To eliminate the potential for false reports via retelling, I’d like to personally announce that as of September 12, I have been fired from Punch House. According to Robert Boyd, the Bar Manager who fired me - Jeffrey Van Der Tuuk was present, but despite being the General Manager he refrained from saying anything, or making eye contact - this was apparently a decision made by Bruce Finkelman and Will Duncan, and not a direct representation of the feelings of management at Punch House/Dusek’s. Several months ago, Bruce and Will attempted to fire me due to my “attitude” - I routinely asked for more help in our busy basement bar, the only bar in the building (except Thalia Hall, of course) to actually make a profit. But help was rarely - if ever - given, and for this reason, I was deemed “difficult” and “disrespectful.”
The reason for my termination was an incident that I posted on Facebook for about two minutes, before thinking better of it and taking it down. We were understaffed, as usual - three bartenders, one of whom had only worked there for a few shifts - and a brand new server, who was extremely competent but like all newcomers still struggling to keep up with our intense volume. That left me on the floor largely alone, and hopping behind the bar to help do dishes. We filled up quickly, and I was taking care of at least 14 tables, many of which were community tables split into separate parties, and one ever-growing party of 30. I was also helping cocktail to standing patrons, as well as getting ice for the bar and retrieving punch kegs from the back kitchen coolers (a bartender/busser/manager’s job). In short, we were proper fucked. I had a guest come up to me and hand me cash, saying that she was astonished and impressed at how hard I was working, clearly doing several people’s jobs at once.
However, one of my tables in the back room was less than impressed. They took their time writing a lengthy note on the back of their closed out check, which I read upon going to buss their table (we haven’t had a busser scheduled to work in our bar in months). The table must’ve been vocal about their displeasure with my service, because once I finished reading it and looked up, I noticed at least three tables in the room were looking at me, waiting for a reaction. It was nothing short of humiliating. I pride myself on giving exceptional service, and I had failed this party. Part of their note indicated that they had wanted to close out to cash, but I had accidentally closed them out with their card (we take cards from all parties, to ensure there are no walk-outs). I caught them on the stairs on their way out and apologized for their poor service, taking full responsibility for their sub-par experience. I offered to void their payment so they could close out in cash, like they wanted, but they declined and walked away. I was upset, but I composed myself and walked back downstairs to continue taking care of my 50+ guests.
About twenty minutes later Daniel Wat, the floor manager, found me and asked if I was okay. I said, “No, I am not. You have given us three bartenders, one of whom is very inexperienced, on a night we normally have four. We have a brand new server who is doing her best, but we are struggling to keep up. We have no bussers. This is the first I have seen a manager down here all night. We are getting swamped. I am being spread too thin, and a table complained with the single cruelest insult I have ever received in my 8+ years experience in this industry. I followed them out to try to fix it - something that could have been avoided if a manager had been down here to check on tables. But we’re alone down here. Now please get out of my way.” I have eye witnesses who can attest to this account as well. It would be prudent to mention at this point that I did not see Daniel Wat again for the remainder of the night, despite making it extremely obvious that we needed managerial help. Apparently he forgot he was a manager and that he ought to have stayed and helped us.
Clearly “word got around” about me “chasing a table outside,” and despite the fact that I was doing everything in my power to rectify the situation, I was told that Bruce and Will were “not happy with how the situation was handled, and I could no longer work here.” I asked Robert and Jeff if I could speak to Bruce and Will, to explain my side of the story, and was emphatically told no. I am being punished for trying to fix something that a manager should've done. The managers are not receiving blame for this - I am.
I have worked at this company for almost two years - would’ve been exactly two years next month. I was promoted to bartender last month. Management has made it clear to me more than once that I “ran Punch House,” along with one or two other incredibly hard-working individuals.
To give a bit of history, I got on Bruce Finkelman’s bad side about six months ago. This is a man who has notoriously read one or two unkind Yelp reviews about a particular server, then showed up at one of his restaurants unannounced to grill them into an anxiety-reduced cowering state and dramatically fire them mid-shift (regardless of whether or not a server deserves to be let go, that should NEVER be the way to do it). Earlier this year, I was at one of our sister restaurants with some women from work. The executive chef of Dusek’s was there, saw us, said hi, and kindly offered to see if we could get a free appetizer. We weren’t expecting anything free, but it was a kind gesture. Next thing we know, Bruce is walking over to us - he clearly vetoed the free app idea - but was helping our server carry 5 free shots of well whiskey. Again, we were not expecting anything free to begin with, but it didn’t make Bruce look great to have the option offered, and then be given this obviously paltry backup instead. My friends and I were drinking and having a good time, and perhaps the libations went to my head, because as Bruce dropped them off, with a wink and grandiose proclamation of, “I would be remiss not to offer these to you ladies on a birthday, and of course to remind you all that I can still carry a drink!” I couldn’t help myself, and cheekily replied, “Thank you, Bruce… but do you know any of our names?” We all squealed in laughter, it was a joke, nothing more. He blushed, muttered something indiscernible, then disappeared. We did not see him again.
