Maimon Kirschenbaum, at his office.
If you follow restaurants in New York at all, you've seen or heard Maimon Kirschenbaum's name. It's synonymous with — some would say infamous for — a steady stream of wage-violation la...
Maimon Kirschenbaum, at his office.
If you follow restaurants in New York at all, you've seen or heard Maimon Kirschenbaum's name. It's synonymous with — some would say infamous for — a steady stream of wage-violation lawsuits brought against star chefs such as Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, and Keith McNally (he's won settlements from all three), and he's targeted restaurants like Nobu, Philippe, and Le Bernardin. Depending on your point of view, he's either a modern-day Robin Hood, fighting for workers' rights in a business full of corruption, or an ambulance-chasing bully determined to put the city's restaurants out of business.
Sitting in his office in the Woolworth Building near City Hall, Maimon Kirschenbaum doesn't look like the man whose lawsuits Joe Bastianich once accused of "shaking the very foundation of Manhattan's restaurant industry." Dressed in a Gap hoodie, jeans, and Nikes, the 34-year-old looks more like a kid just out of yeshiva. He even has a signed David Tyree photo on his wall.
But by his own count he's filed somewhere between 100 and 200 suits on behalf of restaurant employees (he filed one against SD26 in mid-March). He's been called things like the "scourge of restaurateurs" or, less dramatically, a thorn in the industry's side — one that's cost New York restaurateurs north of $40 million in legal settlements.
Kirschenbaum actually grew up in the restaurant industry. His mother, a caterer and chef, was the namesake of Levana’s, a pioneering upscale kosher restaurant run by Kirschenbaum’s uncles. He also grew up attending the same Upper West Side synagogue as Charles Joseph, who would later become his partner at the law firm Joseph, Herzfeld, Hester & Kirschenbaum. Kirschenbuam worked at Joseph’s law firm before, during, and after graduating from Fordham law school in 2005. The following year, he recalls, a plaintiff suing Smith & Wollensky for wage violations got in touch after hearing about him from a mutual acquaintance.
Kirschenbaum says, “I didn’t even know there were these kind of cases.” After news of the Smith & Wollensky suit reached the press, Kirschenbaum was contacted by Shameless Restaurants, a now-defunct website that catered to disgruntled service-industry professionals, and asked if he’d post his contact information publicly. Kirschenbaum agreed and got a few more cases that way. "We had a pretty open policy, which was if you have a case against a restaurant, no matter how big or how small, we’re going to take it. It gives you an edge.” Similar wage-violation lawsuits against Heartland Brewery, B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, Nobu, and Jean Georges followed; the latter two, Kirschenbaum recalls, “got insane press."
The timing coincided perfectly with the rise of the celebrity chef: Between 2006 and 2008, there was a large surge in restaurant lawsuits, a phenomenon Kirschenbaum partially attributes to the increased visibility of chefs on reality cooking shows. Every editor knows legal woes of the rich and famous make good copy, and now chefs could be targets, too. "I was a young kid, and I dress like a schlump, and I didn’t have, like, a fancy office or I didn’t look the part or whatever," Kirschenbaum says. "But we started suing people, and it made a big splash, like, 'Oh, I’m suing famous celebrity chef A.'"
Here's how the suits work. The complaints address any of three types of violations: restaurant owners who require staff to share tips with managers or back-of-the-house staff, fail to pay employees for all hours worked (altering time cards to avoid overtime pay, for example), or charge mandatory tips at private events without properly distributing them to the staff.
When a potential plaintiff comes to Kirschenbaum with a complaint, his team files a class-action suit so that anyone who says they were victims of a restaurant's violations can be a part of the case