Staff from an incredibly popular burger bar have lashed out at its owners, alleging a toxic work environment and unhealthy conditions.
Staff from an incredibly popular burger bar have lashed out at its owners, alleging a toxic work environment and unhealthy conditions.

Staff slam burger hipsters for 'toxic culture'

Employees of a hipster burger bar have made stunning allegations about its toxic culture with one former manager claiming he was expected to work upwards of 60 hours per week.

Former staff members from the Mary's Group, including senior figures, have told news.com.au of an unhealthy work culture, 18-hour shifts and what they considered to be manipulation tactics.

They allege that working for the Mary's Group - which operates a number of popular venues across Sydney - left them exhausted, ruined their relationships and left them feeling used.

The claims come after the co-owners, Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth, made national headlines in November when they dubbed most young hospitality workers "whining" and "entitled".

Mr Graham and Mr Smyth later told news.com.au their comments had been misinterpreted, and having their words framed as "unloading on staff" or having an "axe to grind with young workers (was) so incredibly inaccurate and caused great pain within our teams and wider industry".

But in their independently provided accounts, several staff members have disagreed with these claims from the business owners.

One former venue manager described the owners' comments as "complete bullsh*t".

"It was one of the worst experiences working for those guys."

RELATED: Mary's stand by public statement after removing link from social media

Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth have reopened the Unicorn in Paddington after a long fight.
Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth have reopened the Unicorn in Paddington after a long fight.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Mary's Group declined to comment on specific allegations made by former staff members.

"To comment on unsubstantiated allegations does not seem sympathetic to the fragility of such sensitive topics," the spokesperson said.

"As a business, we treat all staff matters with the respect and privacy they deserve.

"We are unaware of such allegations and have no claims placed against us. Our back of house systems are an open book to those authorities with a legitimate claim to seek them out."

The former venue manager who labelled those claims "bull sh*t" worked at Mary's in Newtown for a number of years.

The man said he didn't want to be named because he still works in the industry.

The former worker described an unhealthy and toxic culture that took a significant toll on his physical and mental wellbeing.

"There was one episode where I got pushed to such a dark place … I went to Jake and was like, 'I need to make a change'."

"I need to stop drinking. I've joined a gym. Jake said to me, 'You've just replaced one addiction with another'."

RELATED: 'I felt used': Former chef at Justin Hemmes' empire Merivale claims he was overworked and underpaid

 

A former manager alleged he saw the co-owners ‘manipulate people with alcohol’. Picture: John Appleyard
A former manager alleged he saw the co-owners ‘manipulate people with alcohol’. Picture: John Appleyard

Jake Smyth made comments to the Sydney Morning Herald in November about mental health and worker attitudes towards personal responsibility.

"It's just this slippery slope of scapegoating your own mental health responsibilities," Mr Smyth said. "It shows up in poor work ethic, lateness, too much drinking, poor performance at work in general.

"Exercise and hard work and diet change really does a lot for mental health. Co-opting blame doesn't."

But the former manager dismissed these remarks from his former boss, saying his personal experience with Mr Smyth didn't wash.

Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth at Mary's in Newtown. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth at Mary's in Newtown. Picture: Jonathan Ng

The former worker alleges extremely long days were common and claims to have typically worked from 9am until 2am the next day.

After clocking off, the done thing was to drink for a few hours at the venue with co-workers before passing out, waking up shortly after and doing it all again.

"I think what happens to a lot of staff is a form of weird abuse," he explained.

"They don't have an understanding of what poor mental health feels like. It's bizarre and it's scary.

"People think they're being cared for and understood, but they're not being taken care of."

He has sought treatment for mental health issues since quitting saying: "When I left Mary's I was way unhealthy with bad liver function, like a junkie."

DOCUMENTS SHOW 71 HOUR WEEKS

News.com.au has seen payslips and documentary evidence that show a senior staff member worked 71 hours in a single week, and was only paid for 37 hours. He accrued no time in lieu for this period.

In another pay period, the same staff member worked a 54-hour week, and was only paid for 38 hours work. This period included a public holiday, where the staff member worked a 15-hour shift. His pay slip included 7.6 hours of time in lieu.

