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Workers Speak Out About Toxic Atmosphere at 5th Street Group Restaurants

Trouble in paradise

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Church and Union flag in Uptown Charlotte, 5th Street Group
5Church opened in Uptown Charlotte in 2012 and was recently renamed Church & Union. (Photo by Grant Baldwin) 

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In the decade since its 2012 opening, 5Church — recently renamed Church & Union — has consistently been one of the most popular restaurants in Charlotte. Owners Patrick Whalen and Alejandro Torio have received praise for their flagship establishment, as well as other restaurants under the 5th Street Group (5SG) umbrella, which includes Church & Union and La Belle Helene in Charlotte, and Church & Union locations in Charleston and Nashville.

But now a series of allegations has surfaced accusing Whalen and Torio of fostering a work culture of intimidation, bullying and problematic behavior.

The allegations first surfaced on Dec. 23, 2021, on the anonymous Instagram account Overheard in Charlotte. Queen City Nerve tracked down the sources of the submissions and independently verified their employment at 5th Street Group as well as reviewed multiple emails and direct messages related to their stories.

For this report, Queen City Nerve interviewed three former staff members, two former managers, and an 18-year-old woman who said she interviewed for a job at Sophia’s Lounge, which 5th Street Group managed up until July 2021.

Most have chosen to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation by Whalen.

“So many employees have been witness to the awful work environment, but everyone is scared to come out,” one former manager said.

“Pat is the type of individual that is prone to retaliate if someone disagrees with them,” another former manager added.

5th Street Group reopens 5Church after pandemic

On May 18, 2020, 5Church began plans to reopen its Uptown restaurant as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on.

In an email reviewed by Queen City Nerve, 5Church general manager Brad Grubb promised employees $600 per week to come back for “lots of projects” prior to the restaurant’s reopening.

Staff was told in the email that if they did not want to return at that rate of pay to do the projects, they would be terminated. Grubb did not respond to an email requesting a comment for this story.

“If you choose not to come back to work this week and stay on unemployment, you will not be able to return to 5Church at a later date,” said the email. “It’s not fair for some to kick back and collect unemployment, while the rest of the team is here getting things done to prepare for the reopening.”

Three weeks later, on June 9, Grubb announced pay would be cut from $600 per week to $300 per week. This was three weeks prior to the planned reopening. 5Church promised to make up the difference upon reopening.

“You will all be compensated for the difference over the first two weeks we are open, so this money will be paid back to everyone as soon as we start bringing in some guests,” read an email to employees that was shared with Queen City Nerve.

Employees said they were never compensated for the difference as promised.

According to publicly available data, 5Church was approved for $349,000 in Paycheck Protection Program funds two months prior to that email being sent.

A group of employees, frustrated with the cut in pay, drafted a letter to owner Patrick Whalen. They sent it via an anonymous email account because none of them felt “particularly comfortable” speaking to Whalen directly.

Whalen reportedly responded that he would not have any communication with the anonymous account.

The employees then attempted to take their concerns to Grubb. When Whalen caught wind, he sent a message to Grubb and instructed Grubb to screenshot the message and send it to the employees.

“Going to any manager with this subject is not appropriate, as Brad is not in a position to address your concerns,” said Whalen’s message, which has been shared with Queen City Nerve.

During a private manager’s meeting, the employees’ frustration was once again raised. Multiple people familiar with the meeting told us Whalen stated, “They’re fucking lucky to have jobs at all.” Whalen declined to comment on that conversation for this article.

When 5Church re-opened in late June 2020, server Olivia Fernandez was asked to work at both the Charleston and Charlotte locations. Fernandez told us that, due to South Carolina’s more lax COVID policies, the Charleston location was crowded and many patrons didn’t wear masks.

5Church Charlotte
5Church Charlotte reopened for the first time in June 2020. (Photo courtesy of 5th Street Group)

Because of the workload and packed restaurants, Fernandez took regular COVID tests, worried she’d contract the virus at work. When she did test positive, she says she immediately informed management.

Fernandez was then terminated while in quarantine for COVID. Another server was terminated as well.

Management had housed the two together when they traveled to Charleston to work at that location.

