The Great Bistro Brawl

At first Cassis restaurant looked like a South Beach gold mine for its owners. Then the bottom fell out. Now come the investigators and allegations of corruption.

Seijas liked New York, and prospered quickly by selling high-rise, high-priced Manhattan condominiums to Latins and Europeans. In 1986 he married Pamela Chappel, an interior designer whose father is a partner in a prestigious New York law firm that bears the name of Republican presidential candidate and former New York governor Thomas E. Dewey.

Fabian and Pamela have one daughter, born in January 1990. While Fabian hawked condos, Pamela became friends with some of the neighbors in her apartment building, most notably Susanne Latapie (pronounced lat-ah-pee). The two women got along well, and through them the husbands met. Franaois Latapie and Fabian Seijas also became fast friends. Latapie, who came to the United States from France in 1979, was an accomplished chef but had stepped out of the kitchen and was now the maitre d' at the world-famous New York restaurant Le Cirque. "I had the best job probably in the United States," Latapie recalls. But he was restless to try something new, to have his own business, his own restaurant. "It's one of the world's oldest professions, just like prostitution," he chuckles. "I'm extremely proud to be a part of it."

Seijas was also ready for a change. He had grown weary of New York and had come to believe it was not a safe place to raise a child. In the months after his daughter was born, he visited Miami Beach and was smitten. Before too long, he had convinced Latapie that their future lay in South Florida, and by the end of the year they had struck a pact to open a restaurant together, despite the fact that Seijas had no experience in the field.

Initially Seijas wanted to open an Italian restaurant, having witnessed the popularity and success of Mezzanote on Washington Avenue at Twelfth Street. But after conferring with the unofficial mayor of South Beach, Louis Canales, he decided a French bistro would be a better idea. That settled, Seijas and Latapie began scouting possible locations. They thought seriously about the spot now occupied by WPA at Washington Avenue and Seventh Street, and a couple of locations on Ocean Drive, but all other possibilities paled in comparison to the gutted shell of an old drugstore on the corner of Washington and Eighth Street. "People told us we were crazy to go down to Eighth Street," Seijas remembers. "Besides the Strand, there was nothing there; the Beach ended at Mezzanote. But I was in love with the place and the architecture of the building -- the high ceilings and the concrete columns, the corner location."

Latapie concurred, and they signed a ten-year lease in February 1991. The two men christened their fledgling enterprise Cassis Bistro. The name, which was Latapie's suggestion, carried a certain charm, especially for anyone familiar with the small French fishing village, renowned for its quaint restaurants, that was the inspiration. Then they created a corporation, Cassis Bistro, Inc., with Seijas as president and Latapie as secretary. Together they would be the majority owners as well as equal partners.

After settling on their plans, Seijas and Latapie estimated they would need $300,000 to open the place, and they agreed that each would be responsible for raising half that amount. But problems quickly developed. "Fabian didn't raise his portion and we ended up building the restaurant with my money," Latapie contends. To make his dream come true, Latapie borrowed from family and friends, and he cashed in all his savings and retirement funds, as well as his life insurance. "It was a frightening time for me," says his wife Susanne. "We had a good situation in New York and we came here because we believed Fabian had the money he needed. And he didn't, and we took the risk."

"We carried him to the finish line," Latapie adds. "He couldn't believe his luck."

Seijas counters by arguing that what he didn't contribute in cash and investors, he made up for in other ways A working on the construction of the restaurant, scrounging around to find great deals on kitchen equipment and furniture. And his wife Pamela designed the interior of the dining room.

Besides Seijas and Latapie, who each controlled 28 percent of the company's stock, the other initial investors in Cassis were Bernard Vrod, a waiter from Le Cirque (twelve percent); Allen Grubman, an entertainment attorney who has counted among his clients Billy Joel, Julio Iglesias, and Madonna (six percent); George Allen, a Coconut Grove attorney (one percent); and Daniel Saffe, president of Ravenscroft Shipping in Coral Gables (five percent).

As the renovations progressed and 1991 drew to a close, the partners found they were running desperately short of money. That's when Latapie thought of Mel Harris. President of the North Miami-based International Insurance Group and a well-traveled Miami resident, Harris was a regular customer at Le Cirque during Latapie's tenure. "He was on the restaurant's VIP list," the maitre d' recalls, "and we took extraordinary care of him." When Latapie let Harris know he was leaving Le Cirque to move to Miami Beach to open a restaurant, Harris urged Latapie to call on him if he should ever need anything. With Cassis on the verge of failing before it even opened, Latapie and Seijas met with Harris at Mezzanote around Christmastime. Pamela Seijas had prepared a brief prospectus describing their vision of the restaurant, and Harris was duly impressed.

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