Other staff members who approached news.com.au for this story also didn't want to be named, saying they believed it would affect their careers in the hospitality sector.

One, a former manager of a different Mary's Group venue, told news.com.au the owners have a "cut and burn" approach to people management.

"Everybody that I know has left on bad terms," the man said. "Typically people don't want anything to do with them after they leave."

 

Another former employee called the co-owners ‘incredibly demanding, incredibly erratic’. Picture: Craig Wilson
Another former employee called the co-owners ‘incredibly demanding, incredibly erratic’. Picture: Craig Wilson

"I had a bad time working for them," he said, describing them as "incredibly demanding and incredibly erratic".

He said he found it difficult to predict what would happen night after night, when Mr Smyth and Mr Graham would allegedly roll into the venue with an entourage.

"They treated the venue like their own kind of clubhouse, (where they'd) not pay for anything, roll in with 10 mates … yelling, swearing, name-calling.

"When they came in late at night it was worse. They'd give alcohol to staff, and I'd have to deal with staff that were inebriated.

"I have to then make sure the staff can finish their shifts, which were long shifts. It was a difficult position because they're your boss, and you can't tell them to f*** off."

He said he felt it was "crazy" for the owners of Mary's to comment on "mental health" in the media.

"I think deep down they know they're wrong. It's literally that old man hospitality attitude, 'we used to work long hours, bla, bla, bla'.

"These guys are selling burgers and beers, they're not Michelin star. They're not under high pressure like the Bourdains (of the world).

"They make out like they came up through the fine dining world but they made it lucky with a dive bar."

A former manager of The Unicorn claimed staff were supplied alcohol during shifts. Picture: Bill Hearne
A former manager of The Unicorn claimed staff were supplied alcohol during shifts. Picture: Bill Hearne

The man also alleged that hours he was expected to work were unsustainable.

"The expectation of particularly salaried staff to work until you're exhausted, you do 20 or 30 hours over your salaried amount, is not unique to Jake and Kenny.

"But I don't have faith the general public care very much."

He said he felt "slightly traumatised" by the experience of working for the Mary's Group and his mind is still prone to rush to the "worst-case scenario".

He said the experience left him a "completely different person".

'IF YOU KNOW YOUR RIGHTS, YOU'RE CALLED LAZY'

A former head chef from one of the Mary's Group venues said the comments made by the owners late last year were "p*ss poor" and "disappointed" him.

When he worked for the company he was contracted to work for 50 hours a week plus "reasonable overtime".

He alleged that through an online system he could see everybody at the venue worked at least 60 hours a week.

"I have no problem working 50 hours, but I want to get paid for it," he said.

"If you want us to work the weekend we have to get paid for it. It's all balanced in (the owners') favour."

The head chef said the experience of working 60-hour weeks destroyed his personal life and ended his relationship.

 

‘It’s all balanced in (the owners’) favour,’ a former head chef said, saying he worked excessive overtime.
‘It’s all balanced in (the owners’) favour,’ a former head chef said, saying he worked excessive overtime.

"I didn't have (a life) when I worked there. My relationship broke down. I was working all day, all night. I hated the experience," he said.

"They sold it as 'the good job'. But not a single part of that happened.

"The other workers had the same problems. You can't sustain a relationship when you're working 60 hours. Your partner says, 'Why are you working for free?'"

The man said he has worked in hospitality for two decades.

While he has encountered similar attitudes to staff pay, he called the comments from Mr Smyth and Mr Graham a "slap in the face".

"It comes down to this - I worked 38 hours I deserve to get paid for it. I worked 50 hours, I deserve to get paid for it.

"McDonald's does it. Red Rooster does it. There's no mentality of laziness. We just know our rights.

"If you know your rights, you're called lazy."

News.com.au put a detailed list of allegations to the Mary's Group and offered the opportunity to respond.

Apart from the brief statement included above, a spokesperson declined to comment.

Originally published as Toxic culture: Staff slam burger hipsters


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