French brasserie Royce opened on August 9, 2022, across from Fountain Square, the second Cincinnati project from Amaranth Hospitality and Terry Raley, the Nashville-based restaurateur who’d launched Over-the-Rhine favorite PearlStar the year before. Royce occupied perhaps the city’s highest-profile downtown real estate—a corner spot at The Foundry, 3CDC’s reimagining of the former Fountain Place mall—and was poised to become a crown jewel of Cincinnati’s dining scene.
Hailed for its steak frites, skate wings, sweetbreads, and oysters, Royce was quickly regarded as an elite dining experience. Cincinnati Magazine called it “essential” and “blissfully Parisian” in our January 2023 issue, and even featured a photograph of its food on the front cover of this month’s Best Restaurants issue.
And then Royce and PearlStar closed without warning on February 16. How did the restaurant poised for Queen City fame shut down just six months into its existence? Since the day Royce closed, we’ve conducted more than 15 interviews with former Royce and PearlStar managers and staff members, as well as Raley himself, to figure out what went wrong. (Most of the former employees asked for anonymity because they fear retribution from Raley.)
The hubbub started the day after Valentine’s Day, when several Royce and PearlStar workers didn’t receive their regular Wednesday paychecks. Royce had just experienced a wildly successful Valentine’s Day dinner service the night before, and yet staff wages were missing in action. “I got a really bad feeling about it that day,” says a former Royce manager. “I was like, Something’s just not right.”
After dinner at Royce on Wednesday night, February 15, Executive Chef and Culinary Director Coby Baumann sat down with employees there and shared what he said he’d recently discovered: The restaurant had been operating without all necessary liquor licenses since its debut, both Royce and PearlStar were three months behind on rent, and Raley was planning to shut down the restaurants that coming weekend without a word and with possibly no final paychecks. “I left the decision on whether they wanted to open the next day or not completely up to them, and I told them I’d support them either way,” Baumann says. Every worker walked out.
The next morning, February 16, employees who hadn’t worked the evening before at Royce or who worked at PearlStar woke up to a flurry of phone notifications. Payroll and HR at both restaurants were run by Raley’s partner, Alex Monteverde, and not a single worker could get in touch with either Raley or Monteverde; both reside in Nashville and had already shut down employee communication systems. Doors at both restaurants were locked. Social media accounts and websites for both restaurants had been deactivated. One manager woke up to an Instagram message from an employee under them asking, “Hey, are we closing?” Countless others found out through social media that they no longer had a job. “My life was suddenly, immediately rocked,” says one of PearlStar’s longest-tenured employees. “PearlStar is my only source of income. I’m very happy that a lot of people had second jobs to fall back on. I am not one of those people. I cried. I cried a lot.”
Word got out right away about the restaurant closures. In a story that day on Cincinnati Magazine’s website, 3CDC Vice President for Marketing & Communications Joe Rudemiller told us, “It’s unfortunate things didn’t work out with Royce and PearlStar, but we are confident there will be significant interest in both spaces and we plan to get to work immediately on re-tenanting these locations.”
Baumann, who’d taken over as executive chef and culinary director at both restaurants just over a month before they closed, immediately went into crisis mode and retrieved all remaining employee checks from both locations. We met in person that morning to talk about the conditions that led to the restaurants’ closure, and our conversation was interrupted several times as employees came in to retrieve their final checks. “Walk over to the bank and cash that check,” Baumann told each employee. “Don’t deposit it. Cash it.”
PearlStar opened in September 2021 to much fanfare and was a huge success for a time. Cincinnati Magazine’s dining critic gave the restaurant a positive review in our February 2022 issue, saying it had been “months—maybe years—since I’ve been in a place so electric.” But staff turnover was a frequent problem—even more than it usually is in the restaurant industry—and former employees say the dining experience often suffered when there was a change in management because Raley wasn’t around. One ex-manager says Raley would disappear for months at a time, showing up every so often to fire and hire new people. An ex-employee says PearlStar cycled through at least three chefs between August 2022 and its February closing.
Former employees say that morale also suffered heavily at both restaurants due to payroll mismanagement. One employee was paid with cash after their paycheck bounced. Another says a General Manager quit because he wasn’t allowed to have access to payroll numbers. A server was told her first paycheck was “lost,” and a manager had to write her a personal check on the spot, “which is a little alarming now that I’m thinking about it,” the ex-server says.
Another server, Makayla Wilson, told us she hadn’t received a paycheck when both restaurants closed, despite Monteverde showing her earlier she’d worked 41 hours that week. “This is personal, and I’m sorry if it’s unprofessional,” Wilson said, her voice trembling. “But I am living off basically nothing right now. I need that money they’re refusing to give me. I know they’re scumbag people. But I’m going through a lot.” Wilson was finally paid later on, after she physically tracked down the owners.
