UPDATE 6-19-13:The state of Connecticut has caught up with Marc Minella’s bad check writing and he’s been charged with a low level class D felony because he wrote a $5,000 check for gas for his New Canaan restaurant in December and it bounced. Then he blew off his court date and this week was arrested again for failure to appear. What’s odd is Marc’s father, who is an investor in his restaurant, is a millionaire and could have paid the gas bill. Instead it appears he’s letting Marc have to deal with the mess left behind when The Tuscan shut down.
A restaurant closing in New Canaan has led to drug and sex rumors, backstabbing, and high finance types in a dirty fight over money – a story that has one of the country’s wealthiest suburbs questioning what really happen. The Tuscan, run by chef co-owner Marc Minella suddenly shut its doors last month after a wild ride of opening success which included a top New York Times review. Residents have been speculating it was a drug raid or asset seizure that shut it down and are dumbfounded how this hot spot funded by Wall St financier David Minella couldn’t survive.
Through court records, business filings, conversations with restaurant staff and sit down interviews with Chef Marc Minella (age 35) and his former partner James Dadio (age 43) I’ve untangled a story of a chef’s dream gone horribly bad; squashed by local politics, his own hubris, and a father who never instilled fiscal responsibility.
The Tuscan opened in the fall of 2010 and was instantly packed with monied patrons thrilled to have a new place in town with great food and a lively scene. Its after dinner night life via live bands, big ticket wines, and $40 creative fusion food made you feel decadent. A 4,000 square foot former furniture store had been turned in to a sexy swingers den; according to court records $1.7 million was spent building the space out. Chef Marc, who has a trust fund, became a 7.5% owner and the master butcher he teamed up with, James Dadio, owned a little over 11%. Dadio says he put $154,00 into the restaurant’s capital; Marc says it was $111,000. This left Marc’s father and Darien resident David A. Minella with 80% ownership. Minella senior has owned a few asset management firms dealing in corporate buyouts and restructurings leaving him a double-digit millionaire in his early 60’s. Buying companies and getting the most out of moving around assets to increase a stock price he’s good at – helping his son understand how to not overspend and run a profitable restaurant not so much.
Marc, who had spent a few years with his new wife working in restaurants around Florence Italy, was allowed to build his dream kitchen spending at least $300,000 and it took up more space than the dining room. His sous-chef was paid $75,000 a year (more than average for Fairfield County restaurants) and Marc and James agreed to pay themself $1,500 a week. James ran the butcher and meat shop upfront helping to sell customers on pricey aged beef during the dinner rush. Marc hired interns and a full staff to get his NYT rated ‘worth it’ food ready for his Wall Street customers. While the small dining room was often packed at the start covering the hefty rent was hard. Recent court records filed by the landlord show for the 1st two years The Tuscan would pay New Canaan Republican operative Wadia $14,500 a month plus utilities and taxes that added on another $3,000 per month. After two years the rent went up to $14,935 with a cap of $18,000 towards the end of the 10 year lease. Dadio said payroll was around $10,000 a week but in all practically purpose he and Marc never issued paychecks to themselves. Wait staff was paid their nightly tips only every two weeks basically giving the restaurant a bridge loan.
A theme of heavy drinking happen while on the job as you’d see bartenders drinking on the dance floor with patrons. Their first thanksgiving weekend college students in New Canaan took over the place leading to a smashed high-def TV and girls throwing up on the dance the floor – but Marc told James ‘Hey at least we brought in $5,000 in liquor sales for the night’.
Rumors started to spread earlier that the town’s drug sniffing dog, Zira, was making visits into the place at night and you’d see New Canaan PD parked across from the restaurant just hanging out. Marc had a known drinking problem with some cocaine use on the job and had been to rehab a few times, according to multiple restaurant staff, but substance programs were also court recommended for his partner James Dadio.
The co-owners along with multiple staff interviewed for this story say drugs were never trafficked/sold from the place and a check of Stamford’s DEA records show no such raids. Minella says he actually hired the New Canaan cops to hang outside the restaurant after the first thanksgiving madhouse to make older patrons feel comfortable. Unfortunately it just fueled more rumors.
Word had gotten out that there was a secret sex room downstairs. Two bartenders I interviewed said couples in there 30′s and 40′s or married men in town would come in asking to get into ‘the room’ thinking there were escorts on the premise ready for paid action. One bartender who was there from the start said she’d see men coming in alone trying to tip her hundred dollar bills to get into the room saying ‘they were having trouble at home and really really just needed it for the night’. The bartender said some customers just couldn’t believe it wasn’t real.
“Customers might have had sex in the bathrooms but there were never prostitutes on call for customers nor was there a room with a bed hidden on the premise,” said Chef Marc shaking his head with a laugh during our interview at Sushi 25.
Still the restaurant couldn’t stop the rumors or the town’s politicians from reacting. Staff have confirmed one ex-employee even called the New Canaan Fire Marshall to report people were sleeping at the restaurant but when the Marshal came at 3am they found no one.
James and Marc business relationship didn’t last long. James had been arrested for harassment and threatening with his former business partner at Greenwich Prime Meats-a case that’s still on going were he plead not guilty. Within three months of the opening James was signing documents to end his partnership. Marc says they fired James, James says he quit after Marc was on a cocaine bender and came after him with a knife one night. But James says his core reason for getting out was watching his investment get wasted on poor restaurant management.
Marc’s father David wasn’t a silent investor when James was there. Every Thursday night David would make them have meetings trying to figure out how to cut cost. The Minella’s even suggest taking 10 percent off the top of the employees paychecks, hoping they wouldn’t notice, but James and the restaurant manager stepped in to warn that would be illegal. Mario Batali’s New York restaurant was sued for doing something similar and had to pay $5.2 million to staff he’d siphoned tips off.
The Minella’s ended up offering James only $36,000 as a return to capital three months after the opening. He took it with hope to open up his own butcher shop in town. But even though Marc’s father had millions of his own he waited nearly a year to get James his cash, which was used to open Manero’s Gourmet Ally around the corner on Elm St (it’s now closed).
In the meantime James extracted a bit of his own revenge. According to a text message he sent Marc – James made an anonymous call the town’s heath inspector squealing that Marc had a busted hot water heater yet was still serving. A. Briggs Geddis, the town’s Director of Environmental Health, showed up in mid-March 2012 and told Minella he had to shut down till he got it fixed. Marc had already ordered a backup and had it working the next day but somehow town politics took over. Mr. Geddis didn’t come back the next day, a Friday, to see how it was working. Instead he claimed red tape and wouldn’t be available till after the holiday weekend – forcing wait staff and bartenders to lose out on good tips during March Madness. Marc admitted in our interview Mr. Geddis kind of had it out for him since the beginning because he’d mouthed off to him during the opening inspection. Geddis and the town have refused to comment over the incident.
The shutdown made headline news in the local Patch – a gossip rag who focuses on page views. It was enough to scare off patrons for a bit. Meanwhile Marc was faced with a nasty divorce. His pretty blond wife from Mass. of over five years had taken off with their 1 year old daughter and a c-class Mercedes bought for Marc via a loan from his Dad just days before his birthday. She got a protective order against Marc in Mass. by claiming residence with her parents in Duxbury, Mass. In March 2012 a financial statement filed by Marc in Stamford family court claims he is only making $500 a week and has $672 in weekly expense. He starts to pay barely $100 a week in child support but then a judge stepped in with a different view. Court transcripts show the judge has questions about cash that isn’t booked in the business and ordered Marc to pay $300 of the $500 he says he’s making a week. (Former bartenders who worked with Marc say his personal bar bill a week is $500)
The $35,000 car his wife, Kinsley McGrath-Minella, basically stole, was ordered by the court to be parked and not driven as the judge said this was one of the only financial assets the couple had. The judge also made reference that it didn’t make sense to put $1.7 million into a risky restaurant business when you could invest it and make 4% on a mutual fund. (The judge clearly hasn’t seen recent returns in the market) The couple had been living in the maid’s quarter of David Minella’s mansion on Hollow Tree Ridge Road in Darien which borders New Canaan. The 8-bedroom, 7.5-bath, 10,000 sq ft home is estimated to be worth around $6-7 million.
