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How Mike Isabella’s Restaurant Empire Came Crashing Down

The lawsuits, closures, and alcohol abuse that felled one of D.C. dining’s biggest names

Chef Mike Isabella inside the space soon to become his food hall.
Chef Mike Isabella
The Washington Post/Contributor

Washington D.C. chef Mike Isabella was once one of the biggest names in D.C. dining, but over the past year, the chef was embroiled in multiple lawsuits, closed several restaurants, and, ultimately, filed for bankruptcy. This week, the Washingtonian published an in-depth account of how too-rapid growth, a sexual harassment lawsuit that was later settled, and Isabella’s own alcohol abuse precipitated his restaurant empire’s downfall. And while the facts of the events have been covered before, here are five takeaways from the piece.

Isabella scaled way too quickly, in part because there was little risk

Isabella’s restaurant group, Mike Isabella Concepts, grew as Washington’s dining scene did. According to the Washingtonian, developers believed in the Top Chef star’s ability to draw business to less trafficked areas of the city and gave him money to open multiple restaurants. Offers came from around the country: Isabella says he turned down 10 offers to open restaurants in New York City alone, echoing his assertion in a September Washington Post interview that the empire was not overextended compared to its opportunities. “You know why I didn’t think it was too much?” he said at the time. “Because I had about 20 other fucking deals on the table.”

Isabella tells the Washingtonian, “Each project, I’d get more and more and ask for more and more.” In these deals, the landlords took on much of the risk. The Mike Isabella Concepts staff, meanwhile, felt stretched thin, and on top of managing back-to-back restaurant openings, they were tasked with managing their boss’s behavior.

Mike Isabella Concepts staff knew their boss had a drinking problem

Drinking was a problem for Isabella. At the Graffiato location in Richmond, bartenders would have top-shelf gin ready for the chef’s visits, and the Washingtonian reports, he would sometimes “demand” that staff join him at a strip club. Isabella’s drinking would sometimes spill over into interactions with customers. According to a bartender at Graffiato Richmond, drinking made him belligerent and rude to restaurant patrons, so much so that the restaurant’s staff learned to trick Isabella into drinking less, putting less and less gin in his gin and tonics over the course of a night.

The openings of the Requin at the Wharf was a disaster

In October 2017, Isabella’s restaurant empire started to fracture. The company was set to open three new restaurants: Kapnos Taverna in College Park, the multi-concept Isabella Eatery at Tyson’s Galleria in McClean, Virginia (which is now closed), and Requin at the Wharf, in a new multi-billion-dollar D.C. development. The Wharf project in particular came with a high profile: “The Wharf has the potential to be unlike any other place in the District,” the Washington Post wrote of the anticipated 24-acre development.

With a staff nearing 800 people, Isabella finally added an HR department after years without a corporate structure, having previously opted for an “everything in the family” approach to promotions that even divided shares of the company. And it was during the Requin opening that one of the incidents chronicled in Chloe Caras’s harassment lawsuit, filed in March, occurred.

In preparation for opening Requin at the Wharf, managers worked 100-hour weeks, according to a former employee. Manager Chloe Caras was in charge of running the rushed restaurant debut, and according to her lawsuit against Isabella, the chef and his partners made the event all the more challenging by drinking and commenting on the appearance of women passersby. When Caras asked to split the tips from the day’s food stand, Isabella allegedly threw a calculator at the wall near her head. Less than two months later, Caras alleges she was fired after another conflict with Isabella during preparations for the Isabella Eatery opening.

Apologizing was never part of Isabella’s plan

The fallout from the harassment lawsuit was immediate — Isabella’s publicist left him and the Washington Nationals removed Mike Isabella stands from their ballparks. (Isabella subsequently blamed “bad press” for his financial woes.)

Rather than step away from operations and apologize, Isabella continually denied creating a hostile work environment, and as the Washingtonian reports, even decided “play even rougher” in response to Caras’s lawsuit. Isabella and the partners still on his side tried to “dig up dirt” to discredit Caras. According to a Mike Isabella Concepts employee, two partners even took a trip to the Apple store in an attempt to find potentially incriminating texts on an old iPhone. “They honestly thought they were going to be able to win and come out the victors,” one employee told the Washingtonian. “They were going to be the first guys that were part of this #MeToo thing that pushed back and won.”

Isabella did end up apologizing weeks after filing for bankruptcy in September, saying on Fox 5 evening news, “There’s no one who’s untouchable. Everyone has to be held accountable.”

Isabella has fallen far, but he’s not at all done with restaurants

Since the settlement, things haven’t gotten better for Isabella. He was hospitalized for a panic attack and ordered to stop drinking. He now employees 400 people, not 800, and he’s not making money off of appearances as a celebrity chef. He’s also not done closing restaurants — Kapnos Taverna in College Park, Maryland will close December 1.

But, Isabella still has 10 restaurants to operate, and despite the events of the past year plus, the Washingtonian reports that there are investors out there who would still invest in a Mike Isabella restaurant. So while this is by no means a redemption narrative, future redemption is still on the table.

Update: December 13, 2018, 12:00 p.m.: On December 12, the Washingtonian reported that Mike Isabella filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Once again, the chef cited bad press for his business’s failure, writing in the US Bankruptcy Court filing, “I am facing the sad realization that I no longer believe that any restaurant associated with my name can recover from the negative press that has enveloped me for nearly the entirety of 2018.”

Mike Isabella Concept restaurants will close by December 27, making Isabella the first chef involved in a #MeToo scandal to see his empire completely dissolve.

The Inside Story of Mike Isabella’s Fallen Empire [Washingtonian]

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