Will embattled restaurateur Mike Isabella step away from his company? That question has been hanging in the air since March, when the Top Chef alum and four of his business partners were accused of creating a toxic “bro culture” in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Chloe Caras, a former top manager. Unlike other big-name chefs accused in the #MeToo era, such as Mario Batali and John Besh, Isabella has held tightly to the reins of his company through the settlement of the lawsuit, major restaurant closures, and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in September.
But now it looks like leadership changes could be coming. Demetry Pikrallidas, a lawyer for Mike Isabella Concepts director Nick Pagonis and Kapnos executive chef George Pagonis—both partners in the company who were accused of sexual harassment in the lawsuit—sent a statement to Washingtonian indicating that Isabella is planning to retreat from his duties in the future.
“As MIC Concepts works through its restructuring, Mike Isabella will be stepping aside to allow George Pagonis to provide the culinary vision of the organization,” says Pikrallidas in a statement. “Negotiations continue regarding the final structure of the enterprise moving forward.”
On Thursday, Isabella’s camp said this wasn’t true—at least for now. Kate Wilhelm, the spokesperson for Isabella and MIC, said the company—which still operates nine restaurants and an airport kiosk—is in the process of restructuring while trying to emerge from bankruptcy by early spring. She said no official shifts in leadership have been made or approved by the bankruptcy court.
“No one’s role in the company has changed at this point,” said Wilhelm. “Mike is at the helm, and George remains his solid partner.” Still, Wilhem said, it’s a possibility that Pagonis will take the lead. “It was always Mike’s vision to one day hand the company off to George. They’ve always had a great mentor/mentee relationship. He thinks George is a great young chef, and when the time is right, he has what it takes to run the company going forward with his own culinary vision.”
Asked about a timeline for the transition, Wilhelm said there were no specifics. “It was just when it was right for him [Isabella] personally, and George professionally. But, she added, “it’s been accelerated.”
But as of Friday, Wilhelm is out. Isabella issued a statement from a new spokesperson, Edward Segal, adamantly objecting to his partners’ statement that he’s stepping aside.
“I have not made any decisions about my role with or the leadership, operations, or future of my restaurants,” he says in the statement. “Anyone who says or speculates otherwise or claims to know my thinking about these important matters is wrong. I will make an announcement at the appropriate time about my decisions and plans.”
Pagonis grew up working in his father’s Greek diner in Alexandria, Virginia, and first started cooking under Isabella when he was the executive chef at Zaytinya. Later, when Isabella opened Graffiato (now closed) in 2011, Pagonis came on as chef de cuisine. As Isabella’s company—and the Kapnos line—grew, so did Pagonis’s role. He opened and helmed four stand-alone Kapnos locations in DC and the suburbs, plus spinoffs in Nationals Park (which severed ties with Isabella after the lawsuit), Reagan Airport, and the defunct Isabella Eatery.
Through many years of its growth, MIC was in many ways run like a family with Isabella and friends like Pagonis at the helm. The company established an HR department last year but has never elected a CEO or board of directors. Operational flaws started to show after the lawsuit, which alleged Isabella and the Pagonis brothers—as well as CFO Johannes Allender and beverage director Taha Ismail—were responsible for vulgar, demeaning comments about female employees and diners, sexual advances, and other misogynistic behavior.
While the partners of the company publicly projected a united front, denying they created a hostile work environment, others say there was infighting behind the scenes.
“You’ve got to realize these guys were all buddies when they started out. They all supported it, and they all put their own money in, too. All of a sudden, they started to see it fall apart,” says Bob Rudderow, one of Isabella’s biggest investors. “When they put the heat up, a lot of people didn’t know how to react to it, and they lost some of their confidence in each other.”
Two former employees say that the Pagonis brothers stopped speaking to Isabella. “They blamed Mike because Mike was the one who basically fired Chloe,” says a former manager who, like other former employees, would only speak anonymously due to a non-disclosure agreement. “Mike blames them because they were the ones who sent all the text messages that got referenced in the lawsuit. Everyone feels like it’s everyone else’s fault.”
In the months that followed the lawsuit, the fallout was swift. UberEats severed ties, DC’s biggest dining industry awards rescinded his restaurants’ nominations, and multiple landlords sued for unpaid rent. Isabella ultimately closed Requin Brasserie, his flagship Graffiato, Graffiato Richmond, and the massive Isabella Eatery, which lasted less than nine months. As many as 20 deals for new restaurants and management agreements that had been in the works fell apart. In September, most of Isabella’s remaining restaurants and their parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to restructure.
During the lawsuit and through the fallout, the Pagonis brothers and other partners have not commented beyond statements sent on behalf of the company. Meanwhile, Isabella’s reaction has taken several turns. Once outwardly defiant in the face of allegations against him, he publicly apologized for the first time in September during an appearance on Fox 5. When Washingtonian last heard from Isabella himself over a week ago, he expressed remorse.
“When things started to unravel in the beginning, I dug my heels in because I didn’t want to believe what was happening was real,” he said. “I was embarrassed and didn’t even know how to take personal responsibility for what I did. But in the months since, I have had the chance to let all this really sink in and I know what I did was wrong. That I had the ability to change how I behaved – not anyone else.”
Isabella also recently told Washingtonian he’d never been pressured to step down.
“I can’t step down from the company. I am the company,” he said. “If I step away the company closes down.”
This story has been updated with comment from Isabella’s new spokesperson.