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‘This Guy’s an Asshole’: Former Workers Allege Owner of Ed’s Lobster Bar Abruptly Shut Down the Restaurant and Disappeared With Their Wages While He Pursues DJ Career

Workers say Ed McFarland owes them tens of thousands in unpaid wages, and have now sued their former employer.

(Hell Gate)

Abed Campos, an unhoused New Yorker who lives across from Ed’s Lobster Bar in SoHo, has been posted up near the intersection of Grand and Lafayette for about a decade. Campos has seen restaurants on that block come and go, but he'd gotten used to the rhythms of Ed's, which had been at that corner since 2021, after it moved from its original Lafayette Street storefront. Usually, employees would show up mid-morning to prep before the restaurant opened at 11 a.m., but according to Campos, he didn't see any staff the morning of Easter Sunday. Instead, around midday, he said he was approached by Ed McFarland, the namesake and owner of the restaurant, who asked Campos to help him clear out some trash bags from the storefront. 

"I was like, 'What's up bro? You're not going to open today?' and he was like, 'Nah, we're moving to another location,'" Campos recalled. "So I helped him move some garbage bags over there…He gave me a couple of bucks, 40 or 50 bucks."

Unbeknownst to Campos, the New England-style restaurant, known for its heaping lobster rolls, lobster mac and cheese, lobster pot pies, and yes, more lobster, wasn't moving locations—it was shutting down after 17 years in business. McFarland had texted his employees on Saturday to tell them that they would be closed the next day for Easter, and subsequently told them that the restaurant would remain closed until mid-week. But on Easter Sunday, and without telling his staff, McFarland closed the restaurant for good. 

According to many of his now former employees, McFarland took off with tens of thousands of dollars in back wages and payments that he owed his staff, which McFarland had been promising them for months. And while they tell Hell Gate that they haven't heard from McFarland since that day, McFarland, who has lately embraced a DJing career, has seemingly been busy, promoting his new EDM single on his Instagram account. On Tuesday, former employees filed a lawsuit against McFarland to recover what they claim are unpaid wages. The lawsuit, which is seeking more than $100,000 in damages, also states that some staff were paid less than New York's hourly minimum wage for food service workers, and others weren't receiving proper overtime. 

José Diaz, a long-time chef at the restaurant, showed up on Monday, April 1, to move some food into the freezer so that it wouldn't spoil. He knew the restaurant was closed for the day, but he said he didn't expect to be greeted by an empty restaurant, devoid of what another worker called "all the important stuff"—cash, computers, liquor, and food. (Diaz is an undocumented immigrant—to protect his identity, Hell Gate has used a pseudonym.) 

"I sent a text to Ed like, 'Hey, everything's gone, what's going on?' He didn't respond to that and there's been no contact at all since then," Diaz said in Spanish through a translator. 

While the staff say the closing was unexpected, there had been signs for a while that something was off—many of the employees had not received a full paycheck in months, according to interviews, bank statements, and the legal complaint.

Jean Ilunga, a server and bartender who joined Ed's staff several years ago, said the Easter Sunday closure set off an alarm bell in his mind. 

"In my head, I'm like, 'We never close the restaurant,' we'll be open for Christmas, New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Super Bowl, all of that. But for Easter, you want to close the restaurant?" Ilunga said. (Hell Gate is using a pseudonym as Ilunga is also undocumented.)

Around 5 p.m. on Sunday, after he had cleared out the restaurant, McFarland told the staff in a text that they would be closed for another three days, explaining that he needed some time to figure out his finances. 

"We will be closed Monday Tuesday and Wednesday so I can get my financials in order  It's the only way I'm going to catch up with everyone  I appreciate everybody's patience and understanding over the past couple of months. Thank you," McFarland wrote.

Eight former employees working at the restaurant when it closed told Hell Gate that McFarland has stolen roughly $45,000 in wages from them since September 2023, an amount that is backed up by pictures of bank statements and bounced checks obtained by Hell Gate. This amount does not include unpaid wages stemming from overtime or minimum wage violations. The lawsuit filed against McFarland details wage violations on behalf of 12 workers over the course of several years, including some who worked at Ed's Lobster Bar for more than a decade.

Diaz told Hell Gate that unlike other front-of-house staff, he received a set salary of $1,300 every Friday. Since October 2023, he said that 12 of his paychecks, totaling $14,300, have bounced, though Diaz told Hell Gate that McFarland also gave him $3,400 in cash and Zelle payments during this time period. To make ends meet, Diaz said, he had to dip into his savings, which took a toll on his personal life.

Diaz broke down in tears as he explained that he had been trying to have a baby with his partner and start a family. For the time being, that plan is on hold. When asked about his feelings on the situation, Diaz gave a succinct answer. 

"Triste, enojado," Diaz said in Spanish—"sad" and "angry."

