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Ex-Café Tropical employees say coffee shop owes them thousands in pay

Almost two months after Silver Lake coffee shop Café Tropical shut its doors, former employees who worked there say they are still missing hundreds or thousands of dollars in final paychecks that never went through.

The nearly 50-year-old Sunset Boulevard restaurant closed suddenly in late November as debts and a bitter family dispute ravaged the company that owned the Cuban coffee shop. But the out-of-the-blue decision to close left baristas and cooks out of work and missing paychecks they were still owed.

“It’s sad the way they just threw us away,” said Miguel Alarcon, 44, a barista who worked at Café Tropical for a dozen years until it closed on Dec. 1. “I told them I have kids, I have a family. … You have to pay me.”

Alarcon and other employees said that problems began at Café Tropical months before the shuttering. Checks to employees were bouncing and vendors were complaining about not getting paid.

The issues came amid a lawsuit that owner Daniel Navarro’s mother filed against him in 2022. Gladys Navarro claimed in the suit that her son illicitly used money from the family business to fund Café Tropical. Daniel Navarro has failed to pay his mother and sister more than $350,000 he owes in connection with the suit, according to court documents.

The dispute left the workers in the lurch.

Alarcon is owed about a week of pay, amounting to around $900, he said. Other employees are owed even more. Another woman at the company was missing three paychecks, Alarcon said.

Jasmine Perez, who started at Café Tropical in September, said she was owed about $1,000. By the time she started at Café Tropical, issues already abounded.

“The first thing someone asked me was did your check go through?” she said. “It just became an absolute nightmare to ever get paid on time. There would be times where I’d be missing paychecks for two consecutive pay periods. It was very uncomfortable to try to ask for the money you already earned.”

A group is raising money on GoFundMe to try to pay employees who have struggled to get answers from the owner. Ciara Keane, a Silver Lake resident who organized the GoFundMe, said Navarro changed his number after the closure.

“Employees are still out of work and are having difficulty finding employment. They’re in need more now than ever,” Keane posted on GoFundMe.

The group has raised nearly $10,000, but says it still needs more than $50,000 in additional contributions to pay the 33 employees who lost their jobs and had their final paychecks bounce.

The goal is to pay the employees the $1,000 many are owed as well as another $1,000 for the time they were unemployed after the closure.

“I really wanted [the staff] to be able to feel how much the community loved and supported them, even though they didn’t get the same support from Daniel,” Keane said.

Keane moved to Los Angeles from Miami four years ago and although she is not Cuban, Café Tropical reminded her of the Cuban culture of the city she grew up in.

She also recognized the important role that Café Tropical played for the sober community as well as for older generations of Silver Lake residents who saw the restaurant as one of the last vestiges of the pre-gentrification days in the trendy neighborhood.

Keane and her friends printed out posters that link to the GoFundMe across Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park, but they still have not been able to raise enough money to make all the employees whole.

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