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Eating their own: After a restaurant scandal, recriminations among local food writers

Maybe you don’t have enough money or clout to eat at Bar LaGrassa, Barrio or La Belle Vie, but man, do you love to read about their business troubles!
For two days last week, reporter Rick Nelson’s story on restaurateur Josh Thoma’s financial misma

Maybe you don’t have enough money or clout to eat at Bar La Grassa, Barrio or La Belle Vie, but man, do you love to read about their business troubles!

For two days last week, reporter Rick Nelson’s story on restaurateur Josh Thoma’s financial mismanagement was startribune.com’s most read, most emailed and most commented story.

Although the Friday, June 4 story was unavoidably byzantine, Thoma basically shfited $100,000 from Bar La Grassa, where he was a minority owner and contractor, to Solera and Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque, where he has larger interests. La Belle Vie was a conduit, and resolving the crisis resulted in the cancellation of Thoma’s and chef/partner Tim McKee’s management contract at Barrio.

Nelson’ story blew the lid off a scandal food writers had chased with varying degrees of lust for months. In its wake, recriminations flew — mostly in Mpls.St.Paul star Andrew Zimmern’s blog, “Chow and Again.”

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Zimmern (who first published an item suggesting a scandal Feb. 25) questioned as misleading a Nelson blurb that appeared one day before the big story broke. Nelson’s item, based on a McKee quote, was eventually pulled from the Strib’s web archives.

Zimmern then blasted unnamed fellow foodies for their months-long silence on the Thoma affair, saying they “are willing to talk about this for hours at cocktail parties but won’t mention a thing elsewhere. Maybe they’re afraid they won’t get a free drink the next time they are in the restaurant?”

Minnesota Monthly food writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl fired back, not only defended her ethics (no free drinks) but opining that the story “looked of dubious benefit to most readers.”

In what seemed like a defense of service journalism over tough-minded digging, Moskowitz Grumdahl commented, “Would [readers] have a nicer birthday, a better night out, a smoother business lunch? When it comes to backroom financial problems, the answer would seem to be no.”

Chef/blogger Stewart “Shefzilla” Woodman was even more pointed: “Andrew, I will tell you why I didn’t write about it. It’s a bogus bulls–t story about the private matters affecting private investment groups, that have apparently already been resolved. It’s page six in style, and your powerful voice being lent to a private matter only gives legs to the gossip and rumor mill, which as you know, likely will be hurtful to all the folks involved.”

In a town bursting with food correspondents, and an Internet culture not exactly allergic to chatter, was the silence a sign that the food-writing world is too hands-off, especially when it comes to high-profile chefs and businessfolk? Or was the journo-blogosphere actually … being responsible?

Nelson, who has no qualms about his big story, says, “If other bloggers were hearing what I was hearing, I’m proud they wouldn’t write without substantiation. It speaks to their integrity.”

A reporting trail gone cold
Zimmern’s Feb. 25 item, sourced only to “people I trust,” churned up some prescient comments. One left by “barry bourbon” March 10 pretty much nailed what would come out three months later, at least with respect to the business dealings.

Another commenter suggested looking at the state liquor-tax delinquency list, which included La Belle Vie.

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Around this time, Moskowitz Grumdahl says she put in a call to Bar La Grassa and La Belle Vie, “and I didn’t hear back. The next day, I didn’t hear back. The next day, I didn’t hear back.”

Zimmern tells a similar tale, and Nelson and his editor, Lee Svitak Dean, agree that Thoma, McKee and the various owners kept their lips zipped.

Despite the wall of silence — which would pique the interest of any journalist — the story basically died there, until last week.

Explains Dean, “The reason there was nothing in our publication is that there was nothing to firm to hang that information on. No one would talk on the record.”

Adds Nelson, “There were no court documents. Without someone on the record, and no court docs, we couldn’t put it in the newspaper.”

What about the liquor delinquency, which was a matter of public record? Says Moskowitz Grumdahl, “There seems to be this idea that a restaurant being posted is some kind of rare occurrence. There are 40 to 200 restaurants posted at any one time. It’s not this crazy rare occurrence.”

‘A little bird told me
Nelson was on vacation the week the story eventually broke. That Tuesday (June 2), he says, “a little bird told me late in the day” that the Barrio “partnership had dissolved.”

Nelson didn’t just rush a story into print. He called Tim McKee, for whom Nelson has the “greatest respect,” and McKee “was gracious enough to talk to me.”

The result was the lead item in the Taste section’s regular Thursday “Counter Intelligence” column.

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Headlined, “Tim McKee and Barrio say ‘adios,’” it stated:

McKee, along with business partner Josh Thoma, are out at Barrio (925 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., and 235 E. 6th St., St. Paul,www.barriotequila.com).

“Our contract is up,” said McKee. “We got them started and their way, and now they’re taking it in another direction.” (Barrio partners Ryan Burnet and Tim Rooney could not be reached at press time).

McKee said that he and Thoma, partners in Solera (900 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., www.solera-restaurant.com) and La Belle Vie (510 Groveland Av., Mpls., www.labellevie.us) “traded their small ownership stake” in the two constantly packed tequila-and-tacos outlets.