The shuttering of Ed's also particularly alarmed Luis Aguilar, an unofficial manager for the front-of-house staff. (Hell Gate has also changed Aguilar's name for this story to protect his residency in the U.S.) Aguilar had given McFarland a $20,000 loan at the beginning of January, after McFarland told him the restaurant was struggling. Aguilar, originally from Mexico, said he offered McFarland financial help to keep the business afloat. Aguilar dreams of owning his own restaurant one day—he's been working in the industry for 10 years, and saw the loan as an opportunity to become a partner in the business. According to Aguilar, McFarland framed the loan as an investment, and told Aguilar via text message that he would receive 10 percent of whatever profit the restaurant gained each month. 

"Will go over tightening stuff up this week up selling and let's start building a bar business at night here and let's both make this work. $$$$$$$$," McFarland wrote to Aguilar via text on January 8, a few days after Aguilar sent over the money via wire transfer. 

Now, Aguilar says he feels naive for believing McFarland. "I feel stupid, I trusted the wrong person," he said. "Why did I give the money to the wrong person? Why was I wasting my time with this person and this person just disappeared?"

Aguilar never received any profits from that $20,000 investment— he also says McFarland did not pay him $16,000 in wages, though he said he did receive $700 from McFarland via Zelle. Now, Aguilar wants the $20,000 he loaned McFarland back, as well as the back wages he says he is owed.

The now-shuttered Ed's Lobster Bar. (Oona Milliken / Hell Gate)

Bounced checks were not a new occurrence at Ed's, former staff told Hell Gate, but in the past, everyone would get paid soon after. Ramiro Reyes, a server who had been working at the lobster bar for about a year, said one of his first paychecks at the restaurant didn't go through, but McFarland remedied the issue immediately. Ilunga recalls a similar experience: His checks would bounce periodically, maybe once every five months, and McFarland would always quickly pay him afterwards. 

But during the fall of 2023, leading into the winter and early spring of 2024, the problem worsened, according to accounts from former staff as well as the lawsuit, which alleges that staff "received no payment from McFarland for work performed from in or around October 16, 2023 until in or around March 22, 2024 as the checks [McFarland] provided were all without funds."

Diaz recalled that in late December and into January, most paychecks started bouncing, to the point that Diaz's bank account got shut down because he deposited too many bad checks. Still, McFarland told his employees that there was nothing to worry about, former staff told Hell Gate. 

After a while, Ilunga stopped expecting the weekly checks to go through and just waited for his bank to tell him that his deposit couldn't be processed. It was during this period that Ilunga, who is originally from France, said he wished he'd done more to speak up. 

"A lot of times I'd be asking myself a lot of questions about the restaurant, the business, and I never had the courage to confront him or even speak louder," Ilunga said. 

According to Ilunga, Ed's was unlike other places he had worked at—it was his fourth restaurant job since moving to New York City. He was used to receiving a standard payroll check and he said he was taken aback when McFarland would give him a personal check instead. (New York State requires employers to maintain and keep payroll records; the lawsuit against McFarland states that he is liable $5,000 per employee for violating this law.) Sometimes, Ilunga said, staff would check McFarland's math for errors or underpayments using their own calculations; they had a shared Excel sheet with the tips they had made throughout the week. 

"We were kind of doing things by feeling," Ilunga said. "At other restaurants, you get a paycheck, you have all the math, there's no miscalculations…That's standard. But not at the lobster bar."

When they pressed McFarland on the issue during the late winter and early spring, staff said he would sometimes give them some money through Zelle or cash to tide them over—but nowhere near a full salary, and not enough to cover rent or bills. Ilunga said he had to work out a deal with his landlord during this time period because he was unable to pay his full rent for three months. According to his calculations, he is still missing around $4,000 of his wages, even after the Zelle transfers that McFarland sent. 

Aguilar said he would question McFarland about the missed payments, but McFarland would tell him that he just needed more time to figure it out—summer was coming, the restaurant would be busy, and he would pay everyone what they were owed. Despite Aguilar's concerns, he went along with it in hopes that McFarland would follow through on his word. "I was like, 'I'm going to trust you, because the restaurant's been open 17 years,'" Aguilar said. 

In a text message to his staff on February 8, McFarland said he was working out details with his investors so that the delayed wage payments could be resolved. 

"Hey everyone starting Monday I will be able to start making payments for everybody for the back money owed. It's not going to all happen on Monday for everybody but I will spread it out so everybody's getting paid and hopefully it will be by the following Monday that it's all resolved," McFarland wrote. 

Still, checks kept bouncing, and the promise of payments never came to fruition. Despite the staff's growing concerns about their wages, Reyes said McFarland would act normally at work, sometimes jovially. 

"He acted like nothing happened, like everything's fine,” Reyes said. "I got mad, because I'm like, everything is not fine. Nothing's okay, but he's acting like everything's fine, he's cracking jokes."

Reyes, who did not take part in the lawsuit, says he is owed less money than Aguilar, Diaz, or Ilunga. Reyes said he suspects this might have been intentional on McFarland's part. Reyes is an American citizen, unlike many other employees, who are undocumented immigrants. One time, in an attempt to get some of what he says he is owed, Reyes said he threatened to report McFarland to the Department of Labor, and McFarland paid him right away—though not the full amount he was owed. He says McFarland still owes him $2,600 in wages. 

"I guess I was the only one with power, you know, since I was born here," Reyes said. 

