Smith, who owns two other restaurants in town, did not return messages from the Phoenix, but in a statement last week, he said, "We consider this is a frivolous lawsuit and simply continued harassment by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a national group with its own agenda. We are confident that we will be vindicated through the legal process . . . The Front Room has been one of Portland's most successful restaurants for the past four years because we treat both our employees and customers very well. That has not, and will not, change."

Echoing those statements was a letter signed by 22 current employees, which was printed in full in Friday's Portland Press Herald.

"We've never been shorted money," it reads, in part. "In fact, we don't know of a single case where that has happened . . . Harding is one of the few restaurant owners in Portland who offers a matchable retirement plan as well as health and dental benefits. The three restaurants have approximately 100 people working in them. It's a great place to work and we are sorry to see such negative stories run about Harding . . . We feel that we've been harassed by the ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center of Maine). Seeing them demonstrate outside the Front Room, spreading lies, saying that Harding wouldn't meet when in fact the ROC refused to meet with Harding's lawyers present, was upsetting. They said they weren't there to disrupt business, but they did disrupt business and made our customers nervous."

ROC-Maine says there will be additional demonstrations in the coming days, and that it plans to release the results of its survey early next month.

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