Defensive Tackle: The Messiest Restaurant Dispute in Georgetown Keeps Getting Messier
Last Thursday, lawyers for Bandolero and Tackle Box, their Georgetown landlord, and a neighboring property owner sat down for a mandatory mediation meeting in an attempt to reach a compromise over clashes that go back nearly two years. At stake: the restaurants’ ability to sell alcohol, which is critical to their survival.
The landlord, 2441 Bond Street Equities LLC, which owns the adjoining properties of 3241 and 3245 M St. NW, is protesting the renewal of its tenants’ liquor licenses. The property owner next door to Tackle Box at 3429 M St. NW, F&M Enterprises, is also protesting Tackle Box’s liquor license. The landlord has accused the restaurants’ owners, husband-wife team Jonathan and Bethany Umbel, of a series of “questionable business practices” they say have caused a disturbance to peace, order, and quiet. Among the allegations that the landlord’s attorney, Philip Musolino, outlines to the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration in an April 29 letter: illegal grease dumping, engaging in “destructive and threatening behavior,” and “total disregard for the rights of their employees.”
The Umbels deny all the allegations and say those issues have nothing to do with peace, order, or quiet—the grounds for any liquor license protest. Unsurprisingly, the mediation meeting between the lawyers last week only lasted several minutes. The Umbels’ attorney for the licensing issue, Andrew Kline, says he asked whether any agreement could be made. The answer was a resounding “no.”
The liquor license conflict is the latest trouble for Jonathan Umbel, who has been in the restaurant industry for 30 years, and his wife. The Umbels, who live in Barnaby Woods, have been entangled in a legal battle with their landlord for more than a year, following a fire that destroyed Tackle Box and Hook (which later became Bandolero) in June 2011. In early 2012, the landlord sued the Umbels for unpaid rent and taxes, as well as several other grievances. The Umbels also sued the landlord, claiming, among other things, that the landlord created “baseless or fabricated” reasons to declare defaults and evict the businesses.
Another surprise setback occurred this Wednesday, when Mike Isabella, the face and “chef” of Bandolero, announced that he was formally cutting ties with the Mexican restaurant. Isabella, who had a management agreement with Bandolero, claimed the split had nothing to do with the lawsuits or any of the restaurant’s troubles; he says he wanted more time to focus on his new places, Kapnos and G, as well as Graffiato. The Umbels were blindsided by the news. Bethany Umbel says she learned about Isabella’s decision first from Y&H, not the chef.
Legal documents signed by Jonathan Umbel in connection to the lawsuit reveal that Isabella’s management contract was rescinded in February. But the Umbels say a new agreement was put in place afterward to give Isabella more time for his other restaurants. A day before Isabella’s surprise announcement, Bethany Umbel said they still “work together weekly” and “everything is wonderful.”
Adding to the Umbels’ problems: The health department shut down both Tackle Box and Bandolero for less than a day over the past two months for a series of sanitation and safety violations. And the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and ABRA have been looking into Tackle Box for operating beyond the seating capacity allowed in its certificate of occupancy and liquor license.
“The landlord has tried everything, and they’re burying us with legal fees,” says Bethany Umbel. “We’re under siege basically. Every day, we’re waiting for somebody else that they can call to create a problem for us.”
Matt Wexler, one of the partners in 2441 Bond St. Equities, declined to comment on the record for this story, citing the ongoing litigation and ABRA hearings. Richard Price, the attorney for F&M Enterprises (the property owner at 3249 M St. NW, next to Tackle Box), also declined to comment.
Of all the issues on the table, the fight over whether the restaurants should continue serving alcohol is perhaps the most unusual. It’s nearly unheard of for ABRA to allow a landlord to protest the liquor license of its own tenant. Usually, community groups or Advisory Neighborhood Commissions protest a license, often over noise or rowdiness—for which the restaurants have never received any citations from ABRA. But the landlord is in a unique position to protest because Tackle Box and Bandolero are next door to each other, and abutting property owners are among the groups ABRA approves as “protestants.” So, as the property owner of Tackle Box, the landlord can protest Bandolero. And as the property owner of Bandolero, the landlord can protest Tackle Box.
“It seems sort of an abuse of the process,” Kline says. “It’s pretty creative.” In a hearing before the ABRA board on June 3, Kline said the landlord’s protests “are nothing but an effort to escalate the friction that already exists between the parties.”
