Bottle after bottle of pricey liquor reflects off the mirror behind Krave's expansive bar. They're arranged on three shelves, the tallest probably too high for short bartenders to reach. But it doesn't matter -- it's not the booze, it's the vibe that counts at Krave. That's what dazzled Ashu Howard from the start.
"The impression when you go in is 'This is a high-class nightclub,'" he says of the recently remodeled Flats hangout, which pumps high-energy house music across two dance floors, a VIP room, and a "Bedroom" lounge, complete with four posts and a mattress. "I worked in New York City for a long time, and I'd say it's as nice as any club there."
Howard had just moved back to his hometown after more than a decade as a floor manager in a Big Apple club. Landing a similar job in Cleveland would be perfect, he thought. And for a while, it was.
He joined Krave as a bartender in late October and was promoted twice in his first month; by December, he was named general manager. Among his first duties was checking the 60 messages that had piled up on Krave's office phone. But when Howard pressed play, he was stunned by what he heard: Nearly every caller was demanding money from the club, he says.
"Here I am in a brand-new job, and it's a really good deal," he remembers. "You're almost in denial. You don't want it to be true."
But Howard's next month at Krave told the story. According to more than a dozen current and former employees who worked under Howard last fall, stiffing workers is a time-tested practice for Sandra and Chris Kanieski, the mother and son who operate Krave and two other Flats bars, Shark and the Beachcomber.
Robert Ramsey claims he worked upwards of 30 hours each week for more than a month, doing maintenance that was supposed to land him $6 an hour. "I didn't see a dime," he says.
John Abramczyk says he toiled at all three clubs for more than a month, averaging 50 hours a week. He walked after receiving only $100. "I guess they screwed everybody," says Abramczyk, recalling how former employees routinely stopped by seeking paychecks. "Every night someone would come in. It happened at Shark. It happened at Krave. It happened at Beachcomber."
Sandra Kanieski counters that all her employees are paid in full. "If you come to work and you do your job, then you get paid for that," she says.
The Kanieskis' business history, however, suggests that things aren't always so cut-and-dried. The roll call of past bars they've run reads like the yellow pages: Blind Willy's, Boiler Room, Brick House, Hunt Club, Pulsations on the Water, Rock and Roll Bar, and Zanzibar, among others. They took over the venerable Flats club Fagan's in 2002 and ran it aground a year later.
According to court records, the Kanieskis' clubs have been successfully sued at least a dozen times over the past 15 years, mostly for withholding payment. Among the most egregious cases: A reggae band won a judgment of $4,500, and a pair of food suppliers were awarded $96,000.
During the 1980s and '90s, Sandra Kanieski also operated an investment company that seems to have invested heavily in herself. In 1997, she was sentenced to 48 months in prison for fraud and ordered to pay more than $565,000 to seven clients who had entrusted their money to her. Chris was convicted of money-laundering in connection with the scheme. (He did not respond to interview requests.)
"That's all in the past," Sandra says. "What does one have to do with the other?"
Among the similarities, it appears, are underperforming businesses. The Kanieskis' three Flats clubs are only sparsely populated, even on Fridays and Saturdays. "They don't have much business," says a current bartender, who asked not to be named. "It's very poorly run."
Perhaps not surprisingly, turnover is high. "We probably went through 10 barbacks and 5 or 6 bartenders within a month," says Eddie Meyers, who tended bar at Krave for seven weeks last fall. He says he averaged 50 hours a week at the bartender's wage of $2.25 an hour, but was paid only $200 in all. (Sandra Kanieski says Meyers was "paid in full.")
"It was a running joke," Howard says. "Bartenders would ask me, 'When are we getting paid?' I'd just say, 'Probably never.'" Howard agreed to manage the club for $300 a week until business picked up. But in more than two months, he claims, he collected only about half of what he was owed.
The final straw came at a Krave College Night in December. According to both Howard and the promoter, more than 200 people paid $7 to $10 to attend, and the club and promoter agreed to split the money fifty-fifty. But at the end of the night, the promoter was handed only $348. Howard and the promoter claim that the Kanieskis had someone pick up the cash at the door several times during the evening, then didn't include those pickups when figuring the promoter's cut.
"I'm always loyal to the people I work for," Howard says. "But you can never put me in a position where I have to lie to someone. I won't do that." He quit on January 6.
Sandra Kanieski knows nothing of the College Night incident. She adds that Howard was fired and that his pay had been docked for various infractions, such as eating or drinking on the job. Similar violations resulted in lower payment for other workers too, she says.
"All they have is allegations. You've got a lot of people who are alcoholics and a lot of people who are thieves."
But for the Kanieskis, the litigation continues: Nine former employees at the Beachcomber have filed suit for $15,000 in back wages, plus $30,000 interest and damages dating to 2004. That case is slated for trial in May. (Plaintiffs and lawyers did not return calls seeking comment.)
Since leaving Krave, Howard has taken a job in telemarketing, though he'd like to return to managing a club someday. In the meantime, he and others are considering a suit of their own against the Kanieskis.
"I think they counted on a lot of people not pursuing it," he says.
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