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Workers at California vegan restaurant Sugar Taco went on strike on Labor Day, protesting an unattended cockroach, ant, and vermin infestation in addition to perpetual understaffing and overworking BIPOC employees, sources reported to Prism. The workers say they were let go the next day, despite Sugar Taco’s branding as a morally conscious workplace. 

“It was a really hazardous environment,” said a worker who participated in the strike and asked to remain anonymous. “Right off the bat, there’s no real training, there’s no manager, there’s not really any regulation of anything whatsoever, and toward the end, it just became a really dirty place to work in.”

When Sugar Taco first opened in Los Angeles in 2018, it was hailed for being a woman-owned vegan Mexican restaurant that promised to be eco and animal friendly. They have solar panels on the roof, reuse and reclaim materials, and donate proceeds from specific menus to animal rescues. It was exactly the type of intentional, sustainable company that Ash Pavesio wanted to work at when she first moved from New Jersey the last week of April 2022. Within a week, she was working as a server at Sugar Taco, but she quickly learned that their morally conscious branding did not apply to their treatment of workers. 

Pavesio worked at the Sugar Taco in Sherman Oaks for just a month and a half, which opened in early 2021. Pavesio and other workers said the store profits off Mexican culture and has predominantly hired BIPOC servers to perpetuate the image of being authentically Latinx. But, in reality, the store is owned and operated by ex-Playboy model Jayde Nicole and actress Brittany Littleton, with a celebrity list of investors including Alicia Silverstone, Daniella Monet, an ex-Nickelodeon star, The Bachelor’s Kelley Flanagan, and pro-surfer Tia Blanco. 

“They definitely didn’t understand the culture,” said Pavesio. “All of the girls working in the front of house were Latinas, and I didn’t realize that until working there for a couple of weeks, and I’m sure that was to add to this air of authenticity even though the owners are very wealthy and very white. It is really frustrating.”

Pavesio, who is 24, had worked in restaurants since she was 18 and was used to the restaurant dynamic. After just a few weeks, she immediately spotted a red flag: there was usually only one person working in the kitchen, and they would work over 12 hours a day. When Pavesio addressed this with the staff, they told it was the norm for the restaurant.

“I was just concerned for them,” Pavesio said. “It was a very stressful work environment.”

Pavesio soon learned that she was hired after the last shift lead had quit. There was never a manager on site, or even an official manager on staff, so the shift lead acted out the full responsibilities of the manager for just $1 more an hour. According to Pavesio, the shift lead’s responsibilities included inventory, communication with upper management, opening, closing, and handling customer complaints. Without a shift lead or manager, all the extra responsibilities fell on the staff working minimum wage. Pavesio said she believes the owners were taking advantage of inexperienced high school and college students who did not know how a restaurant was supposed to function. Most of her coworkers were 18.

“I think they were definitely taking advantage of the young girls that were working at their establishment,” said Pavesio. “I’ve seen the way restaurants work, and I think they weren’t aware that things aren’t usually run that way. I tried to explain to them that they shouldn’t feel obligated to take on more responsibility without a pay raise. I think the owners knew that, which is I think a real problem.”

Pavesio told Prism that she had a meeting with Sugar Taco co-founder Littleton and explained her concerns that most of the staff was on the verge of quitting. Littleton thanked Pavesio for her honesty and said that she would look into and address the situation. But, according to Pavesio, that was the last time she saw Littleton, and nothing ever happened. Neither Littleton nor Nicole responded to Prism’s request for comment. Shortly after, Pavesio quit in mid-June.

“The customers were never happy because the front of house and back of house were always understaffed and overworked and also underpaid,” said Pavesio. “I was frustrated. Dealing with angry customers all day is really disheartening.”

Pavesio reports that some of the kitchen staff also quit around the same time she did because they were equally fed up with being understaffed on especially busy days like Cinco de Mayo. She said she saw multiple employees cry during her time at the job and even once had a customer scream in her face about how long he had been waiting for his food. The only response Pavesio said she received from the owners was that they were sorry she had experienced that. The worker who requested to remain anonymous also said she was attacked on the job by an unhappy customer, noting that there were occasions when unhappy customers would shout racist slurs at the servers over long wait times. They stated that the owners never came in to check on them.

“I thought maybe things will get better. I thought they were going to hire another shift leader or manager, and they didn’t,” Pavesio said. “It was entirely disheartening and really frustrating to see that even though they were very concerned with recycling and having reusable materials for their guests, they weren’t concerned with the well-being of their staff.”

The worker who asked to remain anonymous worked at Sugar Taco for four months. They began in May, and tensions continued to build. At one point, a few servers called out, and one server was forced to do everything alone. 

“That would happen many times,” they said. “It was to the point that customers had to come and help me. It was honestly the most chaotic work environment.”

Meanwhile, cockroaches and rats continued to show up throughout the restaurant. When the workers confronted the owners about the issue, they brushed it off as a byproduct of the hot summer months. Eventually, the owners did spray a chemical insecticide for the roaches, but they forced the workers to remain in the space and work even though people are supposed to evacuate the space for two-to-four hours post-spray.

“All the girls that were working that day got really sick from the fumes and didn’t feel good for a couple days after,” they said. 

After months of trying to get the owners to address understaffing and the unsafe, unhygienic work environment, Sugar Taco workers finally agreed to strike on Labor Day. They sent a message to the owners that they would not go into work on Labor Day out of protest. The owners responded asking why and feigning confusion. Without any notice, all the workers who participated in the strike were let go the next day, having been kicked out of both the payment portal and scheduling portal. Their last check had to be sent through Zelle.

“[The owners] didn’t tell us that we were fired,” said the anonymous worker.

After a Los Angeles County Public Health complaint and inspection on Sept. 8, Sugar Taco was found in major violation of having rodents and other animals in the premises, in addition to the space not being properly cleaned. Their permit was suspended, and they were allowed to reopen on Sept. 14 following a successful re-inspection.

Pavesio and the worker hope that Sugar Taco owners will be held accountable for their negligence. Another worker tweeted a call for a boycott of the establishment for “work[ing] their BIPOC staff to the bone … and [having] no real concern other than money.”

“I feel like they probably think they have immunity or are above the law, and I don’t think that should be the case for anyone, especially when so many people got upset enough to strike,” Pavesio said. 

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...