The co-owner of a popular restaurant is responding to recent accusations that his acting head chef was unjustly fired.
And several staff members walked out in response to the dismissal, forcing Copperhouse Eatery and Lounge to close on one of its busiest days of the week.
Mark Henry, co-owner of Copperhouse, sat down with the Yellowknifer to discuss claims that his former head cook, Niki Mckenzie, a migrant from New Zealand, was overworked, dismissed with little notice, and left with uncertainty on her immigration status.
“It hurts me and it it bothers me that we can’t pursue a path that we all envisioned was a good relationship,” he said. “I also know that it bothers Niki and that she doesn’t know the future with her immigration process.”
Mckenzie, 31, said she had two main problems with her experience: the first included the employment standards in that she ended up taking on a head chef role she didn’t want – she lacked the experience – and ended up working 16 hours a day with no overtime compensation.
“I have been asking and asking them to hire a head chef and there has been no conversation for (me taking that role),” she said. “I was running the kitchen since they opened and I am not qualified to do that at all.”
She also said her immigration needs were not taken care of as they had agreed.
“Basically I trusted them with my immigration,” she said, claiming she was told the restaurant had an immigration lawyer on their team and he would look after her papers.
“Instead of applying for a restoration of status which would have granted me an extra year of open work permit, they waited right up until it was about to expire and trapped me into a locked visa permit instead.”
Henry disputed Mckenzie’s claims.
“I find this process (of responding) very unfair because it has become a he-said she-said story and there is no way to confirm or deny other than me saying that is not true,” Henry said. “She did not work 16 hours a day on a regular occurrence and for her to say that is not fair.”
He felt he had a good relationship with Mckenzie for much of the summer since she was hired and that he had wanted her because of her creative approach to food preparation.
Henry said the business was always “open and transparent” with Mckenzie as it came to helping her with her rights as an immigrant.
He said he offered to help facilitate her transfer to another restaurant in town as it became clear she was unhappy.
Mckenzie said she agreed last December to come to Yellowknife to work as a sous chef in exchange for a one-year work permit to support her application for a permanent application. The offer was convenient because she was approaching the end date of a two-year holiday work visa which expired June 3.
“When we talked to experts about the restoration, we found it was the worst option for Niki and wouldn’t allow her to work,” he said. “If denied, she would have to leave right away. It was the highest risk and least benefit to Niki.
The he way we pursued it was intended to give her the greatest amount of time spent (in Canada) here and gave us options if there was a denial of her claim.
Her claim that we weren’t operating in her best interest and presenting restoration as the better option, just isn’t true. It isn’t what professionals advised us.
“All the correct documentation was submitted on time to the requirements and she is being processed. She clearly didn’t understand.”
Copperhouse has been considered a successful story for the city’s restaurant industry since it opened in the spring.
There hadn’t been a restaurant in the Range Lake Road building since its former tenant – Coyote’s Steakhouse and Lounge – suffered a severe fire in February 2016. The new restaurant is run by Henry, his brother Paul, and partner and immigration consultant Liang Chen.
Henry was visibly upset about the fallout from the dismissal.
The lifelong Yellowknifer said he considered Mckenzie’s reaction normal for a “disgruntled employee” but the restaurant felt it had the right to fire her for the benefit of the business, its employees, and Mckenzie herself.
Niki Mckenzie says she was forced into taking a head chef role in spite of her not being trained for the position due to a shortage of skilled workers at a popular local eatery.
She said Copperhouse Eatery and Lounge needs upwards of 15 cooks but most often it was far fewer.
That situation led to friction between her and the employer. She was fired.
Restaurant co-owner Mark Henry said he didn’t feel the kitchen was understaffed. The restaurant employs between 30 and 35 part-time and full-time workers. Generally the figure is split with half represented in the front of the house and the other in the back.
Both Mckenzie and Henry agree there is labour demand in the food service industry and that there is pressure on employers to go outside the area to get people to fill those spots.
“If you look at the labour market, people do not come up here for hospitality work,” said Mckenzie. “That is the crux of the whole problem. They opened a kitchen that was too big in a town where there was not the labour market to support it.
“They are having problems because this is not a culinary town. I came up here to work and became (considered) the ‘culinary elite,’ which is is weird. I’m good but I’m not that good.”
Henry said he and his team were aware of the labour limitations within Yellowknife when the business opened, but part of his aim is to draw people from outside the area with advanced culinary skills and to build upon the local food service culture.
“In order to achieve the level of service and effort that we want to offer Yellowknifers, we need to bring in culinary capacity and we need to make ourselves attractive to do that,” he said.
He said he is still confirming a contract for Mckenzie’s replacement and is looking forward to moving forward.