Food

Mike Isabella’s Food Hall Is In Trouble

The embattled chef says it's not closing. But paychecks have bounced and most kitchens have closed.
Isabella Eatery at Tysons Galleria. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Three Mike Isabella restaurants have closed and multiple landlords are suing for unpaid rent in the months following a sexual harassment lawsuit against former Top Chef star and his business partners. Now it appears that Isabella’s biggest, most ambitious venture—mega-food hall Isabella Eatery in Tysons Galleria—is struggling. The sprawling 41,000-square-foot venue has cut menus and staff, and in recent weeks, employees reported checks bouncing. A local real estate broker, speaking anonymously because of the confidential nature of his conversations, tells Washingtonian that the space is being quietly shopped around.

“We’re not closing, it’s been a slow summer,” Isabella says in a text message this morning. He says he’s not aware of his space being marketed. He’s looking forward to Restaurant Week, which begins next week. “Just trying to work with our partnership and landlords to help us out.”

Isabella Eatery has made dramatic changes since its splashy debut in December. The upscale mall’s food hall initially contained seven spinoffs of Isabella restaurants—including Requin, Arroz, and Kapnos—plus a new coffee shop and ice cream parlor. First, Arroz closed. Then, the offerings were abbreviated. Though the physical layout of the space remains the same, almost all of the menus have since merged into one. Gone are a lot of the higher-price items like oysters and sushi, replaced by all-day options such as Pepita guacamole alongside Graffiato spaghetti. Only the coffee and ice cream counters menus remain separate. Everything else is prepared out of Graffiato’s kitchen. 

During a recent interview at Isabella Eatery, Isabella said he wouldn’t have so many different kitchens—just one big utility kitchen and prep area—if he could do it again. 

“All these kitchens, you need chefs, you need kitchen managers, you need runners. You’re talking over 300 employees. And if you’re not busy, there’s a problem,” he says. Plus, he says, people were confused by the setup; they didn’t always understand what was fast-casual and what was sit-down, or if they could order food from one restaurant and bring it to another.

Still, Isabella says he always knew the behind-the-scenes functions would be complicated. “As chefs, we’re used to dealing with that,” he says. “Everything was great. Until some accusations came out, and sales dropped a lot.”

Isabella says the lawsuit from Chloe Caras, who was once the Director of Operations for Isabella Eatery, has hurt all his restaurants to varying degrees. The suit settled for undisclosed financial terms in May. 

As he’s consolidated the food hall’s kitchens, Isabella has cut down on staff. In the past few weeks, though, employee checks bounced. Isabella says they all got paid eventually.

“In the beginning the money was good, because it was just so large in volume,” says Corie Tiencken, a former beverage manager for Isabella Eatery and now-closed Requin Brasserie. “But then once people stopped coming in to dine, then the staff started to get pissed off… A lot of people are looking for other jobs.”

Tiencken says she left because she was offered another job, but it was only a matter of time before she walked out. “Things were very disorganized. Nothing was done cohesively. There was zero communication throughout the entire company,” she says.

Another former employee, who wished to remain anonymous, echoes that business definitely suffered after Caras’s lawsuit. But some problems went beyond that. For starters, he says Isabella Eatery was not fully ready to open when it did, and as a result, early Yelp reviews were not great. He says staff didn’t always feel like their suggestions were heard, or that their work was appreciated by the company’s leadership. Still, he wishes them no ill will. “Honestly, I feel bad,” he says. “I hope they can turn it around and be successful.”

For his part, Isabella says that he expanded his company too fast. Beyond Isabella Eatery, he opened more than a dozen restaurants in seven years, along with airport kiosks and stadium concessions. He says he held off shutting some restaurants last year because it was “not a good look” with the big debut of Isabella Eatery.

“When you go from a couple restaurants to doubling your company in size in a matter of nine months, it’s not easy. There’s going to be cracks and stuff like that, and it happened.”

Two weeks ago, Washingtonian asked Isabella if the food hall was in trouble. He was hopeful that things would pick up with Restaurant Week, the return of school, and fall event season. He was looking at putting more salads on the menu and maybe extending happy hour on Mondays and Tuesdays. But he stopped short of giving a concrete diagnosis of the future: “You never know if a restaurant is going to stay open or closed in our world.”

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Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.