Ex-owner of West Oak Lane eatery Relish sues Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp.
The prices seem reasonable at Relish, a West Oak Lane restaurant that boasts of its "modern Southern cuisine." Taxpayers, however, would see a steeper tab if the menu provided full financial disclosure: that Relish survives with the support of more than $1.1 million in public funds.
The prices seem reasonable at Relish, a West Oak Lane restaurant that boasts of its "modern Southern cuisine." Most appetizers are less than $10, entrees less than $20.
Taxpayers, however, would see a steeper tab if the menu provided full financial disclosure: that Relish survives with the support of more than $1.1 million in public funds.
The restaurant is owned by the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. (OARC), a nonprofit community-development agency founded by State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), who often holds news conferences and election-night gatherings there.
Backed by a $650,000 loan from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC) and a $470,000 grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, Relish represents a rare, if not singular, example of a Pennsylvania restaurant so dependent on the largess of taxpayers.
Regardless of how much help the public has provided, it apparently has not been sufficient to ensure success, if paying one's obligations is a measure. According to OARC's latest tax returns, the restaurant has never made a payment on its PIDC loan, which dates to 1998. Loan payments are due only when the restaurant makes money, according to the tax return.
And, according to a lawsuit filed by a former owner of the restaurant, OARC invested $150,000 more in the enterprise - then known as Sadiki's - to keep it afloat in 2007.
The same suit, brought in June by Kevin Sadiki Travick, accuses OARC Executive Director Jack Kitchen of physically threatening Travick while browbeating him into surrendering his majority share of the restaurant to OARC in 2008.
Kitchen did not respond to phone and e-mail messages for this article.
The lawsuit is the latest legal entanglement involving an investment by OARC, which is largely funded by taxpayers.
Last year, OARC bought a West Mount Airy nightclub, North by Northwest, from a collection of prominent partners with past and present ties to the nonprofit group and Evans. OARC's costs totaled $760,000, including the sale price, additional investment in the nightclub, and business losses.
Though it has since pulled out of the club, OARC is still involved in a legal dispute with its landlord stemming from backed-up drains there.
OARC also produces the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival, which this year was funded with more than $1 million from the state. Despite the investment, the festival drew anemic crowds.
Evans, as OARC's chief patron, has ensured funding for it and its projects. He did not return a call to his office seeking comment for this article.
While chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, Evans held great sway over how discretionary money was dispensed. He recently lost that clout, however, when Republicans regained control of the House and his own party removed him as the ranking Democrat on the committee.
He took particular heat from colleagues who felt he used his position to feather his own nest, in part by funding OARC's extensive project list. In the last three years alone, Evans directed $17 million to OARC.
The nonprofit organization is so flush that it has been unable to spend its money fast enough.
Its most recent tax returns, for the fiscal year ended June 2009, showed OARC with $5.8 million in unspent government money.
Last year, the state Community and Economic Development Department, at OARC's request, extended the termination dates for seven contracts worth more than $7 million. The extensions mean OARC has another year in which to draw on the money.
One extended contract was the $470,000 grant to aid Relish. The grant provides $380,000 for "staff salaries" and $90,000 for consultants.
According to Travick's lawsuit, the grant was approved after Kitchen drove him out as owner of the restaurant so OARC could take it over.
Travick said Kitchen recruited him in 2007 to run the restaurant, at 7152 Ogontz Ave. The site, owned by OARC, had previously housed a number of unsuccessful ventures, including a Hard Shell Cafe, the Home Cooking Cafe, and the Ogontz Grill.
As Sadiki's, the business belonged to Travick, who leased space from OARC. OARC promised assistance in getting a liquor license, according to Travick's suit.
The liquor license did not come, and the restaurant floundered, Travick said in an interview. He blamed OARC for delaying the license.
Tensions grew between Travick and Kitchen, according to Travick, to the point where Kitchen, at two meetings, made verbal threats of physical violence.
"Kitchen . . . became enraged and threatened to 'come across this table and deal with your stupidity,' " Travick's suit says in describing one incident.
In another, Travick said in an interview, Kitchen threatened to "beat it into him" if Travick did not agree to turn control of the restaurant over to OARC.
Eventually, Travick did, signing over 51 percent control to OARC on April 25. A liquor license for the restaurant was approved four days later.
The nonprofit brought in Benjamin and Robert Bynum - owners of Warmdaddy's and the former Zanzibar Blue - to run the restaurant.
Now, Travick said, he feels he was the victim of a fraud - that OARC and Kitchen purposely delayed applying for a liquor license to force him out and take over.
"This is a real injustice," he said. "They deceived me."
Travick said he had gone back into catering - "just trying to rebuild my brand, so to speak."