I only share this anecdote because about a week later, while working at Punch House, a gentleman had a complaint about a cash dispute that I could not solve without a manager. I went upstairs to retrieve one when I bumped into Bruce, who overheard me tell a manager what happened. The manager and I went downstairs to work on the situation, and Bruce followed me to the POS station where I continued taking orders and closing out checks. I turned around, surprised he was right behind me. “Everything okay?” I asked him, confused by his presence. He was livid. “Your behavior upstairs was out of control,” he began. What? “You looked absolutely FUCKING CRAZY. Do you know that? You looked FUCKING CRAZY. We cannot have you walking around amongst our guests looking like a FUCKING CRAZY person. Do you need a minute to go outside and compose yourself? Because you shouldn’t be here right now, in your state.” A former waitress can attest as a witness that this happened. He cornered me, accosted me, and accused me of looking “fucking crazy” not once, but three times.
Punch House gets “fucking crazy.” I do not. Nor should that EVER be the vernacular or disposition of an owner to a waitress during a high-stress moment that frankly had nothing to do with him. I did my best to laugh the situation off, and assured Bruce, “Thank you for your concern about my composure, but I’m pretty sure I have a table to get to.” A month or so later, Bruce “randomly” decided that I should be fired. I didn’t find out about this until a few weeks ago. According to Robert Boyd, management “really fought for me” and he assured me that Bruce regularly went on “random rampages” like these, having recently cleaned out a number of staff members at Money Gun (another sister bar in our company). I just had to keep my head down and wait it out. It would appear that in an attempt to clean house, this company - under the lethal and poor management of Bruce Finkelman - consistently amputates its most vital working limbs.
Since working for this company, I have endured: consistent understaffing, bullying from co-workers (namely the bussers who refused to work in our bar anymore and preferred to work in the fine dining location upstairs, because we were “too busy” and it was “too much work,” but had no problem coming downstairs to our bar after their shift to drink for free while pointing and laughing at us as we did their jobs), and a complete lack of knowledge from the current managers - specifically Daniel Wat, the exceptionally kind but severely incompetent excuse for an authority figure who has mastered the art of apologizing but has yet to show any growth in the departments of paying attention, intuitively assisting his staff, or making the slightest of efforts to further educate himself about the bars that he pretends to manage - a man who’s job I had to perform regularly, as have my co-workers, because he was too distracted or too inept to do so himself, a man who was put on “shot probation” from taking too many shots while he was on the clock. This man still has his job, but I do not.
I have endured sexual harassment from a former Bar Manager - a man so aggressive and manipulative that it took over a dozen accounts of his harassment before he was “given the choice of quitting,” robbing his many victims of even seeing him terminated. I have endured unwanted sexual advances from the current General Manager, Jeff Van Der Tuuk, whom I have witnessed 1) purchase cocaine from an employee, 2) do cocaine with an employee, 3) come into work on his night off so black out drunk that he could not speak, and had to literally hold an employee’s hand as he was gently escorted from the building (in front of customers, during full dinner service in Punch House), 4) sent me texts at 4am after remaining inebriated in the building (during his shift), asking me if I wanted to do cocaine and have sex with him in the restaurant. This man still has his job, but I do not.
I have endured raw sewage backup from the shower stall in our dish pit - the location where we dump discarded beverages, mop water, and vomit - sludge up from the drains in our bar during full service, leaving the bartenders to muck about it in it for four hours before the situation was handled, despite pleas from staff and guests that we should shut down (we were later told that Bruce and Will agreed that we should’ve ended service that night, but Jeff Van Der Tuuk refused to listen to us). Lauren Amos, a current manager there, was on our side, but was overridden. It is prudent to mention that is the only person of authority currently working in that building who has ever shown consistent dedication, compassion, and the remotest spark of intelligence. I witnessed her do the work of her three male counterparts while doing her own and never once break a sweat or forget to smile. But even her unparalleled work ethic could not right all the wrongs that went on in that building.
I have endured raw fecal water falling from the ceiling above the dish pit during dinner service - and yes, some of that contaminated water fell not only on my face, but on dinner plates going up to Dusek’s! It was not until I stormed upstairs and yelled at a manager (Daniel Wat) to tell the dishwashers - who had cloth towels wrapped around their faces to diffuse the stench - that they needed to step outside until it was fixed (“Oh, yeah, good idea, I forgot about them…” he said).
I have endured well-meaning but inept security guards whom I have witnessed first hand tell me and other waitresses that the patrons we deemed problematic, inebriated, or a threat to our safety that “those guys are fine; they threw up in the bathroom, they’re getting a second wind; let’s just let them stay and see what happens; you’re overreacting.” I have witnessed security guards trying to rouse a woman from her sleep in a booth in Punch House, who was so inebriated she couldn’t speak (and none of us had served her, she came in like that!) and had to sift through her purse on my hands and knees to find her wallet, hoping to call a cab for her - all I found was a Green Card, and no photo ID. How did she get past our door guy to begin with? These door guys still have their jobs, but I do not.
