Former employees of the well-known Calgary restaurant Farm say they feel betrayed after owner Janice Beaton closed up shop without giving them notice, termination pay or accrued vacation pay — only to open a new restaurant in the same location months later.

Chris Hartman, who worked as the executive chef at Farm, is among a group of former staff members now working with Alberta Employment Standards to recover whatever money they can from Beaton.

"I didn't get any vacation pay. I didn't get any severance pay," said Hartman, who figures he's owed about $3,000, not counting bonuses that were also a part of his contract.

Gregory Gannon, meanwhile, estimates he's out $1,450.

"To me, that's a lot of money, because I don't make very much," said the former Farm cook.

"That's like, for me, three months' rent."

Gannon said he and his fellow employees were shocked when they were called in to the restaurant for a staff meeting on Tuesday, May 24 — the day after the Victoria Day holiday — for what they thought was the introduction of a new general manager, only to be told Farm had closed the previous Sunday.

"It was really devastating for some people that worked there for a long time," he said.

'Farm was insolvent'

Beaton, who agreed to an interview after consulting with her lawyer, would say little about the details of the restaurant's closure, other than it could no longer afford to pay its bills.

"My response is that Farm was insolvent," she said. "The corporation was insolvent."

Beaton had previously said the restaurant, located along Calgary's trendy 17th Avenue strip, had seen declining customer traffic, which she blamed on the economic downturn.

Janice Beaton

Janice Beaton closed the doors of her niche restaurant, Farm, in May 2016. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

"It just really got to the point where we just couldn't go on," she told CBC News in late May.

"People are not eating out as much. All of us who have experienced less sales, it's because we have less customers, let's face it."

A new restaurant with Beaton's branding has since opened in Farm's place, named Mabou Cheese + Bar.

Asked if she is an owner of the new venture, Beaton wouldn't answer directly.

"I am, essentially, an employee of that new restaurant," she said.

"There is a new company in place. There is a whole new structure that has not got any relationship with the previous one."

Corporate registry searches, however, reveal that Mabou Cheese + Bar is a trade name belonging to a corporation named Janice Beaton Fine Cheese, Inc.

Janice Beaton is listed as the sole director of that company, which has three voting shareholders: Chinook Arch Productions Ltd. (15 per cent), George Baptist (35 per cent) and a numbered company named 1180264 Alberta Ltd. (50 per cent.)

The numbered company has just one registered shareholder: Janice Beaton.

Mabou

Mabou Cheese + Bar opened in the same location as Janice Beaton's previous restaurant, Farm. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The former staff have been working with an Alberta Employment Standards officer who has informed them it's difficult to recover much of what's owed to them as Farm, the corporation, has no money but has not declared bankruptcy.

As director of the corporation that owned Farm, Beaton is personally responsible for the last six months' wages, but that is further complicated because she has filed a consumer proposal — a legal process by which insolvent debtors work with creditors through a trustee over a period of up to five years to sort out their debts.

That leaves the employees in a sort of "grey area," the officer informed them.

"It is a personal Consumer Proposal for Janice herself as an individual, not the corporation Farm by JBFC Inc.," she wrote in an email to the former Farm workers.

"As such, the Consumer Proposal does not make you eligible for the Wage Earner Protection Program."

That program, run by the federal government, covers wages, termination pay and vacation pay for terminated employees but only when their employer declares bankruptcy or enters into receivership.

Farm

When Farm closed, Janice Beaton blamed the economic downturn but has since opened a new restaurant, Mabou Cheese + Bar, in its place. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Hartman said he was reluctant, at first, to go public with his concerns and other employees remain reticent for fear of hurting their chances at landing another job.

"Some people are afraid of retribution. It's a very tight, close-knit community, the restaurant industry," he said.

"There is that possibility that me speaking out right now would make me unhireable. But I just feel it's the right thing to do. If none of these people have a voice, at least I'm able to talk for them."

Gannon said he also put aside his fears and decided to speak out on behalf of his fellow employees and others who might find themselves in a similar situation in the future.

"I basically want that grey area in the legal system to be addressed," he said.

"I also want the money that is owed to everybody at Farm to go back to them."


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With files from Dan McGarvey and Andrew Brown