One week after Joe Colona quit his job, he bought the best restaurants issue of Baltimore magazine and hunkered down in a Mount Vernon coffee shop. Flipping through the list of eateries, he searched for his next gig.

He turned to page 148. Staring back at him was a portrait of Charm City restaurateur Brendon Hudson sitting by a fireplace in his third-floor guest room, granting readers an exclusive tour of his near-million-dollar, 4,950-square-foot Bolton Hill rowhome, surrounded by designer furnishings and Andy Warhol-styled wallpaper.

The magazine described him as the owner of a luxury catering company and the creator behind a fast-growing hospitality group, Liliahna Hospitality, with three eateries: the coffee shop Piccola Allora, the Roman bistro Allora and the now-four-month-old fine dining restaurant downtown known as Zander’s.

But to Colona — Zander’s former manager — Hudson is the man who owes him $4,145 in wages.

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Colona is one of 13 former Zander’s employees to allege Hudson paid them with checks that bounced, and sent them wire transfers through both professional and personal accounts on mobile payment apps. In certain cases, Liliahna Hospitality checks bounced due to insufficient funds, putting some employees’ balances in the negative and forcing them to pay overdraft fees.

The workers say the experience put them in financial straits. At least six told The Baltimore Banner they are still in debt after depositing Hudson’s payments. All the workers who spoke to The Baltimore Banner said they were working paycheck to paycheck, and while trying to untangle their finances, claimed they went unable to afford either rent, groceries or other basic necessities. At least one employee has filed complaints against Liliahna Hospitality to the IRS and Maryland Department of Labor.

Six employees who spoke to the Baltimore Banner also reported missing or incorrect W-2s, which are needed for tax season, and pay stubs, which Maryland law requires employers provide for each pay period.

These types of allegations are not new for Hudson. In the last year, several employees of his Allora restaurant in Mount Vernon accused Hudson of failing to pay them in full and on time, claims that he denied.

“We don’t have a history in Baltimore of screwing people over” he told The Baltimore Banner in October, following the allegations.

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In the interview, Hudson wanted to start fresh: He spoke about a deal to move Allora to a larger, glitzy space next door and his next project, Zander’s, was already receiving praise for its “Great Gatsby”-themed vision in the historic Alexander Brown Building downtown.

“The space was beautiful, so I thought I was going to get paid really well, honestly,” said Justice Gordon, a former host of Zander’s on starting work at the restaurant on Dec. 7.

But then she said her checks started to bounce: the first on Dec. 23 and the second on Jan. 8. Twice, she said she emailed the company’s human resources contact to ask for her wages, waiting almost a week before receiving a Cash App payment from a mix of business accounts — sometimes Zander’s LLC, other times Liliahna LLC — or Hudson’s personal account, according to messages shown to The Banner. She said she quit after the fourth late wire transfer at the end of January.

The working relationship began to feel “abusive,” Gordon said, as the process of getting money on time grew more difficult.

“Continuously asking them just felt like I was begging for my money, and then not getting my money felt like I was on some type of punishment,” she said.

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The issue was also a concern for Manny Miles, a former Zander’s food runner who described recovering from late fees and missing tax documents at the restaurant as an “ongoing crisis.” After complaining to Hudson and management about missing pay from Jan. 8, ten days later a manager recommended Miles “find something more reliable” for work. They did not get a final paycheck for January until March 27, Miles said, despite repeat messages to Hudson and human resources. They are still missing a W-2, Miles said.

In an April phone call, Hudson responded to the allegations emerging out of Zander’s, saying that while it’s not his intention “to screw anyone over,” the industry is not for everybody and “growth can be messy.”

Hudson said he felt horrible about some Zander’s employees being paid with checks that bounced. Not setting up direct deposit for the more than 20 employees hired within two weeks of Zander’s opening mid-December led to fraudulent flags on his account, he said.

“My biggest concern was just making sure everyone got their pay on time and I didn’t fully think through the rest of the plan,” he said, adding that he had issued new checks to employees who had their payments flagged as fraudulent and paid back employees when the business account had insufficient funds. All requests for missing tax documents were rectified, he said. Hudson denied knowing of any outstanding debts.

Allegations of missing payments have been reported by employees at other Baltimore restaurants, with Fells Point Tavern employees reporting issues in February, employees of the former Bar One in Harbor East reporting problems last summer and in Mount Airy, where a restaurateur pled guilty to a $1.7 million tax scheme in November.

