Not Everyone Has Fond Memories of the Hilltop Steakhouse

The Saugus eatery was part of a “landmark” court case involving managers taking tips from employees.

News that the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus will be closing on October 20 steered much of the conversation on Twitter and Facebook on Thursday, with many people sharing their happy memories of the restaurant online.

But not everyone has a special place in his or her heart for the steak-slinging eatery that sits along Route 1, beckoning passerby to stop in with its signature cactus sign.

In 2006, Hilltop Steakhouse was in the news for more than just its menu offerings. The restaurant was the focal point of a class action suit brought on by former employees of the establishment, who claimed the management team was skimming tips from their day jobs, and putting the money in their own pockets. Some were even fired for coming forward and complaining about the situation, according to court documents.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney at Lichten and Liss-Riordan, who represented the employees when the case landed in Essex Superior Court more than 6 years ago, said it was a “landmark case” that brought much-needed attention to the state’s labor laws, and led to more compliance of those laws in the years since the complaint was resolved. “That was a turning point when that verdict came out, and it increased awareness about the tips law in Massachusetts,” she said, adding that she was unaware that the restaurant was closing its doors.

According to a Boston.com article from 2006, an Essex Superior Court jury found that Hilltop Steakhouse’s function department illegally funneled tip money into the pockets of managers, and the restaurant “wrongfully fired four waitresses because they complained about losing a percentage of their tips.”

From the report:

The jury awarded $125,000 to each of three plaintiffs, and $75,000 to a fourth. The jury also found that harm suffered by the waitresses as a result of the restaurant’s violation of the tip law and its decision to fire them merited tripling of $610,000 in damages. Of that, $160,000 will be shared by 42 members of a class certified by the court. With the addition of attorneys’ fees and interest, the final judgment is expected to increase beyond $2.5 million.

The case was the first of 19 that went to trial, following changes to state laws that no longer required waiters and waitresses to dole out a portion of their earnings to upper management or kitchen staff.

At the time the verdict was handed down, siding with the staff at Hilltop Steakhouse, Liss-Riordan said managers at the restaurant were allegedly taking four-percent of the tip money added onto customers’ bills.

In a phone interview Thursday, she recalled the class action suit, and said it was “big news” for the industry when it all unfolded and they finally won the case. “It brought it forward and informed people about the laws. For years I did a lot of cases, and I was always surprised about how many employers were still not following the law. I think that this got the attention of a lot more employers,” said Liss-Riordan, whose firm specializes in labor and employment lawsuits. “I would say that that case led to more employers being aware of their duties under the law, and also led to a lot of restaurant employees learning about their rights under the law.”

Liss-Riordan said she hadn’t eaten at the establishment since before the lawsuit in 2006, but remembered taking her own children there when they were very young. She wasn’t surprised by the news that Hilltop Steakhouse was closing, but said it was unlikely that the court’s decision had anything to do with them shuttering their doors. “There were threats of it closing at the time, but they closed a Braintree location. I think they would have gotten back on their feet [since 2006],” she said. “I’m not really surprised by anything, but it’s been a landmark and it’s been an institution, so you know, I’m sure a lot of people have feelings about it one way or another.”

Some of those feelings were happy ones, as shown through comments and Tweets on social media, while others haven’t been so great. “An abomination. A blot. An embarrassment. Good riddance. Even the most kind-hearted nostalgic person won’t tolerate a restaurant which withholds the waitstaff tips,” one commenter wrote.

  • Jess Haberman

    Wow, you guys know how to salt some wounds, huh? Maybe a little more respect for their 52-year old business is warranted, rather than dredging up grievances from 7 years ago.

    • John

      Is your name Jess or Wendy Whiner?

      • rtuinila

        I guess it takes one to know one. I didn’t think Jess was whining!

  • bobjones271828

    I agree with Jess. The place was open for over 50 years. Some families have been going there for generations. I have no idea whether the practice of skimming tips also went on for all of those 50 years, or whether that was something introduced by the management in recent decades. (The Globe story doesn’t say.) Or, whether it was something that many restaurants did, but the Hilltop just kept doing it once it was illegal.

    Regardless, that lawsuit was only one of hundreds across the country that made restaurants conform to new labor laws. The Hilltop just happened to be the first one in Massachusetts, and therefore it got a lot of attention. Why don’t you run some stories about the other places that were sued in these lawsuits?

    I’m not defending the management by any means, but this place used to serve MILLIONS of people EACH YEAR. They often served many thousands of people every day. Many of those people kept coming back again and again, and they brought their children, and their grandchildren.

    Sure, mention the Hilltop’s lawsuit if you want. It was important. But so are the memories of all of the patrons of the restaurant over the years — without them, the waitstaff wouldn’t have been paid anything.

    Why do you feel the need to sour those memories for people? It’s not the management who are filling their Twitter feeds with fond recollections. It’s the people who actually paid for the meals that gave the waitstaff a job, and those patrons mostly had no clue that employees were being treated inappropriately. Why not let people guilty of no wrongdoing enjoy their memories of steaks of yore in peace? (Or, at a minimum, write a balanced piece that talks about all of the positive aspects, along with your negative view?)

    • 7worldtraveler

      How often have you been eating there lately, Bob? All these people lamenting the close should examine their dining practices. If people were still coming, you can bet your boots Hilltop would have remained open.

  • kbirdusa

    Typical liberal BS – “they deserved to close!” Ugh.

    • 7worldtraveler

      How ridiculous to make this a liberal/CON argument! I thought CONS liked to follow the law. Apparently not.

  • John

    kbirdUSA – have you taken your meds? How is this “liberal” vs. “conservative”. Thank GOD people like you are becoming less and less relevant!

  • Disco Dotty

    I heard about this case on the radio yesterday. In the 1980′s I worked there as a hostess, they paid me extremely well and feed us at the end of every shift. The chef would cook special dishes for us and send out fries and other goodies for us to snack on while working our shifts. The restaurant was very different back then; you could drink while waiting in line and they accepted cash only. People would get so drunk that on the weekends, when the line were really long there would always be fist fights usually over who was going to pay the bill. We always had two police officers on the premise to help us keep the peace…Ah the good old days!