Reading the item, Zimmern’s editor Adam Platt was flabbergasted. “Rick was publishing something that most of the insiders knew wasn’t accurate,” Platt says. “I don’t know if I would’ve been comfortable using the quote in an isolated way.”

The following day, Nelson’s big piece stated Thoma and McKee had to relinquish their Barrio stake to repay the improperly shifted Bar La Grassa funds, and that the Barrio contract was canceled, not expired.

For a day anyway, Strib readers were misled — as evidenced by the fact that the item was pulled from the web archive after the Friday facts emerged. Still, Nelson calls the original item “not inaccurate,” and Dean says the story was defensibly incomplete.

She notes, “We had the actual fact — that the [Barrio] partnership was dissolving. That was a fact. We contacted all the participants to see if they had a comment on it. Tim was the only one who would comment. People give reasons for all sorts of things, business decisions. It’s not the whole story, but you can’t have that unless you talk to all the participants.”

There’s no doubt, however, the Strib was thinking strategically in publishing the first salvo. Lee notes she didn’t blurb the Thursday item on Taste’s Twitter feed to avoid drawing any more attention to it. She hoped McKee’s one-sided version would shake the other players’ comments loose.

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But Zimmern noticed right away, and by 1:30 p.m. Thursday cried foul, quoting Barrio partner Ryan Burnet saying “Tim and Josh had a contract that was terminated for cause.”

Meanwhile, Dean says Barrio’s ownership contacted the paper “the moment” the “Counter Intelligence” story came out. By Friday, Strib readers got Thoma’s admission, a little more disclosure from McKee, and quotes from decidedly pissed Bar La Grassa chef Isaac Becker. In recent days, more of the blanks have been filled in.

Bad news and a ‘strong, vibrant restaurant community’
But what about the notion that this might not be a story at all? When Moskowitz Grumdahl and I talked after her comments in Zimmern’s blog, she made it clear the story had “been reported well and accurately.”

She suggested that part of her response stemmed from the personal gunk that, in general, comes attached to tips — “so-and-so is sleeping with the staff and turns them into girlfriends, so-and-so has a coke problem. What business is it of ours?”

Still, even with a “serve the readers” ethos, surely the departure of a top-ranked chef and a successful businessman affects what diners eat? After all, Zimmern notes Barrio prominently advertised McKee’s culinary involvement.

Moskowitz Grumdahl said she’d pursue purely economic stories under the rubric of “making a strong, vibrant health restaurant community. If I heard people were unfairly treated, I’d certainly investigate that. That certainly fits the speak-truth-to-power thing that in my heart, I never want to let go.”

At the same time, she says, “In speaking truth to power, a lot of innocent people can get hurt by a story being reported. From everything I’ve heard, Josh Thoma took money from a place he shouldn’t have, and behaved poorly. But if people don’t want to spend money at a ‘bad’ establishment because Josh was doing bad accounting, what about the cook, the chef, the server, the bartender — did any of those people do anything wrong?”

Dean says the Strib takes a different view. “We never forget we’re reporters and we’re reporting on the business,” she notes, adding that Nelson, helpfully, has an MBA. “We have a broader mandate and a broader emphasis — we’re a newspaper with an emphasis on news, and a story like that should come from a newspaper.”

Platt notes, “There are a lot of people in town writing about food that may not see themselves as journalists, but see themselves as advocates for the community. Part of our role is to act as an advocate for the betterment of worlds, but it’s not our place to hide bad news. That said, it’s not our place to act as a rumor conveyance mechanism.”

The local food-blogging world is filled with chefs or ex-chefs whose prose can take the varnish off a countertop (Zimmern, Lenny Russo, Woodman). They — and critics like Nelson, Zimmern and Moskowitz Grumdahl — are hardly shrinking violets when it comes to criticizing bad food, so it’s not a lack of guts that keeps them from writing bad news.

And of course, an excess of courage can breed irresponsibility. I asked Zimmern to identify the chatty, cowardly and bought-off bloggers he ripped last week; he refused to name names. Still, he pointedly excluded Heavy Table, a site edited by longtime journalist James Norton.

Norton, whose blog offers includes labeled profiles that subjects sponsor, says “I’m just not shocked” that the Thoma story didn’t crop up in blogs.

“For a lot of people, this is their third or fourth job, and unless there is an immediate direct impact on what people are eating at the moment, it’s not the top priority to chase that. The strange thing about Minneapolis-St. Paul is that it can look big on paper, but feels like a very small community.”

(This I know; I’m a volunteer board member for a local farmers market that food writers have covered; Woodman has done cooking demonstrations there.)

Ultimately, it’s not all that irresponsible — journalistically, anyway — to gossip at a party about a sticky situation yet not put fingers to keyboard. As Norton observes, “If you’re going to be the first person to poke your head above water, you either have to come heavy with good sources, or you potentially reap the whirlwind.”

Even though the parties worked things out without a court fight, Zimmern still believes he did the right thing in publicizing the chatter months ago: “Had this been another city, where people play by tougher ground rules, this all would have been out sooner, and it would have better for the principals in the restaurants.”

But, Nelson notes, this is not another city: “This is Minneapolis, c’mon. People have respect for one another. People are very supportive.”