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Late last year, Andy and Tony Shallal opened Luna Bar and Grille on Connecticut Avenue, one of three restaurants that the business partners/brothers own and operate including Cafe Luna and Skewers Middle Eastern Restaurant near 17th Street. After nine years in the business, the Shallals aren’t new to the restaurant trade, although they are recent arrivals to the commercial district south of Dupont Circle where Luna Bar and Grille is located. So when a man claiming to run the takeout next door to Luna called asking for a favor, the Shallals were quick to be neighborly.
The man who called said his name was Mr. Kim and that he owned Salad Mio. He told Luna’s manager that he was in McLean eating dinner with his wife, had run into a bit of car trouble, and needed to be towed back to Washington. Citing a complex but not preposterous set of circumstances, Kim said he didn’t have the cash to pay for the tow. He asked the manager to be a sport and give $55 to a tow-truck operator who would then drive to McLean and rescue the stranded couple. Kim promised that when he came to work the next morning, he’d take care of the loan.
The manager called Tony Shallal and explained Kim’s predicament. Shallal thought it sounded plausible enough and agreed to help out his new neighbor. When the tow-truck driver arrived at Luna, the manager dutifully asked for some identification. The man immediately became irate, saying he was already putting himself out and that he didn’t appreciate having to suffer any further indignities. The manager, embarrassed by the uproar, quickly withdrew $55 from the register and forked it over.
If you haven’t figured it out already, the Shallals and their manager were had. Mr. Kim may or may not have been the name of the man on the phone, but Salad Mio is run by a Mr. Lee.
“Sometimes there are cons that you think, ‘Well, this one is very good,’” says Andy Shallal. “But when you explain this one to somebody, they look at you like ‘You fell for this?!’ People sort of look at you funny, especially the police…they certainly laughed and chuckled a little bit about it.”
The Shallals looked upon the scam as one of the costs of adjusting to the new neighborhood until a few weeks later when the manager of another nearby business walked into Luna. The man, who spoke on the condition that neither he nor his employer would be ridiculed by name, told Shallal that he had heard about his less-than-pleasant morning but Shallal told him his morning had actually been pretty routine. That struck the man as a little peculiar, seeing as he’d just given a tow-truck driver $55 to help Shallal solve what sounded like quite a hassle involving a broken-down car and a misplaced wallet. The tow-truck operator fit the description of the one who came into Luna—Shallal describes him as a black man of medium height with perhaps a Somalian or Ethiopian accent. Shallal broke it to the man bluntly. “You’ve been scammed.”
“I feel pretty stupid about it,” says the manager, who paid the con man out of his own pocket. “But the guy was so professional. He had done his homework. He knew Andy’s name, and he knew what time he was in and out of there, and what time [Luna] closed. He did it early in the morning [before Luna was open], so I couldn’t necessarily call over there. He knew the name of our old manager, he just made it seem very neighborly. And I’m a pretty trusting guy.”
Andy Shallal, who has been in business long enough to know his way around the block and recognize a scam when he sees one, says that a similar ruse would never fly at one of his restaurants along 17th Street because the owners in that district have been around long enough to know each other.
If you ignore their venality, the amount of enterprise and guile shown by the shysters is impressive. Not only were the crooks who executed the tow-truck scam gutsy enough to pull it twice in the same neighborhood, they seemed to sense that relatively new business operators south of Dupont Circle wouldn’t be on a first-name basis with their neighbors. They worked the scams during times of day when their targets were too busy to ask questions. And the relatively low yield—$55—was part of what made the ruse work.
“That’s the beauty of it, really,” Shallal quips. “They keep it under a hundred. It’s a psychologically comfortable amount. It’s almost like you’re getting a bargain for your neighbor. Especially for the towing. $55 bucks on a Sunday? Your psychology gets reversed. Instead of thinking, ‘Is this guy for real?’ you think, ‘You know, I think I’m getting a bargain for this.’’’
The tow scam might be written off as an aberration, but there are other indications that low-grade bunko artists are increasing the cost of doing business in a town where expenses are already very high. Last month, Luna’s cook arrived in the morning to find the bread delivery was missing. The cook assumed that the delivery was late or that a homeless person decided to feed some friends. But an hour later when he arrived for work, Shallal received a call.
“This guy called and asked me, ‘Do you own the Crow Bar?’” he remembers. Shallal, in fact, does not own the Crow Bar, which is located a short walk from Luna on 20th Street. “He kept saying to me, ‘You own the Crow Bar. I have your bread.’”
The person on the other end of the line was Chong Kim, owner of New York Gourmet. Earlier that morning, Kim had received a call from someone who claimed to own the Crow Bar, which sits just down the block from Kim’s restaurant. “He called saying he couldn’t come to the store early, so could we pay for bread, and he would pay us later,” says Kim. “We tried to do them a favor.”
When the man got to New York Gourmet with the baskets of bread, Kim noticed that the attached receipts said Luna Bar and Grill on them. The man explained that the Crow Bar’s owner also operates Luna, and that their receipts are all marked that way. Kim paid the man $83 and waited a few hours to call Shallal and arrange to make the bread-for-money exchange. “We found out he doesn’t know nothing about it.”
The next morning, Luna’s cook got to work and again found no bread. On this occasion, the stolen baskets had been taken to Brunch Time, a restaurant on M Street, where one of owner Sam Algundy’s employees dutifully paid the crooks $83. The scam was basically the same as the one pulled on Kim, only this time the cons crossed Luna’s name off the receipt and wrote in Mayflower Deli, one of Brunch Time’s neighbors.
Algundy says that he often will share such things as butter with other businesses on his block, so he doesn’t fault the judgment of his employee. Unlike Kim, who was reimbursed by Bakery De France, Algundy even made the best of the situation and put the bread to use in his restaurant, though he says he only recovered a portion of the money.
“I think the restaurant owners and business people out there should be aware of something like this going on,” says one woman whose business was also hit in the bread scam.
After being the brunt and unwitting accessory to so many scams recently, Andy Shallal is trying to keep things in perspective. “I think it’s funny now,” he says. “It certainly beats an armed robbery.”—Brett Anderson