Employees of Little Giant restaurant in the West End are angry after they say they were laid off without warning last week when it was announced the establishment was closed and sold.
Little Giant owners Ian and Kate Malin announced the sale of the Danforth Street business Sept. 8 on Instagram to Gin & Luck Hospitality Group, owners of the well-known Manhattan cocktail bar Death & Co.
More than one Little Giant employee said they found out the restaurant would be closing from the Instagram post and an article about the sale published the same day in the Portland Press Herald. Former bartender and server Ada Bonnevie, for example, said the newspaper article told her she “no longer had a job.”
Bonnevie said she and her coworkers also received an email from Ian Malin just after 2 p.m. Sept. 8. The article in the Press Herald was published online, according to Bonnevie, at 1:49 a.m. that day, nearly 12 hours before she received the email from her boss.
Bonnevie said that suggests Malin gave the information to the newspaper “days and even weeks” before the restaurant closed, meaning a reporter knew before many employees that the restaurant would close permanently.
“(Malin) had time to think about how things went and he chose to deliberately deceive us and then chose to deceive the public about the conditions under which we were let go,” she said.
Before the announcement of the permanent closure, Bonnevie said Little Giant had planned to be closed for the week of Labor Day, and staff received “a couple of days” of notice. She said people were “all a little tense about” the week-long closure since money gets tighter for service industry workers in the fall, but they had no idea a permanent shutdown was looming.
An Instagram post from Little Giant on Sept. 5, which said the restaurant would reopen this week, remained online as of Monday.
“Thank you to our community and our team for an incredibly busy weekend,” the post said. “We’re closed next week, but we’ll see you on the 15th.”
Malin said via email Sept. 11 that he would not be interviewed.
“I am grateful for the hard work of all our employees over the last four years and I wish them all the best in the future,” he added.
Bonnevie called that response “boilerplate.”
“(Malin will say) ‘Oh I appreciate everything that my staff did,’” she said, “but clearly it wasn’t enough appreciation for him to tell us the truth.”
The email sent to employees announcing the closure was obtained by the Phoenix and is timestamped at 2:07 p.m. on Sept. 8, even though Malin said the email was sent out “prior to any social media announcements.” Bonnevie said the email and Instagram post went out at the same time.
The email acknowledged the “quick timeline” of the sale and said that since the restaurant was closed the week of Labor Day, Sept. 5 was the last day of service. It also said Little Giant got through the first 18 months of the pandemic as “a success story” and had its busiest summer ever this year.
Little Giant opened in 2017 and got creative to make it through the pandemic. The Malins launched a bakery delivery component known as Sugar Giant in January, for instance, and erected a heated outdoor enclosure to serve diners last winter. This summer the restaurant announced it would restrict service to vaccinated adults.
The email about the closure went on to say the Malins felt it was time for them to move on from the restaurant, and first approached Little Giant’s leadership to see if they wanted to buy the business.
“That would have allowed Little Giant, in its current form, to remain intact,” the email said.
The email claimed Little Giant’s general manager and chef told the Malins they would be leaving to “start their own restaurant venture elsewhere,” and paired with the planned departure of their sous chef, “the pressure to figure out that next step became acute.”
Bonnevie said that was an attempt by the Malins to “blame” management for the closure.
“(Earlier this summer Malin) was like, hey you guys got a cool $2 million to buy this business from me?’” Bonnevie said. “And they were like, ‘no.’”
The email promised all hourly employees would be paid a severance of $1,080 – the equivalent of two 30-hour weeks of pay at $18 per hour. Employees would also be paid for accrued time off and “any other amounts owed,” according to the email.
Malin later clarified all salaried employees were also given the same severance package.
Bonnevie’s sister started a Go Fund Me page to raise money for the 25 Little Giant employees who lost their jobs. As of Monday morning, it had raised just over $4,200 from 56 donors in four days.
The closing generated reactions from other people in Portland’s hospitality industry, too. Memes and posts condemning Little Giant and the Malins appeared online, although some did so without mentioning Little Giant by name.
The Twitter account for the Washington Avenue bar Howie’s Pub, for instance, tweeted this on Sept. 9: “Restaurant groups from out of state are gonna kill this town’s originality, and it’s too bad. We built something cool here over the last 20 years.”
Briana Volk, owner of the Market Street bar Hunt & Alpine and a former co-owner of Little Giant, also seemed to call out the Malins in a tweet that has since been deleted. Volk and her husband Andrew sold their share of Little Giant to the Malins in 2019.
“This is one of those times that I absolutely do not enjoy being right about how awful someone is,” she tweeted.
Jonathan Copeland, a former Little Giant employee who worked in the kitchen, agreed with Bonnevie about the shock of the sale and closing, calling it “traumatic.”
“It was really out of left field,” Copeland said. “(I’m) most of all just worried for all my coworkers and hope (they can) not only find jobs but are OK mentally.”
He added that Cameron Lewin, former general manager of Little Giant, has been trying to find the unemployed staff members new jobs in Portland.
Bonnevie said the support from others in the community has been “incredible” and although it’s still a stressful time for staff who need to find new employment, several city restaurants have reached out offering to hire Little Giant workers who were laid off.
After a difficult time because of the pandemic, she said the closing of Little Giant is “the cherry on top of a crap sundae.” Still, she said she loved her job and took pride in her work.
“Now I just feel like I’m being repaid by getting fired in an Instagram post,” Bonnevie said. “It hurts.”