“It was made clear to me that the ownership ultimately made the decision,” Fernandez said. “My manager Brad [Grubb] was the one forced to call us on a conference call as we were still in quarantine and he told us that, against his own wishes, he had to terminate us.”

In an email with Whalen following her termination, which Fernandez shared with Queen City Nerve, Fernandez said, “I hope you take the time to look at what an amazing staff you have and appreciate them going forward, instead of targeting them and blaming them for something completely out of their control.”

She also expressed frustration at finding herself jobless during a pandemic.

Whalen responded, “You don’t get points for being ‘honest’ with management, that’s your responsibility,” and accused Fernandez of knowingly spreading COVID.

We spoke with several former servers and managers who echoed Fernandez’s version of events.

Whalen declined to comment on Fernandez’s termination for this story, saying he did not want to “get into a he said/she said with alleged disgruntled former staff.”

5Church cleans house

In late July 2020, 5Church closed again, this time for several months. In January 2021, the restaurant announced plans to re-open and hire all new staff.

Former servers say they discovered the restaurant was reopening via a social media post from Axios Charlotte.

“None of us had heard anything from management about returning,” a former server said.

Some former servers began calling out 5Church on social media, frustrated that they accepted $600 a week for cleaning projects, then $300 a week — never compensated for the difference as promised — only to be seemingly terminated. Some also criticized the owners for capacity issues during the pandemic on social media.

“The rest of the staff and I were put into an untenable position, forced to serve in an over-capacity bar with maskless guests and a raging owner … or lose our jobs,” said one commenter who identified himself as a former bartender at 5Church.

Whalen then sent some former staffers a group message, which has been shared with Queen City Nerve. In the message, he claimed that, while “close to” the entire kitchen staff had been retained, it was his intention to replace most of the front-of-house staff.

“We want a fresh start with people who have a positive attitude. I do want to clean house to a degree.”

He ended one message by saying, “And next time, please don’t bash me publicly.”

One such potential new staff member included an 18-year-old woman who told Queen City Nerve she interviewed for a job at 5th Street Group in November 2020.

She described her interactions with owner Alejandro Torio as a “really upsetting experience.”

In an interview, she told us she met Torio at Sophia’s Lounge, where she told him she was 18. Despite this, she said she was served alcohol.

“They [Torio and a manager] kept bringing us free drinks,” she said. “We were all really drunk.”

The woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous, told Torio she was looking for a job. She said Torio then exchanged contact info with her via Snapchat, saying he wanted to set up an interview for a job at Sophia’s Lounge.

Although she said the interview was originally scheduled to take place at Sophia’s Lounge, Torio ran 25 minutes behind, then changed the location to a popular NoDa restaurant with live music.

“I thought that was a weird place for an interview, but I really needed a job,” she said.

When Torio arrived for the interview, she said he immediately ordered her alcohol.

“The first thing he did was order tequila shots,” said the woman, who was still 18 at the time. “He started asking a lot of questions about my financial situation … I kept avoiding the questions and finally got him to switch the [conversation] to the job at Sophia’s.”

“During all that, he had ordered us drinks and a couple more rounds of shots,” she said. “I felt really weird about it, but I kept drinking or pouring shots into a bush when he wasn’t looking.”

She said she felt pressured to continue drinking despite the fact that she found it weird.

Torio then reportedly told her that, while Sophia’s Lounge wasn’t currently hiring, 5Church Charlotte would be looking for “all new staff” when the location’s renovations were completed, echoing sentiments of Whalen’s desire to “clean house.”

She soon became “really confused” as to how long the interview was taking, especially since Sophia’s wasn’t hiring. Torio continued to order shots and asked her questions about her financial situation and drug use.

“When he ordered me another drink, I asked how long I should plan on being there because I had plans with my friend after. He seemed upset and said, ‘Oh, you made plans? I made all this time for you. I thought we could keep hanging out,’” she told Queen City Nerve.

Torio then allegedly told her that they should go to Sophia’s Lounge, mentioning that Justin Bieber was staying at The Ivey’s Hotel. She agreed to go.

“He ordered an Uber there. When we were in the car, he asked if we could stop by his new apartment,” she said.

