The owner of an award-winning Christchurch café is facing a barrage of accusations of poor treatment from numerous former employees alleging he refused breaks, asked highly personal questions in interviews, and "reduced staff to tears daily".
C1 Espresso on High Street in Christchurch's CBD has previously been named the Best Metro/CBD café in a national awards ceremony, with owner Sam Crofskey inducted to the Restaurant Association's Hall of Fame last year.
But behind the scenes, Crofskey reportedly engaged in bullying and belittling behaviour, in allegations he's calling "extremely distressing" and "unsubstantiated".
The alleged treatment first came to light earlier this week when Christchurch woman Levi Painter posted a warning on the USCA Facebook noticeboard after spotting an advertisement for a 'Front of House Position' at C1 Espresso.
"I do not want more students falling into the same trap I did and signing a contract they potentially shouldn't," she wrote.
Painter wrote that Crofskey asked if she had a history of depression or anxiety in her initial interview, which she said made her "highly uncomfortable". She claimed to have also been told she was only allowed one 20-minute break in an eight-hour shift.
"I then read the contract. The contract position was for 'Kitchen Hand' not 'Front of House Staff' as advertised on Trademe jobs," she said.
"When I asked in the interview he mentioned 'working up the ranks' and 'learning more' but the actual position was not discussed clearly."
After texting Crofskey about her concerns over the contract, the owner reportedly replied saying simply "cool", and Painter's trial was over.
Her post racked up thousands of responses, including hundreds of comments from fellow former workers at the cafe.
One former employee said working for Crofskey was like "walking on eggshells", calling him a "bully and a shocking person to work for".
"In the interview, he [also asked me] about anxiety and depression to which I replied that I suffered from anxiety and took medication for it and that it was mostly under control," they said.
"He proceeded to use this against me the entire time I worked there, blaming my 'uselessness' on my anxiety. When telling me off would say 'stop getting all anxious'.
"He was hell to work for."
A Facebook group called 'C1 Boycott and Protest Group' now has over 1500 members, with various accounts from former employees continuing to pour in.
Crofskey told Newshub the allegations were "extremely distressing for me and my staff members - both past and present".
"I've been a member of the hospitality industry for 25 years and I take my responsibilities both to my team members and to my industry very seriously," he said.
"I deeply value everyone that works for me and I am concerned to hear that some of our former colleagues feel that they have not been treated fairly."
Former employee Kaui Lough told Newshub she only lasted two shifts at C1 after moving to Christchurch from Oamaru for the job in January 2019.
"[Crofskey's] behaviour was just so strange - I immediately felt uncomfortable in his presence," she said.
"He said he really wanted to make sure I really wanted to work there and that I 'passed the test'."
Lough says Crofskey told her he wanted to establish she "wasn't some young, silly, girl".
"He said 'young silly people work at the Lone Star - they all work together, live together, sleep together' and that wasn't what he 'was after'."
She said Crofskey micromanaged her, continually alleged she didn't really want to work there and forced employees to go into his office at the end of the day - "knock then enter, don't linger" - to tell him they had "had a great day".
"I felt uncomfortable and intimidated... it was toxic".
Others spoke of similar experiences, with one employee who worked there for six months writing on Painter's post the café owner was "hella abusive".
"I've never seen someone be so abusive to so many people before. Every day he would make people cry and depressed," they added.
"I quit my job at C1 a few weeks ago," another wrote. "Here to support the process of raising awareness to this serious issue. The way he treats his staff is really messed up. Please do not support C1 Espresso unless you support workplace bullying."
"I worked here for two weeks and had the EXACT same experience," claimed another. "[He] constantly asked about mental health because he needs to know, I'm offering you a job here', and half an hour into my interview he asked me for my name again, even though it was right in front of him on my CV.
"To top it all off, took a phone call in the middle of me speaking and motioned for me to keep talking even though he was talking on the phone.
"Terrible reputation in the hospitality industry, a shit business owner and even shittier person, arguably."
Welfare and hospitality advocate and Raise the Bar spokesperson Chloe Ann-King told Newshub that while Crofskey's behaviour as an employer "likely looks extreme", much of it is "normalised in hospo".
"Being denied breaks and sick leave in the industry is normal. Being bullied and harassed by your employer is common," she said.
"[Crofskey's] behaviour isn't just some aberration. His behaviour reflects the hospo industry as a whole."
While Crofskey denies the allegations, he said he's been "working closely with the Restaurant Association to ensure that all of the checks and balances are in place and to ensure that no current or future staff member feels this way".
"These claims are largely historical and to date unsubstantiated. However, I am more than happy to address any concerns via the appropriate channels so that they can be dealt with correctly," he added.
Labour Inspectorate National Manager Stu Lumsden told Newshub that Employment NZ "has not received any complaints about C1 Espresso or its owner Sam Crofsky".
For further information on rights and obligations around leave and breaks, visit the Employment NZ website here.