Sumer Bracero’s bank balance is in the red, but it’s not for a lack of trying.
She started working at North End eatery The Hyde House at the beginning of April and everything seemed fine. She found it a little strange that she was paid by paper check, not a direct deposit, but she kept on working without any issues. Then, she started hearing rumors of bounced paychecks from other employees and started wondering what was going on.
Bracero, 19, expected her first paycheck in mid-April, but when it finally came after days of excuses that her boss and Hyde House owner Cynthia Sauer kept leaving her money at home, she was only paid for one day of work. She asked for her full paycheck and Sauer wrote it out for her on the spot, only for Bracero to find out days later it bounced.
Checks started bouncing with other staffers too and employees started to walk out the door, Bracero said. She told Sauer she would work long weekend shifts at the restaurant to help keep it open while they tried to hire more staff, but only under the condition she is paid for her time. She clocked in for a double shift a little over a week ago, only to find out later the restaurant was permanently closing, and Sauer didn’t pay her.
Now, employees say Sauer and her daughter and business partner Shelby Swanstrom aren’t answering calls, texts, or other messages from nearly a dozen former employees who were suddenly out of work and looking to get final paychecks that won’t bounce. The restaurant owners did not respond to BoiseDev’s calls for comment Tuesday.
“I feel super cheated and used,” Bracero said. “I never in my life would have thought at 19 I would be in debt because I was working. She wasted a whole month of my time and I am $500 negative in my account and still missing $700 she owes me.”
BoiseDev interviewed four former employees of Hyde House and reviewed text messages from several others about the final days of the struggling restaurant. They all told stories of multiple bounced paychecks and difficulty contacting Sauer to make things right now that the business closed. One employee described being pressured to return to work while still positive for COVID-19 due to staffing issues.
And, this isn’t the first time a business Sauer owns ran into trouble with employees alleging missing paychecks, other financial issues, and improper procedures. Idaho court records show multiple closed and pending claims cases open against Sauer with tens of thousands of dollars still owed.
A family member of one of the laid-off employees started a GoFundMe to help workers recover from the lost wages.
‘A red flag’
Cecelia Elkinton could tell Sauer didn’t have experience running a restaurant, so she gave her a chance.
She noticed several oddities, particularly with payroll, the longer she kept working there. In mid-March, a paycheck bounced for the first time, and Elkinton, 22, asked if she could get at least a partial payment so she had the money in her account to go to a family funeral, but Sauer surprised her by handing her nearly $1,000 in cash to cover everything she was owed. She was later given a second check to cover that pay period, which had a two-week hold on it, and was told to pay Sauer back for the cash Elkinton was given before her trip.
“I am confused about how all the finances ended up working,” she said.
As she kept working at the restaurant a second check bounced. She started to think back to the stories of how Hyde House lost its whole staff in October. Elkington originally thought of it as a “red flag” at the time, but she pressed ahead and gave her boss the benefit of the doubt. Hearing about the staff cuts last fall sticks rings differently in Elkington’s mind now that she had three paychecks bounce in four months of work.
In October, Hyde House made the rounds on Boise social media when the restaurant closed and a sign was posed on the door saying ‘Unfortunately we had unforeseen labor shortages and will not be open tonight. We will be open Wednesday!’. Later, someone posted another sign reading ‘Actually, we wrote bad payroll checks and the whole front of house staff quit!’.
In a text message sent to employees provided to BoiseDev, Sauer announced the restaurant would close “effective immediately” on April 20, but she planned to work with employees one on one to “make things right.” Since Hyde House closed for good nearly two weeks ago, six former employees have filed claims for unpaid wages through the Idaho Department of Labor, according to spokesperson Georgia Smith.
Jill Monteith started The Hyde House with her children and sold it to Sauer in January 2021 hoping they would carry on the chain of a family running and operating the restaurant. At the time, she was not aware of the closure of Sauer’s other business or allegations of unpaid debts. Monteith said once she heard some of the stories about missed paychecks from employees she was “appalled and heartbroken.”
Sauer still owes Monteith some money, but she declined to say how much. She is offering space for any impacted employees involved in the arts to sell their wares at her store two doors down, The Hyde Park Mercantile and will help send funds back to help the impacted workers.
The Hyde House is up for sale, and she said there have been inquiries to bring the restaurant back to life, just likely under a new name.
“We have it back up for sale and the house for rent and we’ve had quite a few really really great potential restaurant owners approach us and we will find a great new tenant to go in there and carry on with the community vibe and home feeling that restaurant had to begin with,” Monteith said.
‘No other restaurants are closing’
Safije LaPointe and several other employees of Hyde House tested positive for COVID-19 a few months ago, but Sauer wasn’t keen on them staying home.
Screenshots of text messages provided to BoiseDev between Sauer and Hyde House employee Traci Shuell, a family friend of LaPointe’s, show her resistance to letting Shuell stay home from work while they recovered from the disease. Shuell told Sauer that LaPointe tested positive and because they had been in close contact, her “conscience is not okay with exposing others.”
“Everybody else has already been exposed,” Sauer wrote back. “Therefore that doesn’t make sense for you to stay home unless you have symptoms.”
Shuell pointed out that she is concerned about exposing customers and spreading the virus further while she does her work as a cook, but Sauer didn’t agree.
“No other restaurants are closing if their staff test positive,” Sauer wrote back. “And you aren’t having contact with customers. If you have symptoms, that’s a whole other story. But you don’t.”
With Shuell refusing to return to work until her five-day guarantee period was up, Sauer told her to provide a doctor’s note about the quarantine and asked her when she would be returning to work at the restaurant.
A past history of bounced checks, closed businesses
Hyde House wasn’t Sauer’s first business venture.
Prior to owning the restaurant, Sauer owned Garden City-based Living Resources of Idaho, which provided in-home care services to people with disabilities. The company ceased operations in early 2021 right before Sauer took over Hyde House. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare revoked Living Resources of Idaho’s certificate of operation in mid-2020. A document obtained by BoiseDev said the state found multiple problems with the company’s operations, including failure to conduct proper background checks on employees, improper employee training, and failure to maintain proper records of patients’ medications.
Living Resources of Idaho received $336,000 in PPP loans from the federal COVID-19 relief package in mid-April 2020, according to data from the Washington Post.
Rae Richard, Living Resources of Idaho’s lead program manager, worked for Sauer at the company from fall 2019 through fall of 2020 after the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare ordered the company to find other placements for their clients and cease operations. She said while working there she observed issues with bounced paychecks and even paid an employee out of her own pocket to cover them.
“When she bought the Hyde House, I was like ‘oh my gosh’,” she said, reflecting on her family’s experience working for Sauer.
Her husband Cedric also worked at the company until its final days and he observed multiple employees not getting their last paycheck and no one received a promised cash bonus for working until the company finally shut down. Richard also said Sauer did not give workers W-2 forms to pay their taxes with, leaving workers to estimate on the forms and risk paying heftier amounts than necessary.
Employees said health insurance was also a problem at Living Resources of Idaho. Even though money for health insurance was being taken out of her husband’s check every month, he was told he had no insurance when he arrived at the hospital for chest pains and got stuck with a full emergency room bill. Richard said he got a check to reimburse him for what had been taken out for insurance that was not paid, but only after he confronted Sauer about the problem.
Ten former employees of Living Resources of Idaho filed wage claims with the Idaho Department of Labor over unpaid wages while they worked for Sauer. One has been resolved and the other nine are still pending.
The Idaho Statesman reported Tuesday Sauer also had a short-lived coffee shop in a rented space at Boise Bistro Market on Fairview, but it closed less than two months later. The shop’s lone employee said she is still owed $1,000 from her time at the coffee shop, which has not been paid.
A long court record of debts
Idaho’s court repository shows a long paper trail showing Sauer’s money troubles.
BoiseDev identified at least eight financial claims cases against Sauer, with some resolved and others pending going back as far as October 2005. Some of the cases are brought by individuals, like former Living Resources of Idaho employee Jessica Best, who lent Sauer $9,170 to cover payroll at the company and was not paid back. The case was ultimately resolved when Sauer paid Best $5,087 in April 2020.
Other claimants are collections agencies seeking payment on behalf of companies who did business with Living Resources seeking larger amounts. In 2020, collection agency National Service Bureau filed in court for payment of $28,144, which is still marked as “unsatisfied” as of March of this year.
A court in New York also ruled against Sauer, requiring her to pay small business investment firm HFH Capital LLC roughly $69,000. The judgment was originally won in New York, but was entered in Idaho’s Fourth District Court in June 2021 before a judge issued an order requiring Sauer to pay the funds, but the matter is still open as of May 4.