Former staff also questioned the supposed financial precarity of Ed's, as they had access to the sales sheet and could see how much money Ed's was making on a weekly basis in sales. According to several of the former staff, the business was, at times, bringing in almost $100,000 a week. 

"I don't exactly know what the problem was. I kept asking him, 'What happened to the checks? The business is good,'" Aguilar said. 

Still, McFarland had some debts to pay. The restaurant was handed an eviction notice in January 2024 that stated McFarland's debts to 161 Lafayette Realty Inc. totaled $182,357. (Hell Gate reached out to 161 Lafayette Realty Inc. but did not get a response). McFarland also struggled to pay at least one purveyor on time, according to court documents. In October 2022, Gosman’s Fish Market filed a complaint against the restaurant's Sag Harbor location, stating that McFarland neglected to pay an agreed upon fee of $32,973.12. 

In 2021, McFarland did an interview with Dan's Papers, a publication based in the Hamptons, to discuss the struggles of his business: the rising cost of lobster, worker shortages, and the impact of COVID-19 on the industry. Still, McFarland said he prided himself in staying open while other storefronts shuttered or moved away during the pandemic.

"I love the business, and we have a lot of pride in our restaurants," McFarland said in that interview. "And while everyone is talking about 'coming back,' we never left." The Sag Harbor location closed a year after the interview. 

More than a month after the closure, staff say they are now grappling with how to get their wages paid.

McFarland has not responded to Hell Gate's repeated requests for comment, including numerous texts and calls to his cell phone number and direct messages on social media. After this Hell Gate reporter commented on one of his Instagram posts to reach out for comment, someone removed the post from his feed. McFarland has also blocked the main Instagram account of the reporter writing this story. Hell Gate has also reached out to McFarland's legal representation from a previous case he was involved in, but has received no response.

After Easter, someone, presumably McFarland, made the official @edslobsterbar Instagram private, deleted all photos, blocked former staff, removed the account’s profile picture, and unfollowed all but one person. McFarland made his own personal account private for a while, though he opened it to promote his EDM single, "Summer Beach Days," released under his artist name, EdM². "Summer Beach Days," as well as his latest single "The Bassment," which dropped on May 16, are both available on Spotify. While the restaurant's website remained up for a period of time, it is now down, with an error message saying that the site no longer exists. 

According to former employees, in the summer of 2023, McFarland ventured into playing music at the restaurant: He would either DJ himself or have other DJs come in to play music on Saturdays. Reyes told Hell Gate the initiative didn't quite fit the atmosphere at Ed's Lobster Bar. 

"It didn't work, what he was doing with the DJ stuff. It didn't go with the restaurant, it was small, just not good. Customers were leaving, they were like, 'We can’t be here no more,'" Reyes said. 

Katie Fowler, a former server at Ed's for about six years, and Chris Fowler, an unofficial manager and a server/bartender who had lengthy stints at Ed's beginning in 2009, both left the restaurant in 2018. The two dated during their time at the lobster bar and are now married and live in California. 

When the Fowlers found out what had happened on Easter, they were shocked. The staff at Ed's was tight-knit—former and current employees keep in touch, they said—and the couple had visited the restaurant just a few weeks prior to the incident. 

According to Katie Fowler, McFarland's attempts to publicize his burgeoning DJ career prompted her to get involved in holding McFarland accountable. On April 11, she shared a post on Reddit about McFarland, writing, "Basically everyone who has worked for him and everyone in the NYC restaurant world just kind of knows this guy's an a**hole." 

"He teamed up with some DJ who was doing beats at night and then he decided that now he's also a DJ," Katie Fowler told Hell Gate, adding of McFarland's single, "He clearly invested some money into making this song." What really upset her, she said, were some of McFarland's Instagram Stories. "It's like five days [after the restaurant closed], he's promoting his album," she recalled. "That really set us over the edge."

While his former employees told Hell Gate that McFarland has stopped responding to them, he has been busy promoting his new single on his Instagram account. McFarland lives in New Jersey with his kids and his wife, an attorney who currently specializes in employment law and has worked at the U.S. Department of Justice for 19 years. 

Aguilar said he still struggles to understand why McFarland did what he did. 

"I don't know how to say, in Spanish or in English," Aguilar said. "It's not fair what he did. It's not fair, it's not like a normal person. He has kids, he has a wife, he has a family. Why did he do this to us? It's like he doesn't have feelings. What he did to us, I can't understand it.” 

Reyes said he felt bad for McFarland at times and wondered what would happen to his wife and kids if the alleged wage theft came to light. Still, Reyes said he was angry with his former employer.

"There’s one tattoo that [McFarland] has that gets me mad a lot, it says 'Blessed,'" Reyes said. "'You’re not blessed,' I wanted to tell him one time, 'You're not blessed, you're the damned.'"

Via a translator, Diaz said he was not the only one who had to delay plans for the future. Many employees were providing for family members back home, some were planning to buy a house, another wanted to buy a car. With thousands or tens of thousands missing, many aren't able to fulfill those goals. 

"Ed has a dream of being a DJ. Other people have dreams too, and they can't do them anymore," Diaz said. 

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