Bushwick Daily: Drag & Brunch Bar Bizarre in Bushwick Shuttered and Faces Lawsuit from Employees

Sep 05, 2019

An overhanging sign still reads “Bizarre” and the first two vowels are still flipped quixotically, but the rolling gate has remained shut since early June. The bartenders are now suing the shuttered bar.

“I don’t know how they’ve been able to get away with it, but they never paid their employees,” one bartender told Bushwick Daily wishing to stay anonymous. They had joined five other coworkers in a lawsuit, filed in federal court earlier in August, demanding over $100,000 in unpaid wages. “The owners made it a living hell to work there,” they said.

The bar had been the project of Greg Babeau and Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, a French filmmaker whose latest production, “A Prayer Before Dawn,” played Cannes in 2017 and starred Joe Cole, a minor player in “Peaky Blinders” at the time. Sauvaire, per a write-up in the New York Times that appeared a year after Bizarre opened in 2013, discovered the bar by accident. After squatting in a “dilapidated mansion” that he had hoped to use as a location for a Jean Cocteau adaptation that never came off the ground, he ended up living upstairs and eventually got around to buying it from its owner.

In the Times, Bizzare had been “home to all kinds of creative types intimate with the city’s artistic underbelly and a breeding ground for the sort of eccentric performances, screenings and parties that aren’t supposed to be found in New York City anymore.”

A movie eventually was filmed in the bar, called “Bizzare” and helmed by a French art house director named Etienne Faure. It played Berlinale in 2015. The Hollywood Reporter’s write-up called it a “collection of sounds and images in desperate need of a plot.” It did not find distribution.

The owners also operated a publishing arm called Bizarre Publishing, as well as Bizarre Productions, which had put its name on Faure’s film.

Bizzare found greater success as a performance space, where it previously served as a home to Bushwick performance artist Matthew Silver’s “Circus of Dreams” and Darlinda Just Darlinda’s Bushwick Burlesque. It hosted events for good causes, as well. Most notably, the bar hosted a weekly drag brunch, which had been put together by Lady Bearica in 2017.

“It’s a great place with questionable ownership,” Lady Bearica said cautiously. They now perform at Dromedary, a tiki bar up the street.

“Even if the bar is closed, it doesn’t mean that the defendants are absolved of liability,” Matthew Handley, an attorney at Handley Farah & Anderson who is representing the bartenders, said. “Liability extends not just to the company, but also to owners and the people who control their pay.”

Bizzare paid bartenders $8 an hour, but cut off salaried pay at 8 hours a week, they allege. Most worked between 40 and 60 hours a week and were paid for the rest of their time solely in tips.

Two former bartenders spoke with Bushwick Daily and both describe the owners as erratic and abusive. “It was lawless,” one of the former bartenders said.

They described coworkers fired at whim, a bar often kept out of stock, and a campaign of intimidation which followed their suit. On their last day, one says that Sauvaire demanded employees sign a waiver before receiving their final week’s pay.

In the time before its closing, a bartender told Bushwick Daily that Sauvaire had been in negotiations to sell the bar to investors who planned on opening “a vegan-kombucha-tea-drinking-hipster-whatever.”

After a group of bartenders worked with the National Legal Advocacy Network, a legal non-profit, to draft their demand letter and notified Sauvaire’s attorney, the bar closed immediately in lieu of a response.

“It doesn’t have to be the way it is. It’s extremely disappointing,” Sheila Maddali, Co-Director at the National Legal Advocacy Network, told Bushwick Daily. “Our intention was to really try to resolve this amicably. To have them do the right thing and pay the workers what they were owed and commit to not stealing from employees in the future.” Both Sauvaire and Babeau, who are named in the suit, have yet to respond in court.

Attempts to reach the owners or their attorney were not answered.

“The purpose of Bizarre was to create an extension of my living room,” Sauvaire told Bedford + Bowery in 2015. By all reports, he’s still living there.

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