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On April 6 Mike Isabella posted a video on his personal Instagram account of a custom championship wrestling belt. It’s decorated with insignia of some of his restaurants flanked by cutouts of New Jersey and the District. The center of the belt has a panel that reads, “The Restless Restaurateur,” which was the headline of the the New York Times profile published in October, five months before former Mike Isabella Concepts employee Chloe Caras filed a lawsuit against the chef for “extraordinary sexual assault.” It’s since become a federal case that asks if the non-disclosure agreements Isabella asked his employees to sign should be deemed unenforceable.
One of the hashtags below the video of Isabella’s belt reads #EverybodyHatesMe. He says it’s his favorite song by The Chainsmokers. Suffice it to say, the chef is handling the allegations against him his own way. He’s not going down without a fight, even when conventional wisdom might suggest he apologize, settle with Caras, check in to rehab, and return a changed man determined to fix the work culture at his businesses. Everyone loves a comeback story.
Among the consequences Isabella is dealing with: the Nationals did away with Isabella’s stands at the ballpark; the RAMMY Awards pulled finalist nominations for his restaurants Arroz and G by Mike Isabella; various charity events have wiped his name off their websites; Chef Mike Rafidi announced his departure from the restaurant group to open his own concept; catering company Plum Relish separated itself from Mike Isabella Concepts; Isabella’s long-time public relations firm Know Public Relations split; and just yesterday, Don Rockwell and Washingtonian reported that his Mosaic District restaurant, Requin, may have closed.
Despite several sources reporting the closure, Isabella’s new publicist told Washingtonian, “This is not true.” It’s just one of the several head scratching moves Isabella’s new PR strategist, Lacy Jansson of Status Labs, has made since he hired her to manage the reputation of his $30 million restaurant empire. People have already taken jabs at Jansson and her Austin, Texas-based firm. The Post reported that the company has been accused of bribing a journalist and that the CEO had to resign after an unfortunate piñata incident.
Jansson’s biggest move thus far has been distributing signed letters of support from women tied to Mike Isabella Concepts. The move lost credibility when it was revealed that one of the women was a florist who beautified Isabella’s 2009 wedding and supplied flowers to his restaurants. Jansson did not respond to a request for comment.
Chryssa Zizos, the founder and president of Arlington-based Live Wire Media Relations, says Isabella is “letting his bravado win over rational thinking.” Based on her two decades of experience in crisis communications, she’s got some advice for him. “Immediately he has to stop the bleeding,” she says. “And to do that he really has to go away for a little bit. The problem with these celebrity chefs is everything hangs on you. It’s the same thing with congressmen or senators. Get a DUI or get caught with a mistress and you’re writing a resignation instead of working through a problem.”
In addition to stepping out of the limelight, she would put Mike Isabella Concepts’ executive leadership through a series of trainings on sexual harassment, human resources, diversity, and addiction. Three of Isabella’s male business partners are also named in the lawsuit. “Then I would work with a diversity management firm and a headhunter to diversify his executive leadership team.”
The crisis communications pro, who counts Fortune 500 companies, athletes, and entertainers as clients, points to Starbucks‘ recent action as an example of how to lessen the blow of a disaster, though it remains to seen whether it will work. “Within two days, they fired the manager that called the police and now announced every store will be closed on a certain date for sensitivity training.” The move will cost the company $15 million.
Zizos believes Isabella is most in danger of losing his young fans. She also teaches at American University and recently asked her class of 18 undergrads if they had heard about the lawsuit. They all had. Then she asked if any of them would still eat in his restaurants. No one raised a hand. “Young people today in our very morally conscious culture, they’re not going to respond well [to this].”
Her advice comes with a couple caveats. First, she admits to having done some PR campaign work with Isabella in the past. And her suggestions could be considered a job interview of sorts. That said, she was surprised when Isabella and Know Public Relations parted ways. She hopes it was because the firm offered similar advice about stepping down as the public face of the company for a short period to seek training and treatment and were turned down by Isabella, who had other ideas. “The problem with a PR firm dropping you [in a time of crisis] is sort of like a doctor dropping you because you have cancer,” she says. “But we don’t know what happened.”
She says that the situation is incredibly complex. “We have the court of public opinion and we have the legal court,” Zizos says. “So far, we don’t have any tangible evidence that we’ve heard or seen. It’s all hearsay and accusation. We live in a society now where women and minorities have found our voice. We have a platform and it’s become socially unacceptable to do some things he’s accused of. But there is a rush to judgement … Whether he is guilty or innocent, he has a major problem.”