The landlord of Tackle Box and Bandolero is trying to give both Georgetown restaurants the boot in a messy legal battle that has dragged on for nearly a year.
2441 Bond St. Equities LLC, which owns the adjoining properties of 3241 and 3245 M streets NW, filed a series of lawsuits against restaurateur Jonathan Umbel and his wife and business partner Bethany Umbel beginning early last year for unpaid rent and taxes as well as several other grievances. (The complaints have since been consolidated into one suit.) Last April, the Umbels also sued the landlord, claiming that it created “baseless or fabricated” reasons to declare defaults and evict the businesses. The Umbels’ lawsuit also claims the landlord interfered with repairs to the properties after a fire closed Tackle Box and Hook (now Bandolero) in June 2011. According to the Umbels, the landlord actively limited the scope of the general contractor’s work to increase the tenant’s cost of repair and delay the reopenings.
The dispute began shortly after Tackle Box reopened in December 2011. According to February 2012 invoices from the landlord provided in court documents, the restaurants were behind on rent, real estate taxes, and other payments. The landlord subsequently withdrew all the money from the restaurants’ security deposit (nearly $19,000) to help pay what it says it was owed and sent the Umbels a notice saying they had to replenish the deposit to the required minimum of $10,000. According to the landlord’s filing, Jonathan Umbel refused to accept the FedEx delivery containing that notice—as well as several other written communications regarding a number of issues sent by the landlord. The Umbels also didn’t replenish the deposit in the required time frame, the suit alleges. In March, the landlord first moved toward eviction, sending a notice of termination to Tackle Box. Bandolero received a lease termination notice in early May—three weeks before it opened. According to the landlord’s complaint, Bethany Umbel personally delivered a check for $10,005 about two hours after receiving the termination notice for Bandolero. The landlord refused to accept on the grounds that it was late.
Matt Wexler, one of the partners in 2441 Bond St. Equities, and his attorney, Phil Musolino, declined to comment on the record, citing the ongoing litigation. Meanwhile, Jonathan Umbel tells Y&H he’s turned in the rent in full and on time. The only time he hasn’t paid rent, he says, is when insurance covered it during the buildings’ reconstruction. The Umbels’ lawyer, Stephen Hessler, says that when the Umbels first came to him last April, they told him, “‘The landlord is playing with the accounting. They don’t have an accurate ledger. They can’t tell us when something is due.'”
Hessler claims 2441 Bond St. Equities had no right to draw down on the deposit and has not been forthcoming with accounting records that would show how it handled income from the insurance company or where money from the security deposit specifically went. Amid its attempts to take back the property in early 2012, according to Umbel’s lawsuit, the landlord tried to have the locks changed at Bandolero without notice and in full view of diners at Tackle Box next door, causing “embarrassment and interruption” of the business.
And that’s just the beginning of the legal battle. The landlord’s lawsuit also cites a report from the D.C. Department of Public Works, which issued a violation against Tackle Box last June for illegally dumping cooking oil and grease outside the property as well as failing to maintain the alleyway and prevent a rodent problem.
Hessler turns the blame back on the landlord, claiming 2441 Bond St. Equities refused to approve the installation of gutters in the back of the building. The lack of the gutter, Hessler says, allowed water to run off the back of the building and into the garbage area. In what he calls an “isolated incident,” a heavy rain storm caused water to splash the cooking oil into the back alley. In eyewitness statements provided by the landlord, neighbors allege the dumping was a recurring problem.
The landlord’s lawsuit also lays out several more grievances, such as painting the exterior an unapproved color, making structural alterations to the building without consent, and adding a new awning cover without a permit (which led the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to issue violations).
Umbel counters that both restaurants passed all D.C. inspections and obtained proper certifications. “If there was something derelict or negligent, the D.C. government wouldn’t have allowed us to reopen,” he says. He adds that they haven’t damaged the property, but invested millions in improving it.
Umbel says that the reason he believes the landlord wants to kick out the restaurants is because the rent is below market value. “They figure if they can get us out, they can get more money for the property,” he says.
Hessler offers a more careful explanation: “My gut tells me there’s something at play other than what you see in the court record. What that is, I don’t know,” he says. “It’s wacky, and it makes no business sense.”
There’s also another big question: Where is chef Mike Isabella, the face of Bandolero, in all this? Umbel says he is not a partner in Pure Hospitality LLC, the company behind Bandolero. “He’s our chef,” Umbel says. “He’s not involved [in the lawsuit] in any way, shape, or form.”
When asked about the fate of Bandolero and the lawsuits, Isabella issued the following written statement via his publicist: “This lawsuit is not against me and from my understanding has been going on for months. I am not an owner of 3241 M St. NW, and have never been involved in this lawsuit. Questions on this should be directed to the parties in the case.”
The complaints are below:
Photo by Jessica Sidman