Raley responded to initial questions about the restaurant closures with a series of text messages. “Please be kind to us. Cincinnati wasn’t very kind to our group,” he wrote on February 16. “The long and short is we could neither build nor sustain any infrastructure [in Cincinnati].… We simply couldn’t gain the labor force that was needed to forge two successful brands.” He claimed that “people talk” and there was no truth to what his employees had been saying in local media coverage of the closures. “Have you been speaking to Maddie Wagner and Coby Baumann by chance?” he asked. (Wagner, Royce’s final general manager, declined to comment for this article.)
Raley said that all Cincinnati employees were regularly paid at midnight Tuesdays “to the best of [my] knowledge” and sent over documents showing his final payroll to prove that he’d paid on time during Valentine’s Day week. The documents he sent for Royce, however, show that the restaurant’s bank account would be debited for payroll on Thursday, February 16, not on Valentine’s Day or the day after, which lines up with former employees who showed bank statements with a deposit from “Pearlstar Royce” on February 16—two days late, as the employees had claimed.
Despite issues under the surface at PearlStar, from an outside perspective it was wildly popular and immensely successful. It was difficult to get in the door without reservations on most nights. And 3CDC had already handed Raley the keys to The Foundry’s key corner location before PearlStar even opened.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing at Royce, though. Cincinnati food scene favorite Jared Bennett was named Executive Chef but was cut loose just two weeks after opening. Bennett says he “didn’t want to work 90 hours a week” and that he and Raley were on good terms until Bennett proposed a shorter shift. “Bummer, too, because we crushed the opening,” says Bennett. “Out of all the openings I have done, I think that was one of the smoothest.”
As the months progressed, various chefs, GMs, and managers cycled in and out at Royce. One manager showed us an offer letter with a written contract from Raley for a salary of $10 an hour and health benefits. Raley later told them the contract was null and void after the person who hired them was fired. Their pay was reduced to $5 an hour, according to a pay stub they showed us, and they repeatedly attempted to reach Raley for an answer as to why. When they never heard back, they quit and went to work at another well-known local restaurant.
The fire marshal visits local restaurants every January to confirm how many seats there are in the restaurant and to verify the establishment’s liquor license, which is normally framed at the bar or displayed next to a cash register. One Royce hostess was asked by the marshal where it was, couldn’t find it, and panicked when no license was found on Royce’s premises, so she called the GM and everyone else she could think of. Other employees recall receiving texts from the GM asking if they knew where the liquor license was. Eventually, somebody reached out to Monteverde, who told the employees she’d send them a copy of the license later.
According to documents shown to us, the restaurant did not have an independent liquor license before January 12, 2023, or its own D6 license to serve alcohol on Sunday (it’s still marked as “pending” on the Ohio Division of Liquor Control’s website). Its license had been mistakenly registered in PearlStar’s name.
As far as Baumann’s claim that Royce and PearlStar were behind on rent, Raley said via text on February 16 that the restaurant’s rent payments were up to date. He claimed 3CDC Executive Vice President Adam Gelter could “absolutely confirm rent.” 3CDC was the landlord for both Royce at The Foundry and PearlStar on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine, but Rudemiller says the organization won’t comment on the details of its relationship with Raley and Amaranth Hospitality.
Former Royce and PearlStar employees believe that this mess could have been avoided if Baumann had been given the proper financial records and been alerted to the possible rent crisis. “Coby could have fixed this,” several employees mention, unprompted. Almost every ex-employee excitedly ranted about how much better things had gotten in the final month and a half after he took over managing the restaurants. “I will go wherever Coby goes.” “I think why most of us are telling you all this is because they’re going to try to blame [Baumann and Wagner.]” “I quit Royce, but I told Coby I’d help him out two days a week just to help him get that place back on its feet.” “I really thought Chef Coby had the ability to fix that place.”
Baumann refuses to take credit for any successes either restaurant experienced at the end of their lifespans, instead praising Wagner (“I’ve been doing this in a world class setting for 30 years,” he says, “and Maddie Wagner is the best pastry chef in this city, if not the state.”) and his employees, who were “really the ones that held this place together.” He grimaced on the day the restaurants closed, saying as he handed out paychecks, “You can’t save a ship from sinking if you’re trying to patch it up with bubblegum.”
He then spent several minutes naming workers who were integral to the restaurants’ success, noting that Royce and PearlStar really felt “like a family,” as clichéd as that sentiment might sound. “A restaurant is about building a family and a community,” says Baumann. “The story to me is that there was such financial peril the whole time and yet the employees were still able to piece it together. It’s not about me. It’s not about what I want. It’s about all these people.”