Tim McKee and Josh Thoma's high-profile restaurant partnership appears to be heading toward Splitsville.
The restaurateurs have sold Solera, located in the downtown Minneapolis theater district, to a subsidiary of the Hennepin Avenue Opportunity Fund, a privately held company that counts among its partners Lee Lynch, former CEO of advertising agency Carmichael Lynch. No details were disclosed. Starting Monday, the Spanish-style restaurant and events center will be managed by Graves Hospitality Corp., which operates the nearby Graves 601 Wyndham Grand Collection hotel and its restaurants, Cosmos and Bradstreet Craftshouse.
"This is right up our alley," said President Benjamin Graves.
The transaction signals a turning point in the McKee-Thoma collaboration, which took a major hit in June when financial irregularities involving Thoma and his overlapping partnerships with two popular restaurants, Barrio and Bar La Grassa, came to light. As a result, McKee and Thoma forfeited their equity stakes in Barrio, and Thoma's partnership in Bar La Grassa was terminated. No criminal charges were filed.
"The partnership has been in decline for some time," said McKee, one of the region's best-known chefs. McKee will continue to operate the critically acclaimed La Belle Vie, but Thoma, who co-founded the four-star restaurant in 1998, looks to be on his way out.
"Josh has agreed to give up his interest in La Belle Vie, and has been removed from any operations there," said McKee. "That's the situation right now."
As for Smalley's, the Caribbean-style barbecue joint that the duo launched in Stillwater in 2008, "We're still partners," said McKee.
McKee said that the recession sent Solera's lucrative corporate events business into a nosedive, and filling the building's large private-party spaces became too difficult to sustain. "The economic model just wasn't working for us," he said. "It came to the point where we were going to have to put a padlock on the door -- and I didn't want our employees showing up to work for that -- or bring someone else in to run it."
They chose the latter. "The Graves operation brings its own event sales experience to the table," said Thoma. "That's going to drive business here to Solera."
Graves added that he has no specific changes in store for the 7-year-old operation, which focuses on Spanish tapas and consists of a street-level restaurant and bar, two floors of private events spaces and an outdoor rooftop lounge.
"It's going to be the same great food, the same great place to book a party," he said, adding that Solera's 100-plus staff, including executive chef J.P. Samuelson, will stay. "To the person walking in off the street, it's going to be business as usual."