Marc had another problem in March 2012 when he was at his Dad’s $2 million Naples Fla. home. He was arrested for high speed driving and a DUI. His mug shot shows a black eye so it looks like there was an accident. Marc was due for his criminal trial on January 3, 2013 but didn’t show up. A bench warrant was issued by Colliers County, Fla. along with a D6 suspension of his drivers license. Florida isn’t likely to spend the money to extradite him so it’s doubtful he’d be jailed when he shows up in Stamford civil court for his divorce trial on February 27th. Although a Florida criminal lawyer I interviewed said Florida’s real recourse is if he gets pulled over while driving in Conn. and a cop takes him to jail after seeing the out-of-state bench warrant. Of course Marc could fly down to Florida and make a plea deal- but at press time that hadn’t happen.
Cash flow at The Tuscan wasn’t great in 2012. They shut down for a month building out a brick oven pizza bar where parts of the high-end butcher shop had been; but customers were not packing it out when they reopened in September. After that Daddy wasn’t willing to put any more money in. Meanwhile the landlord started to get stiffed– in October rent wasn’t paid. One of the guys in the butcher shop had health insurance taken out of his pay check but when he went to the doctor he was told the premiums hadn’t been paid for months. For at least the last month The Tuscan was open, staff confirmed their pay checks were bouncing. They’ve told me they’ve consulted a lawyer now to see if they can file an employment lawsuit.
With three months of unpaid rent The Tuescan’s landlord Wadia filed suit in Norwalk housing court and was award a lien on their expense restaurant equipment for damages of $57,663. A copy of the lien was filed with New Canaan’s town clerk. Wadia had a marshal serve lien notices to the restaurant for a cost of around $600. Marc says the marshal came in and placed stickers on the equipment the court had ordered a lien against. The chef also said he was still allowed to use the equipment and nothing was taken out of the restaurant by the marshal. Not having enough cash in the business to pay his staff was the real reason Marc claims they finally closed for good in January.
Chef Marc called an employee meeting in January to explain the closing but when he didn’t show up the staff took out their frustrations from having their paychecks bounced. According to people at the meeting expensive bottles of alcohol and other items in the restaurant were taken.
The landlord’s lien is likely not going to hold water because David Minella was one step ahead of the restaurant’s landlord. UCC filings with the state of Connecticut show he had already placed a lien against the restaurant assets in April 2012 via MDM Investors Group. The Minella’s plan is to fight Wadia’s lien in housing court because their UCC lien is in a first position. MDM are Marc’s initials and the Investor Group is a separate LLC from the restaurant LLC called MDM Restaurant Group; although both list a business address of 814 Hollow Tree Ridge Rd Darien CT – Minella senior’s home.
Marc appeared concerned about his staff not getting paid and explained in our interview they’d be first to get cash after a bankruptcy is finalized. The staffers who know the restaurant’s largest investor, David Minella, has deep pockets don’t want to wait for lengthy bankruptcy. Wadia is trying to ask even more for rent now, (around $20,000 a month according to Marc) to fill the space with a new restaurant but if the Minella’s drag out a bankruptcy we could be seeing another vacant space in town for quite a while.
Chef Minella says he plans to stay with cooking and is trying to find chef jobs in New York. New Canaan never got their underground sex den hangout and there is still no live music in town; but a bunch of restaurant vendors and staff are left with empty pockets while Marc Minella hangs in his Dad’s McMansion without the wife and kid.