The landlord’s lawyer, Kwamina Williford, countered that the protest was more than a landlord/tenant dispute. “This is an issue where basically an abutting property owner has issue with the tenant who is the neighboring property,” she said in that hearing.
So what issues do the abutting property owners have?
Grease dumping, for one. The D.C. Department of Public Works issued a violation against Tackle Box in June 2012 for illegally dumping cooking oil and grease outside (as well as failing to maintain the alleyway and prevent a rodent problem). The violation came with a $5,000 fine.
The Umbels turn the blame back on the landlord, claiming 2441 Bond St. Equities refused to approve the installation of gutters in back of the building, and that when it rained, the water caused the alley grease bin to overflow. They say the spill was an isolated incident. But in multiple eyewitness statements provided by the landlord in its lawsuit, neighbors—including representatives of 3429 M St. NW—allege dumping was a recurring problem over several years and that they had altercations with restaurant staff and Jonathan Umbel over the issue.
The landlord’s attorney’s letter to ABRA also alleges the Umbels’ “total disregard for the rights of their employees.” Among the more recent evidence, the landlord points to a demonstration that the D.C. Wage Theft Coalition organized at Tackle Box in February over allegations of wage theft. Three former workers said they received paychecks that bounced and were repeatedly ignored by Jonathan Umbel when they asked for the money owed to them. A picket line was avoided when the Umbels agreed to pay them more than $4,000. Jonathan Umbel told Georgetown University student newspaper The Hoya at the time that “when it was brought to our attention, we took care of it.” But representatives for the workers countered that the employees made repeated attempts to talk to him over several months.
In addition, the landlord alleges to ABRA that the restaurants “may be improperly serving alcohol on the second floor of the properties.” DCRA spokesman Helder Gil says the agency did investigate Tackle Box and found that its certificate of occupancy, which outlines the number of seats allowed in the restaurant, only covered 47 seats on the first floor, not the second floor bar and seating area.
The Umbels say that before the fire, the upstairs of Tackle Box was actually part of the next door restaurant (then Hook), and that during the rebuild they never got a new certificate of occupancy to adjust the redistribution of seats. On July 10, they filed an application to increase the occupancy at Tackle Box. DCRA investigators found no imminent safety danger, so Gil says they’re working with the restaurant to update the certificate of occupancy without any fines or closures.
Meanwhile, ABRA spokeswoman Jessie Cornelius says her office is investigating the issue, too, since Tackle Box’s liquor license also only allows 47 seats. ABRA investigators are currently drafting a report and will present it to the liquor board on Aug. 7. In general, expanding operations to another floor without ABRA approval can result in a $1,000 to $2,000 fine.
And then there are the recent health-related closures at both Tackle Box and Bandolero. On June 21, the health department shut down Tackle Box after inspectors cited eight noncritical and six critical violations, including rat droppings and flies, no soap in the hand washing sink, and raw foods not properly separated from ready to eat foods.
On May 13, a health inspector at Bandolero observed an employee prepping on top of a trash can and mold in the ice machine. Then on July 17, the health department shut down the Mexican restaurant, citing “lots of flies” in the kitchen, lack of hot enough water, and cold food items at improper temperatures, as well as unclean food contact surfaces throughout the kitchen and an out-of-order hand-washing sink in the kitchen.
Jonathan Umbel says he believes the landlord called in complaints to prompt the health inspections. He takes issue with the inspector coming in at a time when he says Bandolero was jam-packed. (Inspectors can come whenever they want, and a spokesperson from the health department says that it’s just as important, if not more so, to inspect restaurants when they’re very busy.) Umbel also claims the water temperatures were fine just after the inspector checked them and that there were only “three flies,” although the inspector writes in his report that the chef on duty “stated that the restaurant does have insects in the kitchen, flies coming from dumpsters outside...We both saw and agreed of a presence of lots of flies in the kitchen.”
The Umbels have no plans to give up on the lawsuits, which they say could drag on for years, or the liquor license protest, whose hearing is slated for Sept. 25. They continue to fight, even though Bethany Umbel says the landlord has tried on about a dozen occasions to buy them out. “One of the partners was here two weeks ago and offered us money again. The number keeps going up,” she says. “But it doesn’t even have to do with money anymore, because there’s really not a number they can give me.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery