Z&Y Restaurant, one of the better known and acclaimed Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, is the latest local restaurant to have to settle a wage-theft case brought by immigrant employees — this time to the tune of $1.6 million.
While owners Jun Yuan "Michelle" Zhang and Li Jun Han are admitting no wrongdoing, their attorney tells the Chronicle that they chose to settle the case rather than incur more expenses defending themselves. The pair were facing both a host of citations from the state's Labor Commissioner, and a separate lawsuit over tips brought by a group of 22 workers. Now, those workers will split the settlement, which includes $600,000 in back tips. Also, five of the workers will get $70,000 each to settle claims of retaliation — the workers say that after bringing their complaints to the state, they were docked hours, disciplined, or fired.
The case dates back to 2018, as the Chronicle reports, when the Z&Y staff members were inspired to make their complaint by 133 workers at Kome Japanese Seafood Buffet in Daly City, who won a $2.6 million wage-theft settlement last year. The workers at Z&Y, servers, bussers, and cooks who are all Chinese or Taiwanese immigrants, say that they were made to work 13-hour days but only paid for the eight hours the restaurant was open — denied a minimum wage, and never paid overtime. They also claim they were denied any breaks — one worker, John Wang, tells the Chronicle "I can’t even use my fingers to count the number of times I used the bathroom at Z & Y." — and they say that the restaurant owners took a portion of their tips as well.
According to Palyn Hung, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus who helped to represent the workers, the restaurant had a policy of subtracting credit card fees from workers' tips, in addition to keeping a portion of them off the top.
The restauranteurs' attorney, Seth Weisburst, tells the Chronicle, "The restaurant and its owners never ‘stole’ any wages or tips from employees, nor did they retaliate against any employees. That simply did not happen."
The story of these allegedly exploited immigrant workers is a familiar one. The owners of popular dim sum destination Yank Sing were made to pay $4 million in lost wages to a group of workers in 2014 over similar claims. Indian restaurant Udupi Palace was dinged by the Department of Labor the following year. And last June, the owners of Burma Superstar and Burma Love settled a class action suit brought by 353 current and former workers, paying out $1.3 million.
Hung represented the Burma Superstar workers as well, and she said that they were scared to make their complaints known because of trauma they experienced with authority figures back in Myanmar.
Z&Y Restaurant opened in 2008, and in 2016, then Chronicle critic Michael Bauer was convinced to eat there by his friend, the local doyenne of the food world Cecilia Chiang (R.I.P.). He wrote that chef-owner Li Jun Han (who also owns Chilli House on Clement) had a "compelling" way with flavor and spice, and Chiang raved that he "really knows Chinese food." The restaurant subsequently landed on Bauer's Top 100 from 2016 to 2018, after Chiang urged him to include more Chinese restaurants.
Z&Y has not made the cut for Soleil Ho's Best San Francisco restaurants, but she did shine some praise on Chinatown spots Capital, Good Mong Kok Bakery, and Hing Lung Co.
On the restaurant's website, there are photos of various celebrities and dignitaries who have eaten at the restaurant, including President Barack Obama and Alice Waters (and Chiang). And it boasts that Chef Han has "served two Chinese presidents" in his former role as executive chef at the Chinese Consulate-General.