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Lola's Cafe in Ladera Ranch, California: Employee Abuse Allegations

Amateur investigations are a hobby I hope to turn into a useful tool to help others.

Lola's delicious house salad. A very popular dish, highly recommended by regulars to the establishment. Isn't it beautiful?

Lola's delicious house salad. A very popular dish, highly recommended by regulars to the establishment. Isn't it beautiful?

For the pièce de résistance, if you can forgive my poor and out of place jest; the answer to the important question, "Is it worth it to eat there despite the allegations?"

I went into this looking to bring awareness to the allegations that have been brought against Lola's Cafe and its owners Ava and Matt Surrena, but it is not my intention to cause any damage to their character or business. If you read this and feel as if they deserve any damages, then that is reflective of your interpretation of my words and not my desires or intentions. In fact, I enjoy the food that they serve at Lola's Cafe when it comes out prepared properly and in a timely manner. Their coffee isn't good, nor their pretentious claims to infallibility concerning the coffee they serve, but everything else is splendid. So long as the establishment is at the top of their game, and you go in aware of the allegations against them and they are seeking redemption, I would have to say it is absolutely worth a visit. The key point here being that Ava and Matt must be seeking to make right the allegations brought against them. Bad publicity is good publicity, though, right?

History of Lola's Cafe and Its Owners

Lola's Cafe is a quaint little restaurant located in gorgeous Ladera Ranch, California. Opening in 2016, they boasted serving the highest quality foods and drinks, using only the best ingredients, supporting local artists and independent businesses, with an unbeatable ambiance that is all meant to contribute to their goal of "Acting locally-thinking globally." On the surface this is all well and fine, enticing even, and the owners more than give off the appearance of accomplishing each and every one of their goals; even if they stumble in certain aspects they are quick to place fault and present problems as strengths. The establishment is extremely inviting, and once inside you'll more than likely get the chance to speak with the eccentric owners widely accused of employee abuse, Matt and Ava Surrena.

More important than the business and its goals would have to be the ones directing the whole operation. Matt Surrena, by all appearances, is as banal as any other individual you may cross paths with on the street on any given day. The most I could glean from my observations of Matt, the most interesting I should say, is that he once worked with a radio station. A man after my own heart as far as caring for his business, but nonetheless another face in the crowd. I wouldn't want to, but one could go as far as saying he is negligible in the scheme of things because his wife, and co-owner, Ava Surrena seems to be the one wearing the pants within all their affairs. To say that Ava hides her intimidating presence well would be an understatement; a glance across the room from her and you can feel the warmth radiating from her feigned smile and bright eyes. Having worked for the Emmys in her past, dealing with some of the most pompous personalities in the world, it isn't beyond understanding why she has developed these defenses. Behind the scenes and charming demeanor, she rules Lola's Cafe with a sloppy, and sometimes seemingly delusional, iron fist. Considering the location they are in, and demographic of the area I'm surprised more controversy hasn't arisen around the owners and their business.

Having spent most of my childhood within and around the confines of Ladera Ranch, over twenty years of experiencing all of what this and the surrounding areas have to offer as far as people and their values, it is baffling to me how Lola's Cafe hasn't faced an onslaught of criticism for their practices. Growing up I witnessed so many who would and did jump at the chance to spearhead a movement that would bring justice for the underprivileged. From Proposition 8, to the Trayvon Martin trial, there wasn't a single serious social issue that would go unnoticed by the ever-vigilant Ladera Ranch community. Today, as I write this, I feel that the noble and loving community that surrounds this establishment will listen and take the proper steps to ensure the abuse allegedly occurring at Lola's stops. At the very least a push for awareness needs to be made, and I deeply hope that the victims affected by what I am about to tell you get the closure and healing they deserve.

Motivation for the Article

In order to be as transparent as possible I must mention that my girlfriend, mother to my wonderful son, is a former employee of Lola's Cafe. With great shame I must admit, as is all too often the case in situations where someone is victimized and brings it to someone else's attention, I doubted and questioned her claims of abuse by the owners of Lola's. Having had the guilt of questioning her weighing on my conscience, I began to seek out concrete evidence of the abuses occurring within the business. Due to the unpredictable nature of Matt and Ava, I decided the best way to dig into the facts was to collect as much anecdotal evidence as is possible while avoiding a return to the business itself. I will leave it to others to question the claims of abuse victims, the victims of Matt and Ava's alleged abuses they are willing to write off dishonestly and spitefully as "disgruntled."

The Allegations

It was surprising, no, it was shocking and appalling to hear all the allegations of abuse occurring at Lola's. From what I could gather about the situation Matt is accused of being tacitly supportive of Ava's claimed blatant abuses against their employees. The alleged abuses range from discriminatory verbal abuse to sexism, and even financial crimes committed against all the employees past or present. Once confronted by an employee for their mistreatment, witnesses claim that the person standing up for themselves was fired. In one such situation it is claimed, by Ava herself, that all it took for the alleged individual to get fired was saying, "She is freaking out about the schedule...." while on the phone with Matt, to which Ava responded with a prompt termination of their employment with no further questions asked.

In another situation, blatant discriminatory sexism had been said to have occurred before and during a conversation between the kitchen manager at the time and Ava. Ava had supposedly looked over an application from a male individual seeking employment as a cook, and was subsequently denied by Ava who expressed to the kitchen manager, "He was old school. I don't think he would have listened to a woman." Now I can't speak for anyone else's opinion, but that to me sounds like a less than equal opportunity for employment based on someone's prejudicial views of personality and gender rather than qualification. Judging by the data I have on hand, Ava spared that man a short but gruesome employment.

