Huge fallout of George Calombaris drama
They're the hip Melbourne restaurants where diners usually struggle to get a table, but this week several eateries owned by embattled celebrity chef George Calombaris are eerily quiet.
Photographs taken at a number of businesses owned by Made Establishment show only a handful of people inside, as the controversy plaguing Calombaris shows no signs of easing.
He was once a darling of the hospitality scene and one of the biggest names on television, thanks to his role as judge on juggernaut MasterChef Australia.
A visit to several restaurants owned by Calombaris has revealed just how much trouble the celebrity chef and businessman seems to be in. At lunchtime, Jimmy Grants in St Kilda in Melbourne was virtually deserted, with only a few punters inside.
Across town at the Richmond location of Jimmy Grants, it was a similar story with a solo diner sitting at the bar in an otherwise deserted restaurant.
In Brighton at Helenic Republic, the jewel in Calombaris' restaurant crown, the lunchtime rush was anything but, with more empty tables than occupied.
The photographer also visited Gazi, the chef's restaurant in Melbourne's CBD, and found it to be just as quiet.
Gazi was the site of a union protest last Friday, where crime scene tape bearing the words "Wage Theft" was strung across its entrance at lunchtime.
This week, Network 10 made the extraordinary decision to abandon contract negotiations with Calombaris and fellow MasterChef judges Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston, who were bargaining as a bloc.
The trio reportedly demanded a 40 per cent increase on their estimated $1 million a season salaries to front the reality television franchise.
But insiders say the simmering fury over the Calombaris wage scandal backed the network into a corner, and it was left with the opportunity to cut him loose and silence growing calls from unions and former staff for him to be sacked.
A Fair Work investigation last week concluded Calombaris' restaurant empire Made Establishment underpaid more than 500 staff by $7.8 million over six years.
The mammoth figure dwarfed his initial estimate of $2.6 million, which he self-declared in early 2017 following complaints from staff. It was blamed on a payroll error.
Calombaris was ordered to make a "contrition payment" of just $200,000, which angered Hospo Voice, the union for hospitality staff, and prompted a campaign from Unions Australia.
That campaign led to Tourism WA dumping the celebrity chef as the face of its current food and wine campaign after intervention from the West Australian Government.
The scandal also spilt over into federal politics, with Attorney-General Christian Porter describing the Fair Work penalty as inadequate and promising a review.
"I am open-minded to submissions that there should be firmer penalties there, inclusive of potentially criminal penalties reserved for repetitious breaches," Mr Porter said.
Labor's industrial relations spokesman Tony Burke said businesses coming clean only after being caught wasn't good enough.
"If someone is deliberately and in a calculated way taking money that belongs to workers and keeping it to themselves, I fail to see how that is different to a worker taking money from the till," Mr Burke said.
In the wake of the Fair Work decision and the anger it sparked, Calombaris apologised to staff and promised to make good.
"We apologise to all our affected team members, past and present - as it is our people that make our restaurants great, and it is our priority to ensure all of our employees feel respected, rewarded and supported in their roles," he said.
"We are committed to acting as a force for change in the industry and leading by example when it comes to building and promoting supportive, healthy and compliant hospitality workplaces."
Made Establishment chief executive officer Leigh Small said the business empire had instituted a number of new practices to ensure underpayments didn't occur again.
"All current Made team members have been correctly classified, and all entitlements verified as owing to current and past employees have been calculated and paid, with a handful of claims now being finalised," Mr Small said.