Mar 24, 2022 - News

Charlotte chefs are making a mess. 4 controversies to watch

church and union

Church & Union in Uptown. Photo: Bri Crane/Axios

At the height of the pandemic, restaurants had a “we’re all in this together” attitude. Now that things are back open and people are racing to make up lost revenue and time, strains are showing.

The big picture: Multiple feuds have emerged in Charlotte’s dining scene over the past few weeks, and the public is eating it up.

What’s happening:

  • Queen City Nerve published a scathing investigation into the allegedly toxic work environment with 5th Street Group restaurants (Church & Union, Sophia’s Lounge, La Belle Helene).
  • A battle over a west Charlotte parking lot has pushed Jim Noble back into controversy, multiple outlets report.
  • The owner and son of the popular Middle Eastern restaurant La Shish Kabob were found guilty of charges related to PPP fraud last week.
  • And new Fahrenheit chef Justin Loo made comments in an Axios story about bringing a Michelin star to Charlotte that raised eyebrows from local chefs.

Zoom out: It wasn’t always this way. When chef Bruce Moffett came to Charlotte 20 years ago, he says industry veterans welcomed him with open arms. Back then, he says, chefs shared trade secrets and innovated together.

  • In recent years, Moffett tells Axios’ Bri Crane, there’s been a shift from civility. That, combined with pandemic-related pressures, is a recipe for tension.
  • “Now, you’re always one employee or one problem away from a huge disaster,” he says. “It’s not easy to live that way.”

Here’s what we know about these 4 restaurant controversies, and what we’re watching.

(1) 5th Street Group mess

Catch up quick: A number of allegations against 5th Street Group owners Alejandro Torio and Patrick Whalen surfaced in Queen City Nerve and on the anonymous and unverified Instagram account Overheard in CLT.

  • Former employees told writer Dion Beary about pay discrepancies and “a work culture of intimidation, bullying and problematic behavior” within the restaurant group.
  • Other accusations center on an 18-year-old woman who says she interviewed for a job at Sophia’s Lounge and was served alcohol by Torio.

Why it matters: The 5th Street Group was celebrated for its Tip the Kitchen initiative. These allegations fall in stark contrast to those efforts to improve employee standards.

What we’re watching: A note at the bottom of QCN’s article says that the restaurant group has already taken legal action against Beary and former employees in response to social media posts, in addition to threatening a defamation lawsuit against the publication.

church and union uptown
Church & Union in Uptown. Photo: Brianna Crane/Axios

(2) Parking lot mess

Catch up quick: Debate over a parking lot took on deeper meaning in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Enderly Park.

  • A now-removed sign for a parking lot between multiple businesses read that parking was only for Noble Smoke and its neighboring concept Bossy Beulah’s, and other cars would be towed. Chef and owner Jim Noble tells Axios this was in accordance with his lease.
  • Robbie McNair, a Black woman and the owner of Babe Cave and the event planning business The Good Life at Enderly Park, said she was also granted access to the parking lot in her lease.
  • When the landlord, Charlotte’s Browder Group, told her to direct her customers to the back of the parking lot, she stated in a release her customers should not be “told to park in the back of the parking lot, like Rosa Parks.”
  • The landlord told Jim Noble, owner of Noble Smoke, to remove the sign and he did, WCCB reports.

Why it matters: It pits two small businesses against one another in a lose-lose scenario.

What we’re watching: Both parties expressed frustrations over their conflicting leases from the landlord.

  • “I fully understand why (McNair is) upset and angry. I am upset as well that we have conflicting leases and that misinformation created such strife,” Noble said in part in a statement to Axios. “I have no contentions or ill will toward Good Life. … I have never and would never wish or execute harm on another person or business, and would never base a decision on race.”
  • “Our rights to (the) parking lot have been restored but I am seeking legal counsel because our lease was breached. It seems the lot has uprooted the real concerns about gentrification,” McNair shared with Axios’ Symphony Webber via email Wednesday.

(3) La Shish Kabob mess

Babe Cave Bar at Good Life
Charlotte’s new Babe Cave Bar at Good Life. Photo: Symphony Webber/Axios

Catch up quick: A federal jury on Thursday convicted La Shish Kabob owner Izzat Freitekh and his son Tarik of fraudulently obtaining $1.7 million in PPP money.

Why it matters: The verdict uses a local restaurant to send a searing message— the feds intend to prosecute people who took advantage of CARES Act funding during the pandemic.

  • “The wicked borrow and do not repay, but in the Freitekhs’ case they also lie to cover up the fraud,” U.S. Attorney Dena J. King said in a statement afterward. “The father and son duo exploited a national emergency for their own benefit, then tried to obstruct justice to avoid punishment. A federal jury saw through their criminal shenanigans.”

What we’re watching: Izzat faces up to 25 years in prison, and Tarik faces up to 65 years. We’ll keep an eye on their sentencing in the coming weeks or months.

  • The weirdest part of this case is just how much misinformation there is about the Freitekhs on the internet, as the Observer reported.

(4) Michelin star mess

La Shish Kabob. Photo: Emma Way/Axios

Catch up quick: A couple of weeks ago, Axios’ Laura Barrero wrote about Fahrenheit’s new chef, Justin Loo, a Charlotte newcomer who fell in love with the city on a family trip and decided to move here.

  • Loo, who has worked at a two-time Michelin star restaurant, proclaimed during their interview that he wanted to bring Charlotte its first Michelin star. “I’ve done it before,” he said then confidently.
  • Some Charlotte restaurant industry veterans took his comments as arrogant, and they kicked off a lot of eye rolls and backlash on social media. “Not only did the comments show a lack of understanding about the Michelin process, they also indicate a serious misread of Charlotte’s food scene,” Kristen Wile of Unpretentious Palate wrote in her newsletter titled “How to not make friends.”

Why it matters: In the grand scheme of things, this ranks low on the controversy scale, but it reflects the tension we’re seeing in the industry overall between newcomers and established experts.

What we’re watching: Laura will give us a closer look at the Michelin star process in the coming weeks, so look out for that.

Editor’s note: Brianna Crane, Laura Barrero and Symphony Webber contributed to the reporting of this story.

Charlotte, NC - February 17, 2022 - Fahrenheit’s new Executive Chef Justin Loo4 of his platesPhotographed in Charlotte, NC on February 17th 2022. Photo by Peter Taylor
Fahrenheit’s new executive chef Justin Loo. Photo: Peter Taylor
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