PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — After two Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen restaurants closed their doors on Monday in Panama City Beach and Destin, residents and employees are asking questions and several of those employees are speaking out.
“Christmas is right around the corner,” said Tiffany Wainwright, a former employee at the Pier Park location. “Again, we’re still dealing with a lot of the effects from Hurricane Michael and we want to move forward but this has put us in a spot.”
Her peers at that location expressed similar frustration.
“I feel betrayed,” said Shannon Taylor, a former server.
“Especially those of us who have been there from the beginning, I’m hurt, I’m angry,” said Lori, a former employee, through tears.
Several Pier Park location employees claim they were not paid their final paycheck. Those who were, say they were only paid in cash, but not the full amount they were owed.
“I didn’t get a check, I didn’t get statement saying my taxes were taken out,” said Connie Brickles, one of those employees. “I just signed a piece of paper and they handed me cash.”
Some said they did not receive the paid time off they had earned based on policies with the restaurant’s franchise owner, Phoenix Hospitality + Entertainment.
“When I called Human Resources, I was told the policy did not stand anymore based on termination, in which I was not fired, I did not quit,” said Taylor.
“There’s people that still have not gotten back their 401(k),” said Jodi Swisher, another former employee.
“[They] would not also give us a dismissal letter so that we can draw our unemployment,” said Wainwright.
The restaurant opened on April 1st of this year.
Although the closing came as a shock to many, these workers say they saw the warning signs and were threatened for spreading rumors about the business closing its doors.
“We were called liars, that we were gossipers and hear-sayers, and if it continued there would be referrals and write ups,” said Taylor.
“If we brought up any more of the rumors, they would take our jobs from us,” said Wainwright.
Some of the employees say they believe this is the way Phoenix Hospitality + Entertainment regularly operates, pointing to the abrupt closings of the group’s two other Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen restaurants in Texas last year, less than two years after they opened.
“At this point it’s really looking like these franchise owners were opening up these big ‘touristy’ attraction Paula Deen’s in these areas that brought in a lot of tourists,” said Swisher. “Then they make all the money for the season and then they go bankrupt or they shut them down and leave all their employees.”
Phoenix Entertainment + Hospitality has not given a reason for closing the restaurants and did not return any of our calls or emails.
We spoke to an administrative assistant at Paula Deen Ventures, but they have not yet provided a response or comment.
Some employees wonder if the famous TV cooking show host is aware of the situation.
“Does Paula Deen know this?” asked Wainwright. “Her name is on these companies.”
“We worked under the Paula Deen image of what she set her companies to be,” said Taylor. “We welcome these guests into our home, we welcome them as family. Corp. told us, even on the inside, our employees are even family. Family tells family when the ship is about to sink.”
Now, those employees are threatening action.
“At this point they’re going to have a whole lot of people that are going to have a class action lawsuit against them because they’re just blatantly violating our rights,” said Swisher.