Ellen’s Stardust Diner caters to tourists in Times Square who want to eat expensive fries and have servers climb up on the back of their booths to sing Broadway standards. It is a little slice of family-owned cheesery in a place that is becoming increasingly sanitized and corporatized, but lately even Ellen’s is feeling the changes.
Ellen’s is owned by Ken Sturm, son of Ellen Hart-Sturm, who was a former Miss Subways beauty queen. The New York Times interviewed Sturm and his rebelling waitstaff, noting that Sturm recently hired new managers who promised to streamline “delivering egg creams and musical numbers,” which the staff says has led to as many as 30 firings, and structural changes that ruin their work-life balance. Most waiters at Ellen’s are also working actors who have depended on the management’s understanding of their need for a flexible schedule and the ability to switch shifts. That’s all changed:
What happened instead, the workers said, was a mass firing of longtime servers, many for small offenses or ones seemingly beyond their control. Last week, for example, a waitress was fired when a table of customers left without paying, Ms. Bogan and others said.
Servers at Ellen’s are known as Stardusters, and their head shots grace the diner’s walls and website like celebrities in a playbill. But behind the scenes, workers said, the new managers warned them that they were easily replaceable.
The quick-draw response probably seems somewhat normal for anyone who has worked in a restaurant, but many of Ellen’s servers have worked there as long as a decade. It’s also probably hard to find people who can both belt out a tune and take food orders. On Friday, workers representing around 50 Ellen’s employees notified Sturm and management that they’ve been secretly unionizing. In a letter picked up by Playbill, the staff alleges that they have been “bullied, sexually harassed, and abused by our higher-ups.”
For his part, Sturm seems unwilling to acknowledge complaints about his business. He told the NYT, “This is a little family business that’s been in Times Square since 1995, when Times Square was still a toilet, and we give these guys the opportunity to ply their craft in the middle of the theater district to sing.”
He also added that workers are still allowed to go on hiatus for theater work and added, “When we’ve been in business for about 30 years at this point...and that they would have to do something like this is kind of sad, and I feel bad for them,” which really doesn’t clarify whose side he is on. (According to the letter provided to Playbill, since the union was announced, things have gotten worse, so that should suggest something.)
One thing is certain: Times Square was, is, and will always be a toilet.