told to wait before seeing Prasla drive away. Verespej is suing in small claims court for roughly $4,000, and says he and others feel "betrayed" by Topiwala for selling to someone he knew to be a shady businessman.
Emily Lowe worked for Prasla as Quickie Pickie's general manager after he hired both her and Pèlegrin away from Whip In in 2013. A veteran of the restaurant industry (who now works for a financial start-up), Lowe describes her 13-month stint under Prasla as "the worst working experience of [her] life." Prasla was an abusive boss, she says, making frequent comments about her weight and sometimes even screaming at subordinates. Lowe says he almost never paid her on time, and required her to cash her paychecks at his other convenience store, which charged a check-cashing fee.
The most intriguing part of Lowe's story is her description of Prasla's relationship with Pèlegrin, the current Whip In GM. During her time at Quickie Pickie, Pèlegrin constantly fought with Prasla and even quit on multiple occasions. After the final exit, Pèlegrin was able to collect unemployment because she proved her pay had been inconsistent. Lowe did not have the same luck. After leaving the store during an interaction with Prasla, she was told by the other business partners to take the day off and that they'd be in touch. They didn't respond to her subsequent calls, however, so she concluded she was fired and applied for unemployment, which was granted. It was later denied, on an appeal filed by Prasla, who argued Lowe had quit.
That he won the appeal, says Lowe, "is mind-blowing." Even more bizarre is the fact that Pèlegrin is now back working for Prasla, who also offered Lowe another job months after they parted ways. "It was so bizarre," she says. "It doesn't make sense that he would want me back given all the things he had said about me. He said in the unemployment hearing that he was never satisfied with my work."
Prasla and Pèlegrin tell a dramatically different story about how things have gone down.
"In my experience, Zahir [Prasla] is an extraordinarily fair-minded and fast-learning businessman who has built a tiny local business group through flexibility, creativity, pragmatism, and hard work," says Pèlegrin. She concedes that there was "some unhappiness" in their earlier relationship at Quickie Pickie and that Prasla and his partners made "a variety of mistakes that led to my success in securing unemployment benefits." All of which, she says, he has "acknowledged and apologized for."
Prasla also insists he has been nothing but fair with his workers. The abusive comments alleged by Lowe are "all made up by her," he says, although he acknowledges offering her a job later, calling her "talented."
While Prasla and Pèlegrin acknowledge the pay cuts and firings, they describe them as necessary moves to save a business that had been run into the ground by managers who spent excessively, and inflated their pay far above industry standards. Rae Wilson, a wine consultant who has worked with Whip In for years, says she saw the previous managers make bad decisions, including stocking up on expensive wines that were unlikely to sell at the casual neighborhood joint. "I now work with a more organized staff," she says.
"There were huge basic fiduciary responsibilities of management that were not being seen to," says Pèlegrin. She refers to Smith and other managers as "kleptocratic" and describes herself as "shocked that they're entitled to spend all of other people's money and not have any accountability for it."
Prasla says he agreed to give ousted general manager Smith three months to prove her way of running the business worked, only to see tens of thousands of dollars evaporate, with little explanation. After that, he says, he had no choice but to find new leaders. "If your old management is not making you money, why would you want to keep it?" he asks.
He denies owing Verespej vacation pay, claiming it was an agreement struck between the employee and the previous owner.
Prasla's general version is backed up by Gabe Terrazas – a Whip In employee for more than a decade – who, according to some former employees, was a beloved manager to whom workers are loyal. Terrazas says he is not surprised by the criticisms of Prasla and Pèlegrin by Smith and Verespej but was "very saddened" to hear about others attacking his new bosses. He says it is refreshing to work with leaders whose decisions correspond to numbers. His pay cut was bigger than anybody else's, but he says he was willing to take it to help the place he loves get back on its feet. "My salary will go up again at some point," he says.
Asked about the situation, Amrit Topiwala shrugs it off. "Most of the employees are still there," he points out. He was unaware of the pay cuts, but wasn't surprised to hear about them. "I actually felt like we were overpaying a lot of people," he says. A living wage in the restaurant business, he says, "is not always possible." The unhappy workers, he says, are welcome to find employment elsewhere. "The boss is always bad," he says.
Without an insider's view of the books, it's practically impossible to figure out which version of the events more closely resembles reality. Even the few records that are available yield competing narratives. For instance, Verespej says he has continued to receive invoices from Whip In vendors – including Farm to Table – which he sees as evidence that the current management is not paying what it owes. Asked whether he was owed money by Whip In, Farm to Table owner John Lash told the Chronicle that he'd check his records. A few hours later, Pèlegrin reached out to the Chronicle via text, saying that she'd received a call from Farm to Table, informing her of the unpaid invoices. "They were part of the $12,000 in unpaid bills left by the outgoing management," she said, adding that her predecessors' decision to contract with the high-end Farm to Table was a "perfect example of their profligacy." The next day she said "we owe you thanks for looking into the unpaid invoices" and said that she would be meeting with a forensic accountant to further examine "where money went."
Will Whip In's new business practices succeed? And if so, will the workers share in the success? Only time will tell.