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Hudson said he wants to make administrative changes to Liliahna Hospitality Group, including hiring a human resources professional and a separate payroll staffer to help with business accounting.

Over the last year, the Liliahna Hospitality Group has been sued three times in the New York Supreme Court for failing to pay back money borrowed. Records showed the court ordered Hudson and Liliahna LLC pay more than $67,000 to a now-shuttered private equity firm and more than $16,000 to another direct lending firm. A case against Hudson and his company in the court for more than $20,000 owed to a financial counseling service remains active, records show.

In Baltimore County Circuit Court, a landlord and floor company sued Hudson for tens of thousands of dollars, accusing his company Liliahna and his restaurant Velleggia’s for failing to make payments after the Italian eatery closed in the Cross Street Market, according to the Baltimore Business Journal. A spokeswoman for Hudson and Liliahna Hospitality, Lauren Walbert, declined to comment on the business finances.

A dining room in Baltimore's Alexander Brown building. (Christina Tkacik)

Former Zander’s restaurant manager Annie Conner, who also worked as a server at Allora, joined the downtown spot thinking the company’s financial troubles were over.

Conner alleged she negotiated a salary, health insurance and a 401k, instead of the usual hourly wages, with Hudson in late October. But when she started work at Zander’s, she said, Hudson did not have enough to pay her, and instead of the salary, she earned back pay. Conner said the late wire transfers from accounts Hudson had on Zelle left her repeatedly unable to pay rent, and at times, for food.

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Two weeks after opening, employees started complaining of bounced checks, Conner said. When she reported the concerns to Hudson, she alleged he was “dismissive” and would “brush me off.”

Hudson denied this, saying managers “could have had more experience” in addressing concerns.

Through early March, messages to Conner and Colona from workers said they were either not able to pay for rent, transit to the restaurant, groceries or basic health products, according to texts reviewed by The Baltimore Banner. They complained of being owed anywhere from $100 to more than $700 at a given time, with pictures showing some workers’ bank accounts falling up to $500 in the negative, according to the messages.

Zander’s executive chef, Hakim Ali, who spent the last year working for Hudson at his restaurants, said he was unaware people’s checks were bouncing. He described Hudson as a great chef and businessman, who took employees out for food and offered advances to employees struggling financially.

“He taught me everything I know,” Ali said of Hudson. “If I did have problems [getting paid], I wouldn’t be working here.”

A former barback, Ashley Espinoza, said she emailed the company’s human resources contact five times before being compensated for an event she worked on Jan. 13.

“Telling me that you’re going to get back to me as soon as possible and then not hearing a single word after its just a little frustrating to me,” she wrote in a Jan. 29 email.

She was not alone, Espinoza said. Working at Zander’s was the first time she saw managers struggling to get paid or a colleague unable to pay for their own food.

“I’ve never had a co-worker not be able to eat,” she said.

Former manager Colona told The Baltimore Banner quitting Zander’s — a decision he made the day after a performance review with Hudson — was in part due to Hudson’s failure to set a plan to compensate two employees who had been missing payments.

“With my leaving you will no longer have to pay my salary … It is a perfect moment to give these employees a more reasonable, living wage for the hard work they put in,” Colona wrote in the March 8 email announcing his departure. Since Colona left, Zander’s no longer employs a restaurant manager.

Colona, who rotated between Hudson’s businesses for more than a year, said he had trouble reconciling the income he saw the eateries making each month and the text messages he received from employees and vendors saying they had not been paid.

In the last month, Artisan and Vine LLC, a wine company, has filed a complaint against Liliahna Hospitality for more than $2,000, according to records in Baltimore Circuit Court. Two other vendors for the Liliahna Hospitality Group previously complained of Hudson’s checks bouncing and late payments from early December through January, according to text messages shown to The Banner. He’s still receiving calls from vendors, Colona said, one of which, Breakthru Beverage, allegedly had a payment of $806 from Hudson bounce on Jan. 26 and another missing payment of $2,500 from Feb. 9.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Hudson said that Zander’s is in good standing with Breakthru Beverage, but he has parted ways with another vendor, Coastal Sunbelt Produce. An arrangement to pay Colona was put in place, Hudson said.

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