She said Torio offered her a beer upon arrival at his apartment, which she accepted. Shortly thereafter she asked him to take her to Sophia’s Lounge, where the interview was originally supposed to take place, so he took her there.

She said Torio continued to pressure her to stay out with him.

“I kept trying to tell him I was going to my friend’s and he kept trying to convince me to stay,” she said. “As soon as I knew [a friend of mine] was walking to Sophia’s, I ran out and met up with [my friend].”

She was never contacted again about a job at 5Church Charlotte, but said Torio sent her a message on Snapchat a few weeks later.

“He Snapchatted me and asked if I went Black Friday shopping. I said no and he asked why. I was like ‘Oh, I need to pay rent,’ and he said if I wanted to ‘have some fun’ with him, we could work something out financially,” she said.

“I’m pretty certain he was offering to pay me to have sex with him,” she said. “I think that’s also why he kept asking about my finances at the bar.”

She told us she never communicated with Torio again after that message.

Church & Union Charlotte, 5th Street Group
5Church Charlotte reopened for a second time in February 2021. (Photo courtesy of 5th Street Group)

Four former staff members told Queen City Nerve that Torio was known to invite women who were under 21 years old to 5Church and pressure staff members into serving them alcohol.

“Alejandro waved girls through security. They wouldn’t even have their IDs checked,” said one former manager.

“He would consistently have underaged women in both 5Church and Sophia’s,” said a former server. “If we refused [to serve them], a manager would be forced to come out and get drinks for the chicks who were too young. We were supposed to just look the other way.”

“Alejandro repeatedly brought in underage women to the establishments and told management/staff to leave it alone,” another former manager confirmed.

Torio did not respond to emails asking him to confirm or deny these accusations. In an email to Queen City Nerve for this story, Patrick Whalen denied the claims on behalf of Torio.

5th Street Group’s COVID response

Between April 20, 2020, and Jan. 28, 2021, 5th Street Group restaurants received at least $3,137,586 in Paycheck Protection Program funds. The Paycheck Protection Program (or PPP) is a loan designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on payroll.

According to public records, Patrick Whalen reported to the PPP program that he’d used the funds to retain 95 employees at 5Church Charlotte, despite “cleaning house” upon reopening.

In an email for this story, Whalen responded to these possible discrepancies by stating he did not recall the exact application process, but said “roughly 80-90%” of the Paycheck Protection Program money went to payroll. He described the reported number of retained employees to be “in the ballpark.”

Whalen’s Small Business Association loans have been forgiven, and he and Torio recently announced plans to open two new restaurants.

Whalen has been a media darling since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The Washington Post covered Whalen’s “Tip the Kitchen” initiative. Charlotte Magazine named Whalen, Torio and 5SG co-owner Jamie Lynch as Charlotteans of the Year.

In an op-ed for Charlotte Observer, Whalen railed against those who dared to criticize restaurants during the pandemic, stating, “Supporting local means shutting your mouth for a while about your mediocre experience … Otherwise, there’s a table ready for you shortly at Applebee’s.”

In a December tweet to his 1,415 followers, Whalen wrote, “I’m not closing my restaurants again because people refuse to get a life-saving free vaccination. There’s literally nothing anyone can say to me to change my mind.”

But for all the acclaim, some of Whalen’s former staffers characterize 5Church Charlotte’s pandemic response as reckless and toxic.

When one manager put in their resignation notice, citing extreme hours, being talked down to by Whalen, and “very little incentive to put ourselves through it, except that we are lucky to be part of the ‘family’ and we are replaceable,” Whalen set up a three-way call with them and another manager., during which he allegedly called the resigning manager a “piece of shit” and forced them to vacate the premises immediately, telling them they were banned.

Again, Whalen declined to respond to most of Queen City Nerve’s inquiries for this story, but in an email to Queen City Nerve, he defended his actions and those of his co-owners.

“While we have some regrets that only retrospect will reveal re: covid and 2020, none of those regrets amount to anything to be ashamed of,” Whalen said. “There’s very little we would re-do if we had to go back and do it again.”

During reporting on this story, counsel for 5th Street Group sent a cease and desist letter and threats of a defamation lawsuit to the author that copied Queen City Nerve and Overheard Charlotte as recipients. They have already taken legal action against the author of this story and multiple former employees in response to posts on social media.

