Former staff at a once thriving Sydney restaurant have lashed out at the owner over alleged pay disputes – as their hopes of ever getting any money back are likely dashed forever with its parent company going into liquidation.
Bel & Brio, at Barangaroo in the city’s CBD, along with its fine dining venue Corso Brio was once making $90,000 a day, drawing in countless customers for its ‘eco-elegance and a luxuriously captivating ambience’.
The Italian restaurant had been a popular dining spot in the area since its launch in 2016 but was forced to close this month owing $1.8million to Lendlease in unpaid rent.
Now ex-employees at the restaurant have said it was no surprise the business went under, laying the blame at the feet of its 38-year-old director Mark Richerdson.
Three ex-employees at the high-end venue spoke to Daily Mail Australia and claimed they waited months to be reimbursed after being put on the minimum wage during Covid.
But in a sad development on Thursday, it’s likely those workers will be waiting an indefinite amount of time after they were informed Bel & Brio’s parent company The Basket Group was appointing liquidators.
‘It saddens me from the bottom of my heart … that Basket Group has gone into liquidation,’ an email from the company’s accounts administrator read. 
‘You will need to contact [the liquidator] to claim your unpaid wages and entitlements.’ 
One former worker, who wished to remain anonymous, told Daily Mail Australia they were at the business for six years before leaving in March this year and said the email left him with no hope he’d get paid.
‘This means that there is now even less of a chance for employees getting paid what they are owed,’ he said.
When Covid hit the business in 2020, staff claim Mr Richerdson told his workers they could stay on and work but only at the minimum wage of $350 a week.
An email to staff, seen by this publication, confirmed Mr Richerdson told workers they would be backpaid once the business had gotten back on its feet.
Staff claim that because most were on working visas, they didn’t have a choice but to stay and work in order to remain in Australia.
The business shut during Covid but offered delivery and takeaway meals, with staff working on the minimum wage for four months.
‘Covid passed and by Christmas 2020 everything went back to normal and the business was getting 1,000 bookings a day and $90,000 in revenue,’ the staff member told Daily Mail Australia.
‘The hours were crazy, I used to open the restaurant at 9am and get home at 1am.’
But the former worker claimed despite Bel & Brio quickly recovering from the Covid lockdown, staff were still not getting paid what they were entitled to.
Mr Richerdson had promised in an email to pay staff the difference of their salary and what they were earning during the lockdown. 
But after months of not hearing back, the ex-employee said it wasn’t until he made a scathing comment on the business’ Facebook page that he received the money he was owed – months after he quit and years after the first Covid lockdown.
He also claimed the tips weren’t adequately handed out and that it would take months for them to be evenly distributed.
‘We were always stressed about getting paid, it was supposed to be fortnightly but sometimes it was delayed by days or weeks,’ he said.
He claimed after he resigned he tried to contact Mr Richerdson to get the money he was owed back, but was repeatedly ignored.
The staff member said he always ‘felt anxious’ during his time at the restaurant, and claimed he and his colleagues were constantly chasing up their pay.
‘I wanted to believe him but I knew how he worked with people, he makes you believe everything,’ he said. 
Another staff member, who also asked not to be named, worked at the business for four years when he was suddenly stood down without being given any reason as to why.
He claimed he is owed about $120,000 in unpaid wages and superannuation, with the former worker taking the matter to the Fair Work Commission.
He claimed that when he tried to reach out to Mr Richerdson about why he suddenly wasn’t getting any shifts, he was repeatedly ignored and hasn’t spoken to the owner since his final stint at the restaurant.
‘He made a lot of promises that he never maintained,’ the ex-staff member alleged.
When the business went under, the worker claimed that not everyone was told the restaurant had closed with some even rocking up for the morning shift to find the doors padlocked.
‘He told some senior staff not to worry and that he would reopen soon,’ he said.
Life at the restaurant was ‘very stressful’, the worker claimed, because they were often overstaffed.
Despite raking in what the worker suggested was more than $10million a year, he said he knew the business was suffering financially.
‘We were lacking a lot of communication, there were a lot of things left behind, it was the worst management I’ve ever seen in my ten years of hospitality,’ he said.
He also alleged some staff were considered Mr Richerdson’s ‘favourites’ and would receive their full pay and get special treatment while the others were struggling to get by.
In April 2019, Sunrise host David Koch visited Bel & Brio as part of his small business series, ‘Kochies Business Builders’, where Mr Richerdson could be seen spruiking the restaurant’s click and collect services.
‘What we realised after being one of the first to open here was the majority of customers are on a budget,’ he said in the video, where he revealed he was offering a $10 lunch that customers could order online and collect.
When asked how digital savvy he was, Mr Richerdson said he used to think he was a ‘genius’, but given how quickly technology advances he actually knew ‘nothing’.
Staff are seen hard at work in the background of the video, as Mr Richerdson is given tips on how to boost his business online, with Kochie describing him as a ‘passionate businessman’. 
Another staff member, who asked not to be identified, claimed staff would often work up to 14-hour days and then be pressured to stay late and have drinks at the restaurant.
‘Mark was friends with everyone but I felt like he was using that to get what he wanted, he was always pushing people to do what he wanted,’ the former worker, who was there for two years, said.
She said that during lockdown, staff were still working huge days coordinating the delivery meals, and only being paid a measly $350 a week.
‘We couldn’t afford rent, we had to eat lunch and dinner at the restaurant just to get by,’ she said.
She claims she and other staff took the matter to the Fair Work Commission.
The ex-employee said she was owed $60,000 and has only just gotten it all back after receiving the first payment in June.
She claimed she and her fellow colleagues often wondered how the business was staying afloat due to its alleged poor management.
Staff also claim they’ve been left in the lurch when it came to their superannuation, with no communication from the business as to when or if they’ll get what they’re owed.
In texts to staff, seen by Daily Mail Australia, Mr Richerdson allegedly swore at employees and threatened to have their visas cancelled.
In one message, the director told one employee he ‘never’ wanted to see them again, before issuing a grovelling apology days later.
Mr Richerdson claimed all staff had been ‘reimbursed’ for the time they were working on the minimum wage during Covid, reported.
‘Anyone who is still owed will be paid out with all their entitlements once the transition takes place,’ he added. 
Mr Richerdson, Bel and Brio’s chief operating officer, claimed he was ‘blindsided’ by Lendlease shutting down his business, but admitted staff were still being paid because the closure happened during a pay week.
‘I am doing everything in my power to solve this problem so I can give them clear information,’ he told the publication.
Regarding claims about unpaid superannuation, Mr Richerdson said he’d been ‘personally hit with a Superannuation Guarantee by the ATO’.
‘Currently we are implementing a monthly payment plan to ensure everyone gets everything they are owed.’
He earlier told the Daily Telegraph he was working to ensure the 140 Bel & Brio staff would get everything they’re owed.
‘My hope is that someone will take over the venue and rehire the staff but if that doesn’t happen, we find another business for them to work with… It’s a shame for them but I’ve lost the most, eight years and $11million.’
Mr Richerdson declined to comment when contacted by Daily Mail Australia. 
Daily Mail Australia understands Lendlease offered a significant amount of support to Bel & Brio during Covid.