What's on the menu at some of the city's top-rated restaurants?
Some Twin Cities restaurants, fixtures in the local fine-dining community, have been caught up in a plot as complicated as "Ocean's Eleven," with funds improperly transferred across a half-dozen restaurants with overlapping ownership.
The common denominator? Restaurateur Josh Thoma. The money? About $100,000.
Last fall, Thoma funneled money out of the then-new and instantly popular Bar La Grassa and into two restaurants -- Solera and Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque -- via La Belle Vie. Now Thoma's partnership at Bar La Grassa is history, and he and his longtime business partner, chef Tim McKee, are no longer managing Barrio, the standing-room only tequila bars in both Twin Cities downtowns.
At the restaurants themselves, it's dinner as usual, though given the high-profile of the chefs and dining spots, the rumors have been juicier than a medium-rare porterhouse from Manny's.
"I heard stuff like, 'Josh stole a half-million dollars,' which of course is not true," said Thoma. "I was good friends with these guys. I guess everything is settled and done, and we'll all go our separate ways."
Thoma claims that there was a misunderstanding about the shifting of money among restaurants where he was part owner.
"It was one of those things where I told the accountant to make it work," said Thoma. "To a degree, I didn't know how much was going where and when, although ultimately I'm responsible."
Isaac Becker, chef and co-owner of Bar La Grassa, sees the situation differently.
"I have the bank statements, I know precisely what was going on," he said. "We were having issues with sales taxes and purveyors not being paid, which I couldn't understand because we've been a busy restaurant since the day we opened."
At the turn of the year, Bar La Grassa's financials were sorted out and action was taken. "Josh was kicked out of the restaurant, the locks were changed and access to the bank accounts were altered," Becker said.
Players in the drama
Thoma and McKee are the principals behind La Belle Vie, Solera and Smalley's. The pair also had a minority ownership and a management contract with Barrio co-owners Ryan Burnet and Tim Rooney.
Thoma had a similar equity/management contract setup at Bar La Grassa, which is also co-owned by Burnet and Rooney, as well as Becker and his spouse Nancy St. Pierre and KQRS radio personality Tom Barnard.
No criminal charges were filed against Thoma, and the parties came to an agreement in April.
"There was a lot of saber rattling," said Thoma. "But none of the money went to me. It was not funneled into Josh Thoma's bank account; it was moved in between business entities."
To repay the Bar La Grassa funds, Thoma and McKee relinquished their equity in Barrio, and Thoma forfeited his equity in Bar La Grassa. Thoma and McKee's management contract with Barrio was cancelled ("They were terminated due to mismanagement and gross negligence," said Burnet), and Thoma's management contract with Bar La Grassa was also terminated.
Meanwhile, business at Bar La Grassa is booming. It's still one of the toughest reservations in town. Burnet said that Barrio continues to operate as before, with opening chefs Bill Fairbanks and Tyge Nelson still leading their respective kitchens in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
However, for several months, La Belle Vie had been making regular appearances on the Minnesota Department of Revenue's liquor, wine and beer sales tax delinquencies roster. The restaurant was removed from the list a few weeks ago.
Thoma said that the recession has battered Solera's private events business, a key moneymaker, although sales are now on the upswing. Mc-Kee is now a regular presence behind the tapas bar at Solera.
A longtime relationship
McKee and Thoma have been business partners since the two D'Amico Cucina veterans opened La Belle Vie to great acclaim in 1998.
"The past few months haven't been very comfortable," said McKee, last year's winner of the coveted James Beard Foundation's award for Best Chef Midwest. As for his long-standing partnership with Thoma, McKee says, "We're trying to work it out internally."
Becker and Thoma became buddies while working side by side at D'Amico Cucina in the 1990s. "This is the worse-case scenario of going into business with friends," Becker said.
"Had our business been a fraction slower than it was, we might have had to shut down [Bar La Grassa]," Becker said. "Luckily we were able to absorb that kind of mismanagement.
"More than anything else, I just wish this would all go away, and we could get back to work and not have all this drama."
Staff writers Tom Horgen and Lee Svitak Dean contributed to this story.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757