[CORRECTION: An original version of this story wrongly stated that 5th Street Group owned Sophia’s Lounge. 5SG only managed the establishment at the time of the incident explained in the story and, as of July 2021, no longer has any connection to Sophia’s Lounge.]

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11 Comments

  1. This article showed incredible bravery and justice for workers. I just subscribed because of the depth and diligence. GREAT job!!

  2. As a former employee I can attest that the way ownership is portrayed in this article is accurate.

    I remember vividly being told by ownership that “We were lucky to be working at 5Church and that there was no one else in town making more money than we were”.

    They’re a joke.

  3. All the info in the article is TRUE! Patrick would scream at his employees and formed more of a dictatorship with his staff than a healthy working environment. He would make idle threats if he didn’t get his way and disparage most employees! Even when I handed in a written notice of departure to work elsewhere, I was given a very unwelcome exit. They would even have after hours parties with young females when the business was closed.

  4. Thank you for exposing these abuses! I’m so proud of the people who came forward.

    Unfortunately, this is all too common place especially in Charlotte’s restaurant industry. I know of a restaurant whose abuse and trauma expands generations of workers, yet past and present workers are too afraid speak up for fear of retaliation.

    Bravo to QC Nerve, the writers, and community involved for bringing these abuses to light.

  5. I was hired as a manager for Le Belle Helene in the process of opening back up. I came from Cheesecake Factory which is a very well known establishment. I was at Le Belle for 4 days before I noticed the environment. I was asked to work over at 5church, that had reopened, due the the management shortage. That was my last day. The environment was ridiculous. I was speaking with a super sweet bartender when I had first arrived, and by 10pm she had already quit bc the management would not allow her to leave her shift. When the atmosphere turned into a club, the amount of people let in did NOT abide by any of the Covid social distancing guidelines. Alejandro was then there of course, bc it was drinking time. Bullying the hostesses, telling me what I need to be doing, however had not even introduced himself to me. Bartenders slammed. Staff walking out. And all the owner could do was ask for more drinks for he and his ladies. We were asked to put champagne on tables for his ladies whom were VERY young. After I saw the interaction with the staff, had a staff tenured staff member quit in the middle of a shift, saw the lack in COVID protocol and lack of respect for the employees, I was out. That was my last night there. The owners need to be gutted and replaced and the staff that quit due to them should be brought back.

  6. It’s funny not ha ha but funny strange that as of the publishing of the article the big shot owners have not responded to any of the employee’s descriptions of the weird shenanigans that go on under their watch, like everything’s all lies and heresay?

    I’ve never been to any of the establishments, and I’m glad I never spent any money that would go towards enriching the owners lifestyle. Since reading the article, I never will go to any of their restaurants.

    Looking up the owners on facebook it’s strange that the one owner with the young kids and family would be as big of a jerk as he’s portrayed in the article. Weird how he thinks of himself as a family man but treats his employees like end of the shift garbage.

    Restaurants….they bring out the best and WORST in management, and employees aren’t immune to childish behavior either.

  7. I have worked with this group professionally. As to the direct allegations I don’t have knowledge but
    Patrick as one of the owners every day is faced with the struggle of keeping a young work force professional and at work! The government has made it to easy to stay home and get paid. As for the toxic setting, that is the direct pressure of putting forth an incredible dining experience. Ever try to cook with your spouse or someone else in the kitchen? Now x 20 and you have the idea. They consistently deliver great food and service. Sorry to the weak people that don’t get this. You ever watch Gordon Ramsey? Patrick I have never seen him do anything remotely what goes on in that kitchen every show!!! Anyone commenting negatively here you have never run anything successfully in your life.
    Alajandro is the social media and public connection for the restaurant. He has thousands of interactions. Some are going to go bad. I have been around him for years him and NEVER SEEN HIM ORDER AN UNDERAGE GIRL A DRINK. The restaurant could lose it’s liquer license and would never risk this!!! You can find people to say bad things about anyone and this is what the author of this article has done.

  8. Confirmed that they offered all the managers a raise to stay with them after this article came out. Desperation

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