Food to go

A Dallas chef beats it out of town ahead of bill collectors

Popular Dallas chef Matthew Antonovich puts a peculiar spin on just about everything. In the midst of shuttering 5-week-old Antonovich's Tuscan Steak House on Preston Road in Plano, a restaurant he says was inspired by telepathic directives from his dead grandmother, he characterized the move as shrewd business maneuvering, one just like the big boys make. "It's kind of like where I took lessons from Donald Trump," he says. "Donald Trump's attitude is 'Work with me, and we'll get it done. Start from scratch, and we'll build it back up.'"

And that's what the former chef and partner of the popular restaurant Sipango said he planned to do: close his restaurant to slough off more than $650,000 in debt and reopen with new partners under a new name. It would be easy. Everyone, including banks and investors, he claimed, wanted to work with him. The landlord was eager to negotiate a new lease because he wanted someone of Antonovich's culinary caliber to prime the location. Besides, Plano deserved to have a fine restaurant in its own back yard.

That landlord sees things a bit differently. "There's not a chance," says Benton Rutledge of Benton Rutledge Properties when asked if he would consider negotiating a lease with Antonovich. "I'm going to be surprised if Matt can do anything in this area again, because he's burned so many people."

Antonovich left a bad taste on his landlord's palate. On June 27, the night before the restaurant was to close, Rutledge had Antonovich escorted from the premises and then changed all of the locks for non-payment of rent and taxes. Rutledge claims it was the first time in his 30-plus years as a property owner that he has had to lock out a tenant.

But there was more than just skipped rent that culminated in Rutledge's drastic move. Much more. Sources say that when Antonovich ran short of cash, he threatened to close down, file for bankruptcy, and reopen under a new name unless Legacy Bank gave him a loan. "He was threatening to remove equipment and pull his stuff out to reopen," says Richard Galvan, the owner of the restaurant Antonovich bought and converted to his own venue. So the bank filed an injunction to keep Antonovich from removing assets.

"When the landlord came in on Friday night at midnight, I had a guy that just sold a car dealership for a hundred million bucks," Antonovich bristles. "When the landlord asked me for the key, he embarrassed me in front of this investor." Antonovich, who was reached somewhere near Jacksonville, Florida, says he is traipsing across the country looking to get a job at a bed and breakfast. He declined to name the last-minute backer. "The investor wanted too much equity anyway," he says, dismissing the question.

It seems the lauded chef had little, if any, intention of hanging around Dallas to take another shot at a spot bearing his name. While struggling to operate his restaurant, Antonovich put his Plano house on the market. It sits there today, stripped of contents with a "for sale" sign plugged in the front lawn. He skipped town just after the lockout. "I left town for a week to get out of the heat," Antonovich says. He claims he took off for Tuscany with his mother and some Antonovich's employees.

But other sources believe he's most likely been in Kentucky or Florida the whole time, places where he has family and business contacts. "I don't think anyone knows where he is," Rutledge says. "There's too many people looking for him."

The list of people who would like to sit down and chat with Antonovich is large and growing. Former employees as well as sources familiar with the purchase deal say Antonovich stiffed just about everybody in his short run. Employees weren't paid. Credit-card tips weren't disbursed to servers. Vendors cut him off after gathering a fistful of past-due bills. Contractors that finished out the restaurant were left empty-handed.

"He's got a bunch of people pissed off in this town," says Scott Brubaker of North Dallas Custom Woodworking. "In the end, he just shelled on everybody. Nobody got paid." Brubaker holds up a check written to him from Antonovich for $17,431 for work he did on the restaurant, including construction of a $7,000 wine cabinet. The check bounced. Brubaker says he has since had to cash out a certificate of deposit set aside for his kids' college to cover material and labor costs. He is now in the process of pressing charges against Antonovich with the Collin County District Attorney's Office.

Antonovich is remorseless. He claims Brubaker was well aware of his financial predicament when he cut him that check. "I'm offended that Scott would even cash that check," he snaps. "He knew and I knew that there was no money to cover that account. He just wanted that check written so that his wife would get satisfied that we were going to pay him. I didn't pull any wool over Scott's eyes."

Many people did feel the wool from Antonovich, however. Longtime Dallas restaurateur Richard Galvan says many people advised him not to transfer his 3-year-old Ricardo's Ristorante Mexicano, the spot that became Antonovich's, with no money down. But he did it anyway. "I really believed in him," he says. "We felt he had the kitchen and restaurant knowledge. All he had to do to stay in business there was make rent payments."

So Galvan handed Antonovich a fully equipped restaurant with a premium lease that generated roughly $1.8 million in annual sales in exchange for a nominal stock purchase price and Antonovich's personal guarantee to assume some $650,000 in debt. The chef was to use cash flow to meet liabilities that included $350,000 from investor George Mahr, some $60,000 in bills and equipment leases, and remaining payments on a Small Business Administration note secured through Legacy Bank. An investor even stepped forward to cover SBA note payments through the summer to give Antonovich some breathing room.

Yet rather than make minor menu and fixture adjustments before hitting the ground running, Antonovich shut the restaurant down for more than a week, cutting off cash flow. He commenced a spending binge, committing for new lighting, kitchen equipment and furnishings, and finish work that included textured walls and an etched glass partition near the bar. He even bought an automated teller machine and spent $20,000 on a grand piano. "We eventually opened with two baby grand pianos," says a onetime employee.

After opening, former employees say, the restaurant did brisk business. Antonovich quickly built up a local following through word of mouth.

But many wonder aloud where the cash went. Antonovich claims 90 percent of it went to payroll. Yet much of the staff continued to work for weeks without pay on Antonovich's incessant promises that he was in the final throes of a deal with another investor. "One day it was this investor, the next day it was another investor," Brubaker says. "It just kept going on and on and on. He buffaloed all those people."

Sources say that Antonovich did have tentative commitments from several prominent backers, but that they pulled out after Antonovich failed to provide a viable business plan. "He could not deliver documents," says a source familiar with the deal. "He could not tell you what his payables were, and he could not tell you what his payroll was. Investors don't put money into those kinds of deals. You'd have to be insane to do that."

Antonovich doesn't deny he failed to pay some of his employees, contractors, and vendors. But he blames it on investors who didn't come through on their cash commitments and the debt wrapped up in the restaurant ownership transfer, debt that Galvan is now left holding.

"I don't think Matt realized that he has affected a huge number of people's lives negatively," Rutledge says. "He's so naive in the way he thinks and in the way he goes about doing things that I don't think he understands what he has done."

Antonovich seems perplexed and angered by the ire directed at him. "If everybody wants justification, tell them all to go buy me a gun and I'll blow my head off," he blurts. "I don't want anything from this business to haunt me in the future over a small situation with a half a dozen people that have a vendetta. What people need to do is be professional. Like I have been."

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