Casa Bonita employees say their paychecks bounced

Restaurant's owner silent on reports


UPDATE: According to at least one of the employees we talked to for this story, the bounced checks were reissued as of May 5. If you have any further information about Casa Bonita, contact us.

COVID-19 has silenced the mariachis at Lakewood's Casa Bonita, ended the chase for Chiquita the gorilla and stopped the performances from cliff divers.

And according to some of its employees, the Mexican restaurant has allegedly stopped paying its staff too.

Three Casa Bonita employees told the Lakewood Sentinel on March 31 that multiple employees of the restaurant had their paychecks bounce due to insufficient funds in the bank account of Casa Bonita's owner — Star Buffet, Inc., a restaurant holding company.

The ownership company for Casa Bonita, Star Buffet, Inc., was contacted for comment for this story but did not respond.

Casa Bonita is closed due to a March 16 statewide order for bars and restaurants to stop dine-in services for 30 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That order has been extended through the end of April, and Casa Bonita isn't offering take-out services.

The checks were dated for March 17, according to Felicity Akers, a floor manager at Casa Bonita. She said when she deposited her check from her phone, her bank told her the check went through.

But after seeing some of her coworkers post on Facebook about having their paychecks bounce, Akers checked her bank account a few days after depositing her check and saw it wasn't posted and that she had a returned-check fee.

“For me, my check wasn't that much. I have a second job, which is my main source of income,” said Akers, who works at a plumbing company. “But for the majority of the restaurant employees, (Casa Bonita) is the majority of their income. There are only a handful of us that have second jobs that we are able to rely on.”

Akers said the restaurant recently switched to a new payroll service, and the March 17 check was the first time the service was used to pay the restaurant's employees.

Multiple Casa Bonita employees tried to contact Star Buffet, Inc. about their paychecks for at least two weeks, Akers said, but no one from the company responded. She said Mike Mason, a general manager at Casa Bonita, was finally able to reach Star Buffet, Inc. on March 29. The company told Mason they were not going to get paid on March 31 and that it would issue a statement — possibly the week of March 30.

“They had nothing to say about our (March 17) checks being bounced,” said Akers. “At this moment, I don't want to work for a company that is not going to pay me. That is hard to say, because I spent (eight years) working there and made so many friends there. But at this moment, I don't see myself working for a place that doesn't respect me enough to pay me for the work I have done.”

I think almost everybody had their check bounce. It is sad to see all of them struggling, including myself. 

Around July of 2019, Lenny Begay became a kitchen manager at Casa Bonita. When he got his March 17 check, he deposited it that day.

But a week went by, and Begay's bank pulled all of the money from his paycheck out of his bank account.

“My rent is due in two or three days, and I am trying to find another way to get money,” Begay said.

Begay's roommate also works at Casa Bonita, and her check bounced as well. He said he is out of a job with the restaurant's closure.

“(Not being paid) is just affecting a lot of people really hard. I think almost everybody had their check bounce," said Begay. "It is sad to see all of them struggling, including myself." 

A history of not paying people on time

Kendahl Lambert has worked at Casa Bonita for nearly six years, recently as an administrative assistant. Her role required her to help with payroll and to assist with paying vendors.

Lambert had her March 17 check bounce, and while she has another source of income, she is irritated with Star Buffet, Inc.

“It is so frustrating that they are not communicating with employees when you see other local businesses working hard to pay their workers,” she said. Lambert added that she speculates Casa Bonita won't reopen.

Some of Casa Bonita's food vendors require the restaurant to deliver cash when paying for their services, because Casa Bonita was either late paying them electronically or told the vendors their checks were in the mail when it was “questionable” whether or not that was true, according to Lambert.

“(Star Buffet, Inc.) doesn't have a good track record of paying bills on time. We got multiple calls that our trash bill wasn't getting paid and that our trash wouldn't get picked up,” said Lambert. “That has been a common theme over the last two or three years that I've worked there — but I didn't expect that our paychecks would start bouncing.”

Star Buffet, Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2011, the Denver Post reported. In 2013, the company announced it was able to formally exit bankruptcy.

Casa Bonita has been in Lakewood since 1974 and was named a landmark by the Lakewood Historic Society in 2015 for its history, architecture and community engagement, the Denver Post reported.



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