The day after Christmas, those who follow the Phantom Gourmet's Facebook feed were treated to a provocative status update.
"Let's name restaurants that deliver," wrote the Phantom. "I'll start: Upper Crust Pizzeria."
It took only three minutes for someone to raise an eyebrow.
"I don't order food from places that don't pay their employees," Megan Boyer Tobins wrote. Quipped Jim Farrell, "If you mean deliver illegals from Brazil, then, yes, upper crust [sic] is your restaurant."
The Upper Crust chain — which has been a sponsor of The Phantom Gourmet, the local food show run by brothers Dave, Mike, and Dan Andelman — has been in bad odor in Boston since early last month. That's when the Boston Globe reported that the company employed dozens of illegal Brazilian immigrants who worked up to 100 hours a week with no overtime pay. When the United States Labor Department ordered the company to pay $350,000 in back wages in 2009, the Globe story said, the Upper Crust paid up but slashed employees' salaries to less than minimum wage.
In the last few weeks, the Globe reported, the state attorney general's office has been investigating the Upper Crust for their alleged violation of minimum-wage laws. Further, a whistleblower filed a civil suit alleging, among other things, that the owner threatened to kill him.
These trespasses didn't dissuade a Phantom Gourmet follower named Bob Ullman, who jumped into the Facebook fray to defend the Upper Crust: "Exploitation of employees? Give me a break!" he wrote. "If people are willing to work for X dollars an hour with no benefits then it's their fault, not the employer. They are in a business, not a charity!"
Quoth the Phantom Gourmet: "Bob, good for you, they have hundreds of employees and do a lot for charity and generate millions in tax revenue, I would think we would all be rooting for businesses to expand and hire. Plus, the pizza is really tasty." And soon after: "I'm sorry to tell everyone, but without illegal aliens, there is no restaurant business." (No one from Phantom Gourmet could be reached to comment on this article.)
Patrick Maguire, a restaurant-industry blogger, saw the exchange and was incensed. He had recently declined to appear as a guest on the Phantom Gourmet television show because the Upper Crust remained a sponsor, he said.
Maguire waded into the Facebook thread, and reported the Phantom's comments on his blog, servernotservant.com. His post tapped a nerve in the foodie blogosphere, launching a debate about the role of illegal immigrants in the Massachusetts economy.
Bloggers across the political spectrum questioned the Phantom Gourmet's support of their advertiser — to the extent of condoning the exploitation of illegal immigrants.
The Phantom Gourmet is "essentially saying it's okay to look past laws that are on the books, whether you like those laws or not, if you like the end product," wrote blogger Dave Copeland.
To which one of his readers responded, "They're as filthy as the despicable owners of UC. Shame on all of them."
Still, Maguire says, "I thought it was encouraging that a lot of folks are willing to discuss these issues and not willing to tolerate the exploitation of workers, regardless of their immigration status. They're people trying to make a living for themselves and their families. They don't deserve this sort of treatment."