When the always-bustling and ever-expanding Culprit Café suddenly closed all three locations over the summer, it was more than the standard statistic about how hard it is to run a business during the pandemic. Last month, The Reader spoke with former employees of the café to put the rumor mill to rest, and to set the record straight about the work they walked away from.
The Reader’s attempts to reach owner (and new father) Luke Mabie for
comment have, as of publication, been unsuccessful. An update will be
made on our website should this change.
“I started at Culprit in June of 2017 when I moved back to Omaha from Memphis. Right away things were hectic. Culprit had their own coffee program, and I wanted to get really serious about learning coffee,” she recalled.
“We were fully staffed when I started, but right before the pandemic things started to feel a little off. We were struggling to staff the kitchen.”
Mabie, who opened his first restaurant at 16th and Farnam in 2013, continued to press on, opening another Culprit in Midtown in 2018, and adding service at the weekly Farmers Market through summer.
“Things were getting kind of messy at that point.” Taylor said. “When the pandemic hit, everyone was feeling that blow and trying to acclimate. We moved to curbside only at Midtown, and we felt like we were always trying to catch up. For months we all saw Luke was struggling.”
And while the pandemic raged on, Taylor was shocked to learn just a week before the Midtown opening that another location had been planned at Aksarben Village.
“Luke had this mentality of having to always do more, but he was pouring from an empty cup on a daily basis. He was at Culprit all the time. Sometimes he would catch sleep in his van, sometimes in our dry-storage area. It was too much.”
“I started in May of 2018. I moved here from the West Coast because a friend from culinary school always talked about Omaha. How the culinary scene is growing and rent is cheap. Luke took me on right away and I kind of learned to feel my way at Culprit.”
With a background in pastry and baking, Ricardo learned the business in a trial by fire, as Mabie was in the process of opening the second location while teaching Ricardo how the business should run.
“He would spend the entire day downtown with me, then the whole night at Midtown to paint, put up shelves, check on the kitchen. I offered to take on more work and really ended up shooting myself in the foot there. We agreed on a salary, and I took on more so he could focus on growing the business. But by the end I was working anywhere from 10-to 16-hour days. We had a lot of wholesale orders, we had the three
locations, and I had to be ready for whatever any of the locations needed. But Luke was still juggling literally every other position.”
Ricardo’s work ethic ensured that Culprit always had customer favorites on hand, but he could feel the cracks beginning to show.
“I do want to believe that friendship or that kinship was because we were a team. I spent a lot of time with Luke. I got to meet his family, and a lot of the time it was just me and him working when the business was closed. It felt like more than just a boss and his worker. There were times I put in more effort than I should have, but Luke believed in me and gave me a lot of confidence.”
Everyone who worked for Culprit insist the customers were the best, the menu was exceptional, the coffee program was educational, and Mabie was a hard-working business owner who didn’t know the meaning of the word quit. And maybe that was the culprit behind what led the team to stage a walkout over the summer.
“We absolutely loved our regulars, and they loved us right back, and they showed it.”
Cash tips were kept by the barista who earned them, but electronic tips were pooled. When several members of the staff noticed that the busy season wasn’t coming with a higher payout, someone sat down and did the math.
“One of the employees really took the initiative and collected all the sales just from May and realized that between the three locations, $9,000 in tips were never paid. We texted Luke and asked him for a meeting.”
As a collective, the team approached the boss in a spirit of problem-solving, hoping to find the glitch responsible for the missing tips.
“Luke works harder than anyone, and we all thought so highly of him. He was always there before 6 a.m., he was always there later than anyone else. But his body language when he told us he had no idea what happened to the money told us that he knew he was caught. We didn’t see him much that week, then we had a second meeting with him and his accountant.”
Eden said Mabie admitted to the staff that the money had been re-allocated to keep the business afloat. He used some to pay wages for non-tipped employees, and some to pay bills to keep the three locations alive, Eden added.
“He wasn’t out buying fancy cars or using the money for his personal life,” Eden said. “He put everything he had into Culprit and made a decision to try to keep them goin g. We understood that. We don’t know how long it had been going on, but he offered to cut us a check for our lost tips all the way back to January. I loved working at Culprit, and I loved Luke, but we were all paying rent, tuition, bills.”
And when the accountant got back to the staff with estimates for back pay, the numbers still weren’t working out.
“It wasn’t even half of what I was supposed to have made from May, and she said it was back pay since January. We agreed we were all going to leave, but Luke left so fast we weren’t able to tell him in person. We called the voicemail and stood in a circle, we each said our names and that we were resigning. I thought our location would close, and maybe Luke would combine staff and keep one open. He and his wife had kept a location open with just the two of them. We didn’t know that the day we left would be the end of Culprit.”
By the next day, the rumor mill had turned out a dozen theories as to why the shop was suddenly chained and the socials for Culprit and its owner were gone. Despite the circumstances, Taylor, Ricardo, and Eden all shared only the best wishes for their former boss and teammate.
“I texted Luke that I was sorry it ended this way.” Eden said. “We saw ourselves as partners, and we all respected him. You have to trust your team. Nobody wants to talk about money problems, but at the end of the day if you want a loyal staff, you have to have a good relationship.”
“I don’t blame Luke for this. But I’m still not sure how to feel about it all.” Ricardo said. “I definitely went through the stages of grief. Four years I spent at Culprit, and it’s just over.”
“As angry as I am, I truly don’t know what he was going through personally.” Taylor said. “He has a family. He was just trying to make it.”