Graffiato Richmond is permanently closed—despite previous claims by restaurateur Mike Isabella that the Italian eatery is temporarily shuttered while the HVAC system is being repaired. Some former employees say they’re still waiting for their paychecks.
Isabella initially told Washingtonian that he eventually planned to close the four-year-old downtown Richmond restaurant—a spinoff of his flagship in DC—and that negotiations with a local group were underway to take over the lease. In the meantime, he said the faulty heating and cooling system was getting fixed, and that the restaurant would reopen.
Meanwhile, Director of Operations Ken McClain sent an email to employees on Saturday, June 9 that Graffiato Richmond “will be closed effective immediately.”
“We have been waiting to make an announcement in hopes we could find a resolution this week, but in the end, the repair costs for the building have become insurmountable,” McClain says in the email, which was shared with Washingtonian by an employee. The note includes an offer to relocate any interested employees to Isabella’s restaurants in DC, nearly three hours north.
Several employees, who spoke on the basis of anonymity due to controversial nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) that Mike Isabella Concepts requires of staff, say they’re still waiting on payment for their last week of work. One former front-of-house employee says it’s been over ten days since checks were due to arrive.
Contacted again, Isabella says that payment for employees was delayed but is now on the way. He also acknowledges Graffiato Richmond is in fact permanently closed. He says he got an offer to keep it open but ultimately didn’t take it.
“I want to be a part of my restaurants and be there, and I can’t,” he says. “Every other of my restaurants is like 20 minutes away. It’s a restaurant I can keep it open, but I chose not to.”
Isabella referred questions to Travis Croxton and Jonathan Staples, who are both on the building’s lease. “I don’t really know much about what’s going on. I’m pretty much out. I put Graffiato there, but they make all the calls.”
Croxton says that’s not true. The co-founder of Rapphannock Oyster Co., who also operates two seafood restaurants in Richmond, says he and Staples are on the lease at 123 W. Broad Street, but that their involvement in the business stopped after the 2014 opening.
“Once that part of it was done, I was out of it operationally. Zero involvement,” says Croxton. “Normally the lease and the business are the same thing, but it’s not this time. I’m not copied on the financials. I’m as silent as investor as you can imagine.” That said, he is talking to a local group to take over the lease.
Staples declined to comment on the record.
All of this comes at a tumultuous time for Isabella’s restaurant group. A subsidiary of developer Edens is suing MIC for over $700,000 in alleged unpaid rent and fees at the Mosaic District in Fairfax, as recently reported by the Washington Business Journal. Requin Brasserie, which operated there since December 2015, closed in April—though Isabella’s team denied the shutter at the time. The Top Chef alum recently settled another lawsuit with former employee Chloe Caras, who accused the restaurateur and his business partners of sexual harassment, though they deny any wrongdoing. The financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed. As of last week he was back in the kitchen at Graffiato DC, his first-ever restaurant that opened in 2011.
While the lawsuit largely focused on Isabella’s DC-area restaurants, Richmond Graffiato wasn’t without its alleged problems. As evidence that Isabella and his partners “failed to protect other female employees of sexual harassment,” the lawsuit disclosed an alleged incident in which Graffiato Richmond’s then-executive chef, Matt Robinett, repeatedly opened a bathroom door on a female employee at neighboring GWARBar and publicly embarrassed her, saying “Nice vag.” The lawsuit alleges that Robinett repeatedly harassed colleagues during his tenure—he was terminated for “an unrelated” reason last year—and even fired a female employee after she made a formal complaint to MIC partner Taha Ismail about the harassment. Robinett was allegedly “protective” of Isabella and his partners while they displayed unprofessional behavior, including being intoxicated at the Richmond restaurant and frequenting strip clubs. Again, Isabella and his partners deny any fault or misbehavior.
A former Graffiato Richmond bartender says the lawsuit didn’t have a large negative impact on business or morale—especially after the departure of Robinett.
“We’re [the staff] all very open with each other and have worked with each other for a long time,” says the bartender. “The AC was the decline of business.”
The other front-of-house employee says temperatures in the window-walled dining room sometimes reached the high 80s due to the broken HVAC. “It was unbearably hot,” she says. “You had your workers who were coming and working in the heat because they need that money. Some of them have families.”
The HVAC unit had been malfunctioning for some time, making the historic Popkin Building space cold in winter and hot in summer. Even Yelpers took note: “It would have been nice if all that exposed duct work were actually distributing cool air to the dining room,” noted one reviewer in May. “The staff had noted the ac hasn’t been working for 3 years, that every time they fix it, it breaks again so they stopped fixing it… ).”
As temperatures warmed up this spring, management began intermittently closing the restaurant for day-long stretches when conditions were unbearable for staff and diners. Operating the dining room, which was filled with mobile fans, became a strategic game. In an email on Friday, June 1, management noted: “As all of you probably know, due to the lack of HVAC and the fact that it is over 90 degrees in the dining room, we will not be open for service tonight, 6.1.18.
Tomorrow’s high is 81 degrees, so we will be open for regular service.”
The restaurant closed again on June 3, and never reopened.
Employees say they didn’t receive their expected pay that Friday or the next, though the bartender says he finally confirmed with a former manager that checks are on the way. Regardless, employees say they’re unhappy that they weren’t told of the closure sooner, that payment was delayed, and that they’ve never heard from celebrity chef whose name and face is still displayed prominently on Graffiato Richmond’s website.
“If you as the owner are closing down a location, you should be reaching out personally,” says the front-of-house employee. “If it has to close it has to close. At least handle it professionally.”