Solera, The Panic Before The Light?

When news broke last week that the Graves Hotel folks had bought Solera, it felt like the last shoe had finally dropped on The Scandal That Will Submerge Us All. Graves Hospitality had arrived as a white knight on a white steed to stabilize Solera’s ship, keep everyone employed, keep Minneapolis well-supplied with world-class tapas—now let’s all link hands and sing!

Except, maybe not? My phone started ringing off the hook by panic-struck employees convinced that Thoma had used his last weekend as owner to pay off his personal credit cards, buy a new car, load it up with financial documents, and drive off into the sunset (cackling wildly?)—the net effect of which was that the business was stripped of the cash it should have used to pay employees, and taxes. So Graves supposedly had to walk a thirty-thousand-dollar cashier’s check over to the state to keep Solera from getting posted.

But is this just panic? Or real? Chef Tim McKee assures me it is just panic: “All the money that came in in the last couple of weeks is being reserved for payroll first,” McKee told me. “We’re not yet able to establish where we’ll end up, but we’re doing everything we can to take care of the employees.” Even though employees are being advised by their managers to take their final paychecks to banks and not deposit them, but turn them into cash, on the assumption they’ll bounce? “Who’s telling you this?” McKee asked me. I wouldn’t tell him. “What I would tell those people first is, these are just rumors,” McKee told me. “This is hard enough as it is, those sort of rumors aren’t helping anyone. And Josh certainly didn’t drive any records away. I have them. We have to hold on to all the records for seven years, which is why I have them. I understand that people might be worried about their future, but we were trying to wind it down in the best possible way for them. The alternative would have been to show up for a job that wasn’t there.” Also, the thirty-thousand-dollar check story is a myth, says McKee.

Hmm. Will they get paid or won’t they? Has Josh Thoma turned into the boogeyman of Twin Cities restaurants, blamed for every noise in the night, or is something on fire and producing all this smoke? I guess three months out we’ll know; Solera employees, please post ongoing developments in the comments. Till then, let’s be thankful for what we do have.

“We have a really great crew in the kitchen and I think everything is going to be strong going forward,” chef JP Samuelson told me. “Graves is opening two hotels in New York, and a bar in Chicago, and when you think about this feeding that and that feeding this, it’s really exciting. So I’m hopeful about the future. Graves is bringing in some equipment we needed, and they’re not here because they’re just being nice, they crunched the numbers and saw that there’s potential to succeed here. And when you look at the crew we have, really good cooks, we’re doing better food than we ever have.” Meanwhile, Solera’s event manager, Jon Jacklin, tells me they’re well-booked for holiday parties. “I’m not panicked about not getting paid, not at all,” he told me. “We’re moving forward, it’s going to be good.”

So what about the rest of the original Thoma-McKee empire? Smalley’s is the last one standing; as of last summer Thoma was officially out at La Belle Vie, the Best Restaurant in Minnesota (according to most recently Zagat, and before that everyone else), except for his original investment. “I know I usually say don’t quote me,” said Bill Summerville, La Belle Vie’s sommelier and an owner-partner, “but quote me. [Thoma] has no impact on us, and we’re feeling really good. All this blew up almost a year ago, we worked ourselves out of our hole, and we’re healthier than ever and really looking forward. And wait till you see what we have planned for New Year’s Eve, it’s going to be incredible.”

It’s certainly been an incredible year for this story, this seemingly endless story.