He spent $6m on his restaurant through COVID. Now he owes money for unpaid wages

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A restaurateur who spent $6 million unsuccessfully battling to keep his St Kilda hospitality venture afloat after repeated COVID-19 lockdowns must pay a former staff member $15,900 in unpaid wages and penalties in a Federal Court order.

But Mario Di Nardo and the company behind St Kilda’s The European Hotel have not yet paid their former venue manager as they failed to attend court and did not have legal representation.

Mario Di Nardo’s The European Hotel is the subject of a Fair Work Australia investigation. Credit: Justin McManus

Fair Work Australia (FWA) is also investigating the restaurant complex over unpaid wages.

In an article this month detailing the difficulties some in the restaurant industry were having in bouncing back from the lockdown era, Di Nardo told The Sunday Age that he and backers sank $6 million to establish and run The European Hotel in 2019 on the corner of Fitzroy and Princes streets.

But COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions thwarted their plans and Di Nardo shut the complex recently, saying reopening would cost him about $500,000 in training, staffing, running and marketing costs over the first two months.

Former staff contacted The Sunday Age after the story ran, saying they were owed wages and had filed complaints with FWA.

“The Fair Work ombudsman is investigating The European Hotel,” an FWA spokeswoman said.

“As this matter is ongoing, it is not appropriate to comment further at this time.”

Federal Court Justice Patrick O’Sullivan last month ordered Di Nardo and European Operations Co, the company behind the restaurant, pay Alexandru-Andrei Bostan $15,874.91 for outstanding wages, leave, notice period and compensation for economic loss.

Bostan worked as a venue manager at the restaurant for a few weeks in June and July last year. He took his case to Fair Work and then the Federal Court. He told the court he received payslips but no money in his account.

‘We have had heard nothing and our client hasn’t received any money. He is now left with the unenviable decision whether to … send around the sheriff.’

The court heard that Bostan was sacked after testing positive to COVID-19 and declining to work.

The Fair Work Commission began a conference to deal with the dispute, but Di Nardo did not attend.

Nor did Di Nardo and European Operations Co have legal representation at last month’s court hearing when O’Sullivan ordered the restaurateur and company pay Bostan his outstanding wages and penalties.

A further hearing to decide additional penalties is due in August.

“I am very sorry for the residual payments for staff, we are co-operating with Fair Work, but we had the most dire three years of trading conditions we have ever seen,” Di Nardo, who is trying to sell the business, last week told The Sunday Age.

“We will co-operate with the legal time frames.”

Di Nardo’s restaurant dream soured after he and his backers sank $6 million into the development on the site his press release called an “iconic and historic 1854 Melbourne landmark”, and which was fit-out as the “reimagining of a St Kilda icon”, by award-winning interior designer director Alex Zabotto-Bentley of AZBcreative.

They planned to open the site – which included casual eatery Rafaels, modern Italian dining at Crudino and cocktails and canapés at the Melbourne Lounge – in February 2020. But after three failed attempts during repeated COVID lockdowns, the complex eventually opened in November 2021.

Di Nardo shut the multipurpose site, saying running costs are too high, although it is available for private hire.

“I’m saddened because I, personally, cannot keep funding the venue,” Di Nardo said.

“I would love to continue but I can’t continue. I don’t have the energy or the capacity financially to continue at all.”

Bostan’s lawyer, Gabrielle Marchetti, of legal firm JobWatch, said Di Nardo’s failure to appear in court or send a legal representative made the process more difficult for her client.

“It is disappointing and very frustrating for a client like Alex to have the experience where respondents have made it unnecessarily complicated and have drawn out the process by not appearing … and not complying with court orders,” Marchetti said.

“Now the judge has made orders to pay compensation. The amounts were payable immediately and we are over a month down the track, and we have repeatedly asked the respondents to comply with those orders, but we have had heard nothing and our client hasn’t received any money.

“He is now left with the unenviable decision whether to … send around the sheriff.”

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