I have endured a spontaneous health inspection check, in which our sous vide and cryo-vac machine - two pieces of industrial restaurant equipment for which I was told they do NOT have the correct permits - were stashed into the elevator and the liquor cage, two places the inspector would not look. The sous vide - a machine that holds the temperature of a large pan of water to ensure even cooking - was unplugged, and filled with half-cooked beef patties for our famous Juicy Lucy burgers. The inspection took place during the day, while I was working a Bar Prep shift. I was told to stay in the closed quarters of Punch House, where our current Bar Manager Robert Boyd was quickly cleaning and hiding various bottles and instruments throughout the bar. I asked why I couldn’t continue doing my prep work, and he informed me that it was because the mixing and re-selling of pre-packaged liquors - the base of every single one of our twelve namesake punches we sell - was technically illegal in the state of Illinois. Apparently this was a code that many Illinois health inspectors overlook, because we’re not the only bar who does it - okay, sure, I’ve been working in this industry long enough to know that plenty of bars and restaurants have their own unique ways of skirting the system.
What punched me in the gut was when I saw two kitchen employees struggle to stash the sous-vide machine in the elevator, looking sweaty and sheepish as I caught their eyes. “Just doing what we’re told,” they said, embarrassed. I looked to my manager. “They’re not going to save the meat patties just sitting in that water, are they?” I asked, horrified. Robert shrugged; this was clearly a decision far above his menial pay grade. “Um, yeah, maybe don’t eat the Juicy Lucy’s here for a few days,” he muttered, as he tucked another keg of punch into a forgotten, moldy cupboard.
I have endured waitressing and bartending while being packed over-capacity and understaffed, with absolutely no management presence to speak of - and then later chastised for making what were deemed as “managerial decisions” in their absence. I have endured the overhaul of our previous POS system, causing a radical change to our system for documenting our tips - the primary reason anyone would bother staying in this profession - so that they were calculated in their entirety, despite the fact that my particular bar pools tips; in short, my paycheck went from $350/two weeks to $100-200/two weeks for reasons that management could never give me directly.
By the request of Robert Boyd, the Bar Manager, upon being trained to bartend at Punch House, I was asked to begin filling out the “manager log” every night when I counted the money and distributed everyone’s tips - a practice that has always been a managerial duty, one I have never been required to do in the 5+ bars I’ve ever worked at. When I asked Robert if this new task came with a pay raise, I was told that “if I didn’t want the best bartending shifts” (the ones that required this new managerial task) “then they can easily be given to somebody else.”
And I am not the only one who has endured this. I am one of dozens. I have watched Jeff Van der Tuuk sexually harass a girl to the point of her own termination, I have witnessed him arbitrarily terminate his drug dealer of two years (a fellow co-worker), and now I have been terminated under his jurisprudence, the only other known woman to receive unwanted sexual advances from Jeff as well. Is he just trying to clean up his extremely dirty trail? If so, he has done a poor job. Almost as poor a job as Bruce Finkelman has done running his businesses, falling for the age-old mistake of drilling a kitchen into the ground (with a suspiciously high turnover of chefs) so it just barely breaks even, and then eagerly opening a shiny and new one to distract investors from his financial failings. Meanwhile, he cleans up a pretty penny in bonus checks every year from the literally bleeding hands of his countless plebeians.
Thalia Hall/Dusek’s/Tack Room/Punch House gets a lot of bad publicity for being the gentrifying capital of Pilsen, the “Heart of Chicago.” In truth, this building employs a diverse crowd, and does their part to keep a variety of acts coming through the Thalia Hall doors to ensure that folks from all walks of life feel welcome. They have made a substantial effort to maintain the integrity of the building, to avoid falling prey to the “gray-ification” of Pilsen as well, something I have always admired - even if it meant a spiral staircase down to our bar that was out of Chicago’s health code, leaky pipes that routinely dripped on patrons in the aisles of Punch House, or baseboard tiles that could not contain the overflow of rainwater on stormy days, causing massive flooding at the bottom of the stairs and behind the bar, requiring only the humblest of workers (and occasionally patrons) to get on their hands and knees and assist in mopping up the accident waiting to happen. Ever been at Dusek’s on a rainy day and noticed a funky smell? The mops that are used to mop up the raw sewage leaks are the same ones used to mop the restaurant floors upstairs.
I worked for Punch House for two years, and I am in shock that this is how it has ended. I deserved better. Everyone there deserves better. Pilsen deserves better. Behold, the mockery that was my downfall: Bruce Finkelman & Will Duncan, our own personal Bert & Ernie, the two-faced, manipulative, egotistical, fragile, toxic monsters suffocating the Heart of Chicago with their overripe mold and charismatic disease of privilege and corruption. May the truth come out and be heard, before the reverberations from the inevitable stroke destroy the neighborhood beyond recovery.
I know that I am not alone in my experience with 16 on Center. Perhaps many of my former coworkers will be too intimidated to speak up, because of the environment of fear and arbitrary punishment that Bruce Finkelman has fostered in his restaurants. But for the many of you out there who have also been terminated on unjust grounds, please share this post. Please share your stories. Jeff Van Der Tuuk, Bruce Finkelman, and Will Duncan should not have jobs in the Chicago restaurant industry. Perhaps if we all start blowing the whistle, someone will finally hear us, and believe us.
Chicago health codes: