Peter Thomas says none of this is his fault.
Bar One, the Harbor East restaurant he opened in 2021, is closed because employees stole from the business, he said. The restaurateur and former reality star, known for a stint on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” as supermodel Cynthia Bailey’s then-husband, told The Baltimore Banner that the alleged stealing led to a drop in revenue. Without offering evidence, Thomas claimed that drop is the reason he stopped paying the company’s bills, including its vendors, employee wages, rent and taxes.
By the time the Lancaster Street lounge shut down in May, “We weren’t making the money to cover payroll,” said Thomas, 62.
Now, the Baltimore business is facing litigation from two vendors plus one former customer who say they are collectively owed more than $50,000. The Maryland comptroller’s office confirmed that Bar One has still not paid more than $80,000 in taxes it owes the state, a debt that led to the suspension of its liquor license this spring. Thomas said he hasn’t paid the $38,000-a-month rent on the property in months.
An ex-employee said he and others walked off the job around Mother’s Day after going weeks without wages. “Nobody got paid, so nobody came to work,” according to Malik Joseph, head chef at the restaurant, who said the establishment still owes him about $4,000 in back wages.
Despite Bar One’s closure of more than two months, Thomas in late June expressed confidence that he would soon repay his debts, find an entirely new staff for the restaurant and reopen. And until at least mid-July, the lounge continued to accept reservations on OpenTable to the seeming frustration of diners who wrote on the site about arriving to find the lights turned off and chair cushions stacked by the front door. Thomas said that his Baltimore landlord, Harbor East Management, still “want to work a deal out with us. … People are not running to open restaurants right now.” Harbor East Management did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Banner.
Thomas and his brother and business partner, Earl, own other ventures, including a branch of Bar One in Miami, that the restaurateur said will cover the debts of Bar One Baltimore. “We have to borrow from Paul to pay Peter,” Thomas said.
But Paul also appears to be in trouble. Thomas is facing legal and financial problems at Bar One Miami that echo his issues in Maryland. His Florida landlord has filed for eviction, alleging the restaurant owes more than $400,000 in rent. Thomas’ Miami location claims all rent owed has been paid. Employees there have posted on social media to complain about not receiving wages. Two vendors have taken Bar One Miami to court this year for allegedly failing to pay invoices for food distribution.
Both cases remain open, and the lounge has yet to respond to the claims. Thomas’ Charlotte, North Carolina restaurant, Sports One Bar and Lounge, closed in 2019 with more than $200,000 in unpaid taxes. As of 2021, the company still owed about $85,700, according to federal tax lien records.
Bar One’s Baltimore location is named in two separate lawsuits from local vendors, according to court records. Jessup-based Republic National Distributing Company said in its complaint it is owed more than $5,000 after receiving only partial payment — and one bad check — from the business this year. New Windsor’s Performance Foodservice Maryland alleged that the restaurant owes them more than $45,000, including interest. Thomas said he is working on paying those vendors back.
‘He’ll insult Baltimore’
During an interview with The Banner in June to discuss the situation with his restaurant, Thomas spoke scornfully of the city where he has been doing business and said that the murder rate and vacant housing problem demonstrate “there’s a problem from within.” His disdain extended toward its Black residents, including many who worked for him. “There’s a big difference between African Americans in Baltimore City and African Americans in Washington, D.C.,” Thomas said, remarking that people from the nation’s capital are “much more cosmopolitan.”
Such talk was familiar to chef Joseph, who said the restaurateur wasn’t afraid to insult the city in front of staff. “He’ll insult Baltimore while he’s in the Baltimore location,” Joseph said. “He’ll insult Baltimore’s work ethic while in a meeting with nothing but Baltimore” workers.
On his Instagram page, Thomas has made racist generalizations about Black workers and investors to his 793,000 followers. “Black people, when they work for Black people, they never respect it,” he said in a May 27 video. “They’re so fucking conditioned.”
Yet Thomas said his goal as a business owner was to inspire. He told The Baltimore Banner that his interest in opening here spiked following a widely-publicized incident at Ouzo Bay in which a Black child was stopped from eating at the restaurant when a manager said the boy didn’t meet the eatery’s dress code.
Bar One would open up next door to that restaurant, in the former Gordon Biersch Brewery. It was an address that Thomas took pride in as a Black restaurateur. Baltimore “is the home of Harriet Tubman, Reginald Lewis,” he said. “There hasn’t been one Black restaurant on the waterfront in the history of this city.”
‘I think I’m blocked’
During its approximately two years in operation, Bar One cultivated an image as a place to see and be seen by Black power brokers in the area. The lounge hosted fundraisers for Democratic Gov. Wes Moore, who was featured in a video posted to the restaurant’s Instagram account on May 30, and former State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. “Everyone in this city who is representing Black excellence walked in the door,” Thomas said.
The chance to network with VIPs appealed to former employees like Asia Smith, who worked at Bar One from September through April. Plus, the money was “good when you could get it,” said Smith, who was bar lead when she left. But early on, she said she noticed discrepancies in her paychecks. Though she believed she was entitled to receive part of the 20% service charge Bar One added to every single bill, Smith said she didn’t get that money: “I wasn’t receiving a portion of those service charges. … It basically disappeared into thin air.”
Asked about Smith’s allegations, Thomas said that of the 20% service charge, only about 14% went toward employees and the rest went to cover credit card fees and to replenish Bar One’s holdings of knives, plates and other utensils. Though that breakdown was not communicated to customers, the practice is not a violation of Maryland labor law, which states that required service charges are not considered tips. (Confusion over the distinction is reflected on customer sites like Yelp, with reviews that state “it would have been good to know” that “this is not the servers tip” and complain of having “to add an actual tip which is basically 40% by that point,” while others mistakenly refer to the charge as “automatic gratuity.”)
Smith eventually left in search of a steadier income, but she claimed her checks from Bar One had almost always been calculated incorrectly, and estimated that the restaurant owes her several thousands of dollars. “I don’t think I ever received an honest paycheck from Bar One,” she said.
Austin Jett, who briefly worked as a prep cook at the Baltimore location this year, said he is still owed hundreds of dollars by the restaurant after receiving just part of one paycheck, which was given to him in cash. “I’ve never even heard of a job doing that before,” he said.
Still, Jett acknowledged, others are worse off: “There are people that have thousands of dollars that they haven’t been paid yet.”
Thomas admitted he had fallen behind on several weeks of employee pay in the June interview, but claimed he had already paid back most of what he owed in back wages and was in the process of paying back creditors.
Weeks later, Joseph, the former head chef, said he had made multiple efforts to reach out to Thomas directly to get the $4,000 he is still owed, to no avail. Though the owner used to return his calls, “At this point I think I’m blocked,” he said.
‘Money was missing’
Thomas alleged to The Banner that workers had been stealing food and cash from the restaurant, which led to its financial problems. He said employees operated on a “hookup system,” giving out freebies to friends.
While Thomas conceded that he never “caught anybody” stealing from the restaurant, he said customers observed bartenders pocketing money. The restaurant’s cash revenue dropped precipitously over time, with overall monthly revenue declining from more than $300,000 to less than half that amount, he claimed.
Asked if he considered calling police over the alleged thefts, Thomas said he had not because after experiencing thefts at his Miami restaurant, he called police but they were unable to address the issue, he said.
One former general manager from the Miami location recalled Thomas complaining about employee thefts there at a time when workers regularly went without pay.
Alesha Hunt, who started in Miami in April, said she regularly noticed discrepancies in the restaurant’s accounts. When she went to view closeout receipts, “money was missing” from the totals, she said. At the same time, employees complained to her that they hadn’t received their paychecks or had checks bounce. Hunt said two of her paychecks bounced, too.
Hunt, who left in May, said when she brought the issues to Thomas’ attention, the restaurateur seemed like he “didn’t give a fuck.” Hunt recalled that when she had been hired, Thomas told her he had fired all of the restaurant’s staff for stealing. He later told The Banner through spokeswoman Senita Brooks that employees at the Miami location had pocketed $280,000 over the course of six months.
Since then, Hunt has posted online about her experience while working at Bar One Miami and said she has heard from “several” employees of the Baltimore location who are owed money — in some cases up to $10,000. The financial toll for them has been immense, she said; Hunt set up a GoFundMe page to help them.
Thomas has accused Hunt of attempting to smear him, calling her a “criminal” based on her past record, which includes a prison sentence for obtaining money by false pretenses. Thomas accused her of using the GoFundMe for personal gain. “This is what happen when you give some people a second chance in life,” he wrote in an Instagram post.
‘You cannot come to Baltimore and do these types of things’
Earlier this year, a Baltimore jury acquitted Thomas of charges that he drunkenly assaulted a customer at his restaurant. But an unrelated diner who visited Bar One still has beef with the restaurateur.
Last Halloween, Chanel Bastfield and her partner dressed up as contestants on “The Price is Right” to compete in the restaurant’s costume contest, which they had seen advertised on Instagram with a grand prize of $500.
But once they got to Bar One, Bastfield said multiple employees she encountered seemed to have no idea a contest was happening. After some back and forth, Bastfield said, a staff member eventually took her picture and shared it to Instagram, asking users to vote in the comments. Bastfield and her partner won the most votes.
Bastfield never got the money, according to a lawsuit she filed this year, alleging that the Harbor East restaurant and lounge “conducted a deceptive and fraudulent” competition. “The contest was fake and Bar One never paid as promised,” Bastfield wrote in the complaint, dated April 5.
Bastfield says Bar One deleted posts about the contest — including ones where she had been named the winner — and blocked her on social media after she and supporters flooded its page with comments demanding to be paid.
Though it’s just $500, she decided to sue to send a message, she told The Banner. “You cannot come to Baltimore and do these types of things,” she said.
When asked for comment about the case, Thomas said he did not know who Bastfield was.
By late July, Thomas stopped returning phone calls and text messages from The Banner, and the Baltimore restaurant remained closed. “Karma got him,” Bastfield said of the Bar One shutdown.
After this article’s publication Wednesday, Thomas posted a response video on Instagram in which he doubled down on several of the statements from his Banner interview and reiterated his intention to repay his debts and reopen. “I don’t run from nothing,” he said. “If I didn’t like the city, I wouldn’t invest in the city.”
Brooks said the restaurateur is “figuring it out. He’s still trying to get the funds together to get it back open. He’s almost there, but not 100% there.”
“He’s a hustler, so he does figure things out.”