"Short but gruesome...." is a phrase that has been used to describe what being employed at Lola's is like. A former employee of the establishment was kind enough to describe to me what it was like for them working at the restaurant under Ava. What they had to say shook me to my core.

"You know how you have a bad experience somewhere and you never go back? If I hadn't needed the money I was making there so bad, I never would have stayed. You get hired somewhere and you think, like, you're going into a fresh situation with a clean slate. At Lola's it didn't matter what you did because it felt like Ava was around every corner. To be honest, she was around every corner because she would watch us on the security cameras while she was at home. If we did something she didn't like she would sometimes come in and lecture us for it, even berate us for extended periods of time. It didn't even make any sense most of the time, like, she didn't want us talking while we worked because 'If we had time to talk, then we aren't working hard enough' and when you can't even talk to your team you feel lost and scared all the time."

I was becoming livid having heard such serious accusations, I didn't want to hear more and wanted to storm into Lola's to give them a piece of my mind, but I pressed on to ask for a clearer description of what they meant by "...lost and scared..." and the response was mind-boggling.

"Well when you're working, no matter how long you had been there, you always felt like you were doing something wrong. Ava would come in and tell me what it was I need to be doing, and so I'd go do it. Not even five minutes later she would come in and berate me for doing what she said and make me do something else. She could do that multiple times and not even know she was doing it, but you, like, you're scared of her and you know there was no one you could tell because you'd get fired. I even watched a girl have a total mental breakdown. She threw a knife at the wall and stormed out because Ava wouldn't stop harassing her. It just felt like a prison all the time."

At this point we were both becoming visibly emotional and I didn't want to push someone to continue reliving their traumatic experiences. I let them know that we did not need to keep speaking, but if they had anything else to say or anything they wanted to bring to light they could tell me.

"Well, they steal our tips...." was their final addition to the long list of allegations. At this point I felt obligated to hear more and so insisted they continue.

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"Yeah, they collect them themselves and everyone I spoke to had been waiting for months to get them. Even when you'd ask for your tips they'd brush you off, and even after being fired they still wouldn't give you your tips. It took me asking three times and a few months of waiting to get mine. I have no way of knowing what the actual amount should be because they take the cash tips and you can't know unless you do that yourself."

This inspired me to do some research and I found, according to Labor Code, § 351 and Henning v. Industrial Welfare Com. (1988) 46 Cal.3d 1262, 1272, what was being alleged is actually a very serious crime in California. If you've made it this far in your reading then certainly you're just as outraged as these victims, right? I know after hearing all of this my opinion about Lola's Cafe and its owners changed drastically. How could anyone do all this and still get away with it?

If you suspect your bosses or anyone else of stealing your tips click here for helpful resources.

The Takeaway

Now, I know all of this is simply alleged and anecdotal and naturally I am biased, but I can't bring myself to believe outright that any of the claims are false. What I am able to do, however, is list some solutions to prevent any further abuses from arising. There is always the obvious suggestion of a conscious boycott, which I feel is unnecessary in this case. A business should have the chance to correct their practices before suffering permanent damages. Then there is spreading awareness of the abuse that their former and current employees claim is occurring. You could go in and ask Ava and Matt to wholeheartedly acknowledge or disavow the claims made against them. It wouldn't hurt to write a Yelp review mentioning the allegations and your experience at their establishment as far as being a patron is concerned. All I ask, and more importantly what the victims ask, is recognition of their claims as valid and important.


Kyler J Falk (author) from California on June 07, 2020:

Considering they have every ability to contact me for changes to anything that is deemed incorrect, if they were to make this a civil dispute without doing so then I'd have to start a malicious prosecution suit. Your concern is cute, though; I don't believe you but I am always open to revision on the grounds of factual claims and concerns. Then again, they aren't the type to discuss things.

Can't stop them from continuing to dig their own grave!

Bob Brady on June 06, 2020:

I came here to tell you, I know the owners and they're dragging your ass to court for Libel. I guess they don't know you got nothing to sue. Maybe you'll get laocked up instead. You deserve it.

Kyler J Falk (author) from California on April 18, 2020:

Trust me, Shauna, I've tried to do all I could for everyone at the establishment but they all depend on the place for their income. They get away with all this because they pay higher wages, wages you won't get as a line cook elsewhere, so they keep their workers in a state much like Stockholm Syndrome.

Upon posting this they were all excited to read it and see the info getting out there, then the owners addressed it with them the very next day and everyone deleted the links they shared to it and went radio silent. Even coming to me to change their tune, and say it is too much.

I did what I could, gave them all the same information you offered, and even reported them to the IRS and State agencies. No one cares. It is very disheartening and aggravating.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 18, 2020:

Kyler, can the victims complain to the Labor Board? I don't know if they can do anything about the verbal abuse and lack of trust, but surely they can look into the stolen tips situation. How is it they would withhold tips for months? Here in Florida, the tips are collected by the servers and are distributed (to bussing staff, if that's protocol at the establishment) at the end of each shift. The servers bring their tips home with them daily, at least cash tips. Not sure how credit card tips work.

The workers, whether present or former, can also post reviews of what it's like to work at Lola's. Here we have an employment site called Indeed offers an area for reviews by former and current employees. When I was looking for work, I'd always check for those, in addition to perusing the company's website, before deciding whether or not to apply.

Something needs to be done about the owners. I would definitely boycott the restaurant. Hit 'em where it hurts - on the balance sheet!

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