Saturday, June 13, 2009

Locanda turned out to be recipe for disaster

From the Voice of the Hill web site
When chef Brian Barszcz was hired at Locanda in 2007, after a decade of cooking at formal A-list establishments, he was delighted to be turning out simple, elegant Italian dishes at a neighborhood restaurant on Capitol Hill. Food critics and D.C. residents alike soon recognized that Locanda, at 633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, was a destination restaurant.

But by January 2008, Barszcz saw signs of trouble at Locanda, which closed abruptly after Memorial Day following a year and a half of ups and downs and a legal battle in D.C. Superior Court. On June 24, a judge will mediate what has become an ugly dispute between two businessmen, both of Turkish descent, who once gave the Hill a contemporary Italian restaurant to cheer about.

In a pair of lawsuits filed in 2008, former business partners Turan Tombul and Aykan Demiroglu accuse one another of unlawful conduct. As far as Barszcz is concerned, the original source of the dysfunction is clear.

“Our immediate closure was due to lack of funds, but the problems started with [Demiroglu],” Barszcz says. “I’m just a chef. I order and cook the food. But I don’t do the books. And our bills were not being paid on time. It became a bad situation.”

Barszcz cut his teeth at Colvin Run, an acclaimed restaurant in Virginia, and at power spot Bistro Bis, a stone’s throw from the Capitol. At Obelisk, in Dupont Circle, he discovered the joys of Italian food.

“Obelisk opened my eyes to how simple and fresh Italian cooking can be,” says Barszcz, whose wife, Tammy, helped run Locanda. Offering a seasonal menu of homemade pastas, organic chicken and whole branzino, and desserts by Liliana Dumas, of Trattoria Liliana in Van Ness, Locanda had a neighborhood vibe, even during tough economic times.

“We knew it wouldn’t last forever,” Barszcz says, “but our staff stayed with us and it felt like a family. I like the small restaurant concept. I don’t like doing 300 dinners a night. I like to touch the food.”

But court documents tell a story of business turmoil and murky agreements that derailed Locanda’s culinary success.

In 2006, Tombul, owner of the property at 633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, met Demiroglu through a mutual acquaintance. Both men are Turkish, though Demiroglu is part Italian. Both men are familiar with the restaurant business: Demiroglu was a manager at Le Paradou in Penn Quarter, and Tombul is part owner of Café 8, on 8th Street SE. In 2007, Demiroglu formed a limited liability company, AT LLC, and obtained a liquor license for Locanda.

Tombul secured $625,000 in loans to finance the opening of the restaurant. Demiroglu, who in court papers described his contribution as “sweat equity,” was named general manager.
In court papers, Tombul contends he is a 51 percent owner of the restaurant; Demiroglu contends he had exclusive decision-making power with respect to executive decisions.

Locanda opened in July 2007 to glowing reviews. “I can barely contain myself,” wrote Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema in September 2007, heralding not just Barszcz’ cooking and Dumas’ desserts but the Capitol Hill location — not normally known as a destination for food-conscious Washingtonians. Meantime, staff members were advising Tombul that Demiroglu was stealing from the restaurant, drinking on the job, and failing to pay vendors and employee overtime salaries, according to a lawsuit Tombul filed last August. That lawsuit further alleges that Demiroglu owes the company $84,000 in addition to inappropriate credit card charges used to pay his immigration attorney and other personal expenses.

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