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Natural Tofu Closes After Water Leak While Owners Face Wages Lawsuit

Natural Tofu & Noodles Restaurant at 40-06 Queens Blvd., pictured early January. (Photo: Nathaly Pesantez)

Feb. 4, 2019 By Nathaly Pesantez

Natural Tofu & Noodles, the Korean restaurant on Queens Boulevard, has permanently closed—about two months after a water main burst on site and while the owners face a wages lawsuit brought by a former employee.

The small restaurant, which opened about 10 years ago at 40-06 Queens Blvd., has been closed since mid-December, although it was unclear if the closure was temporary at the time.

The location, however, has officially been on the market since late last month, according to The Pyramid Group, the real estate broker for the site.

Court records show that the restaurant owners, Jungdo Won and Eun Joo Jang, were hit with a wages lawsuit in late 2017 and have been dealing with it since. Proceedings, however, came to a standstill after a water leak on the second week of December forced them to close up shop, according to a letter filed by their attorney.

The Dec. 19 letter addressed to a Brooklyn Federal Court judge, where the case is being heard, requested more time to carry out legal proceedings due to the difficulties in getting the restaurant reopened.

“Given that restaurants tend to do a lot of their business this time of year, this closure is a huge setback that could have devastating consequences for defendants, as well as their employees who are unable to work during one of the most profitable times of the year, and requires defendants to focus almost exclusively on getting the restaurant reopened,” wrote Michael Taubenfeld of Fisher Taubenfeld.

“As a result, defendants are in the process of hiring contractors to permanently fix the leak,” he added.

Taubenfeld, however, wrote in the letter that the leak was caused by the vacant supermarket next door, and that the Department of Health had ordered the restaurant to temporarily close as a result.

In a Jan. 23 letter requesting yet another extension, Taubenfeld added that the owners have been “unable to get the landlord to fix the leak,” despite the prior letter noting that the restaurateurs were set on hiring workers themselves to fix the problem.

The attorney also said that Con Edison shut down the gas to the restaurant “as a result of the closure.”

The DOH did not respond to requests for comment. The landlord, which operates under Ownership Realty, was unable to be reached for comment.

But David Michael, the Pyramid Group listing agent for the restaurant site, refuted the lawyer’s account, and said there was no water leak issue with the vacant supermarket next door, which he is also the listing agent for.

He added that it was up to the restaurant to fix the break apparently contained on site. The restaurateurs, however, decided to stop holding onto the site about two weeks ago.

As far as the lawsuit, Sunkyung Choi, who worked as a waitress and then a manager at Natural Tofu for about 10 years until 2017, alleges that the owners had failed to properly compensate her and other employees over many years.

The lawsuit, filed as a class action on behalf of all Natural Tofu’s employees, claims Won and Jang, who ran the restaurant together, allegedly broke several federal and state labor laws by paying Choi and others below the minimum wage, retaining tips, and failing to pay overtime.

Choi claims she was paid a flat daily wage in cash regardless of how many hours she actually worked beyond her shift, which she often did, according to the suit.

The owners allegedly set her pay at no more than $40 a day for a 12-hour shift when she first started, and paid her $20 a day for “half days,” or five-hour shifts.

Her pay, which came bi-weekly, was allegedly never more than $70 for a full day, and $35 for a half day.

The former waitress and manager also claims there was never a fixed time for a break during work hours, and that the owners allegedly retained some tips from credit card purchases.

Choi is seeking to be awarded all her alleged unpaid minimum and overtime wages, plus an extra 25 percent on unpaid wages until 2011, and 100 percent after that, among other liquidated and punitive damages.

The restaurant owners have denied the lawsuit’s allegations, and said in response that they have acted in good faith and believed their pay practices were within the law.

The case was initially set to be resolved through mediation, but the parties did not settle and decided late last year to move the case forward, now in its discovery phase.

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5 Comments

Woodside Al

This is really too bad. They’ve been closed since around the time of the big fire, and had a sign out for a while that they would reopen soon. I really liked their tofu stews (soondubu jigae) and their other food and went there pretty often.

While some of this sounds like a landlord’s convenient way to get rid of a tenant they no longer want, I am also very unhappy and saddened to hear about this business not paying their workers properly. So this could also be a slick way for the owner to get out of paying them for their work.

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wat

Why bother closing? Even if a sewer main burst on it, it’s not like tofu could taste any worse.

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