The co-owner of a new and popular restaurant is responding to accusations this week that his acting head chef was unjustly fired.
Mark Henry, co-owner of Copperhouse Eatery and Lounge, 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.
Copperhouse has been considered a successful story for the city’s restaurant industry since it opened in the spring.There hasn’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.
Based on Facebook and Trip Advisor reviews, responses have been generally very positive.
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.
“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.
“The decision was precipitated going back two to three months as it was becoming clear she didn’t want to be there. We were pulling in two different directions and it was in both the interests of the business and Niki’s interest that we separated. ”
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.
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 and ended up working 16 hours a day with no overtime compensation. She also said her immigration needs were not taken care of as they had agreed.
Henry disputed these 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.”
Mckenzie also 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.
“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 denies this and said not only was it made clear Chen was a registered immigration consultant” but that it was up to her to secure her immigration status. He also 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.
“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.”
As for her taking on the head chef role, she said she lacked the experience and only accepted because the kitchen was severely understaffed. She said the restaurant needs upwards of 15 cooks but most often it was far fewer.
“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.”
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.
Labour demand in service industry
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,” she said. “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.