The Scandal That Will Submerge Us All!

So, if you haven’t heard, the Twin Cities was rocked last week by revelations that leading Twin Cities chef Tim McKee and his longtime business partner Josh Thoma had been booted from their partnership in the seemingly flawless upscale tequila-and-taco mini-chain Barrio, and that Thoma was also ejected from his partnership at Bar La Grassa (which McKee was never involved with).

My bosses here at Minnesota Monthly called me into a meeting yesterday to wonder why I hadn’t posted anything about this, and whether my silence was meaningful. Honestly, the real reason I hadn’t posted anything was that from my perspective, the story went like this: I started hearing potentially libelous rumors about this all sometime in February; I made a number of phone calls about the story which weren’t returned. I heard more and more rumors, and then Isaac Becker, the chef at Bar La Grassa, gave his side of the story to the Star Tribune, and they covered it well and accurately. So, from my perspective, I went from having nothing to being scooped. In hindsight, the question is now coming up: Should I have published a story along the lines of: “Rumors are swirling about Josh Thoma…”?

My gut feeling is no. In the end, it has turned out that a lot of the things I heard in the initial rumor-swirl weren’t true. (My sense of how information reaches me is something like this: A server picks something up, she tells another server, the information goes along until someone finally tells a chef, and the chef tells me: ‘You didn’t hear it from me, but…’) I take most of these reports with a cup of salt, and I think I’ll continue to do so, unless I hear from you readers otherwise: Do you feel like you were ill-served by not hearing about the rumors when the rumors were fast and furious? My main feeling about my restaurant reporting is that I’m here to help you have a nicer time out—a better birthday, a better business lunch, a better sandwich on the go. To this end, I tend to privilege news you can use (I found some great cupcakes!) and leave things that don’t seem actionable pretty well alone. Should I be doing something different? If you think so, I really would love to hear it.

But this whole unspooling scandal has left some questions unanswered, like: How will this influence Twin Cities dining going forward? Some answers I’ve come up with:

*La Belle Vie should be fine. Josh Thoma is essentially out at La Belle Vie. Unreported in the media is the fact that Thoma also steered La Belle Vie money toward Solera and Smalley’s. The accountant that Josh Thoma fingered in the Star Tribune account, responsible for moving the money around, was fired in January. Bill Summerville, LBV’s general manager and a partner, tells me that since they hired a new accountant and removed Thoma from a money role, it has been clear that La Belle Vie is and was doing fine. (They paid back the debts that resulted in the restaurant being “posted” —that is, being named by the state as 10 days delinquent in their liquor taxes. Incidentally, anyone interested in the whole issue of posting should follow this link.)

There are about 125 restaurants posted right now. I think of it as being the rough equivalent of getting a water shut-off notice from the city; it might mean you’re on the first step toward homelessness, or it might just mean your water bill fell behind the mail table. “We always had good numbers,” Summerville told me. “Our business has always been great, so we couldn’t understand: Why are we posted? Why are we in trouble? But we have a very clear picture of our financial situation now. And we feel fantastic. We’re in charge of our numbers now, and we’re not in the dark. I can’t tell you what a relief that is.” So, as far as I know, La Belle Vie is okay.

*But what about Solera? And Smalley’s? Are Solera or Smalley’s in jeopardy of closing? At the core of this scandal is the fact that money was moved from other restaurants into Solera and Smalley’s. I got ahold of Tim McKee to ask him about the two restaurants. Would Solera have closed if Josh hadn’t moved this money around? “Solera had some really hard times,” McKee told me. “Right now we’re on the rebound. We’re in the middle of a really strong Ordway season, we’re seeing evidence of corporate business coming back, and with the Twins stadium there’s a lot of things working in our favor. But I think Solera would have made it either way, but the right way to do it would have been to go to the investors and say: What are we going to do? The way Josh fixed things was absolutely the wrong way to do anything. What he thought was, he’ll borrow this money and pay it back, but obviously this just snowballed and became a disaster.” Another thing to point out: With Thoma concealing Solera’s problems from his partners, no one took any actions to change course at Solera. When McKee learned the extent of Solera’s problems, he started cooking there every day; right now you can find him most nights behind the tapas bar at Solera, personally cooking. “The Saturday after the [Star Tribune] story broke was one of our busiest ever,” McKee told me. “In the long run I’ll be fine and lesson learned—but it was at a pretty great personal cost.” The outlook at Smalley’s is worse, McKee told me: “Smalley’s is struggling a little, they’re not doing what they need to do. Obviously in the summer they’re busy but the winters are so difficult.” Too bad. I just revisited Smalley’s for our July issue (which went to press long before all this went nuts) and decided it was one of the top barbecue spots in the state. If you care about Smalley’s, or Solera, now you know.

*And what about the victim, Bar La Grassa? Angry, but fine, thank you. I talked to Isaac Becker, and while he is still hurt, mad, and missing money, the main lesson he seems to be dwelling on right now is that a bad situation is only made worse by involving the media. “Frankly, I wish I hadn’t said anything” to the Star Tribune, Becker told me. “I got zero satisfaction out of the whole thing. I’m not getting my money back,” because as recompense, Thoma surrendered his equity stake, and furthermore, Becker felt that the Star Tribune gave too much credit to Thoma’s side. “This happened in January, and when Josh was first fired we got a few phone calls, and decided we weren’t going to say anything to anybody. But then over time I started to think I wanted it all to get out. I have some friends I trust, seasoned businessmen, and they said: Don’t do it. If you go to the press you’ll get nothing out of it. And they were right. But I guess I had to learn that for myself. Being in the paper, regardless of what side you’re on, doesn’t feel good. I thought airing it out would somehow get me some satisfaction, but it didn’t. Instead it’s just like it’s all happening again, and all the anger and bitterness is coming back. I’m just glad he’s out of my world.” And you’re never going to talk to a reporter again? I asked. Becker laughed, bitterly.

*And what about the victim, Barrio? The two Barrios are doing just fine, and the longtime Tim McKee protegés running each, namely Bill Fairbanks and Tyge Nelson, are great cooks who should have no problems. The big question outstanding is: How will the new Barrio in Edina staff up? The La Belle Vie kitchen has acted as a sort of West Point Academy for young local cooks, selecting, training, mentoring, and placing the best of the up-and-comers. Now that the relationship between the two is severed, will Barrio be able to produce a staff of the high quality and same-mindedness they’ll need? Stay tuned.

*And whither Josh Thoma? I made several phone calls to Thoma which were not returned. However, unconfirmed persistent rumors all say the same thing: He’s joining the street-food revolution! And will be selling lobster rolls from a truck.