The Real Miami Circle, Act Three

Max

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Flattery easily can turn a restaurateur's head. Too easily, as it turns out.

In 1997 snowbirds loyal to Dennis Max convinced the man and his company that the Northeast was ready for his concept. Specifically this group of investors wanted Unique Restaurant Concepts to open a Max's something-or-other in a cavernous deli-and-burger restaurant formerly known as Don's. Located in Livingston, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, a Max restaurant, everyone involved thought, would clean up.

Enter the dirty dishwater.

“It was a disaster,” Max says frankly. “We knew nothing about New Jersey and never want to step foot in it again. [The restaurant] was a case study for all the things you don't want to do.”

Partner Burt Rapoport is a bit more diplomatic. “We didn't understand the market,” he admits. “The people there wanted another Don's, not an upscale coffee shop. They wanted something called the “pizza burger,'” he adds, slightly puzzled. (I could have told them that. Not only is Livingston my hometown, I worked at Don's -- as did most of the town's youth -- for four years, serving more pizza burgers, hamburgers topped with marinara and mozzarella cheese, than I care to remember. Nothing could have replaced Don's. Indeed the site will now be an office building.)

Finally realizing what it was up against, Unique pulled out after eight months or so and then got sued by the investors for their troubles. It was a complication Max didn't need. Unique had just settled another lawsuit, brought against it by the investment partners from Max's South Beach, which also failed soon after opening in 1995. “We really don't know what happened with Max's South Beach,” shrugs Rapoport. “Personally I thought we had a good location with a good chef and a great staff.” (The celebrity chef, Kerry Simon, actually might have been the problem, given his much-documented inconsistencies in the culinary arts.) “We sold to a third party, but we lost money there.”

The company also hadn't done well on its next venture, Astor Place, which it opened in 1996 with Astor Hotel owner Karim Masri. The Maxes and Rapoport installed Johnny Vinczencz, sous chef from Max's South Beach, as executive chef, and he would make his “Caribbean Cowboy” reputation there. But the restaurant “was never structured to make money,” Rapoport reports. “There was too much debt involved. It was also a hotel restaurant, which had to serve breakfast and lunch. It just wasn't cost-effective.” In the end, he says, Unique and Masri worked out a consulting agreement, which amounted to Masri paying Unique a little money to go away.

Three fiascoes in as many years didn't necessarily hurt the corporation, though. The Prezzos and Max's Grilles were financial elephants, and Maxaluna was holding its own in the fine-dining market. Max compares the restaurant business to the movie business: “Every movie is not great. That's the nature of it.”

The lawsuits were not public knowledge; the only times Max and Unique were sued was when a restaurant lost money. Obviously the legions of investors in feasible Max operations don't complain. And at least one former partner who has sued Unique, Charlie Rosenberg, has come around to realize what Max “brings to the table,” as he puts it. In fact Rosenberg once again is associated with Max via their new restaurant, Max's Place, which took over the Petrossian spot in Bal Harbour Shops.

“There was some bitterness there [after Max's South Beach],” Max discloses. “But I offered him an olive branch,” which one source says was in the form of rescue: Petrossian, owned by Rosenberg and another former Max partner, Mary Anne Richter, apparently was bleeding green stuff. A Max transfusion would save the location's life.

Another previous associate doesn't need olive branches or pints of blood money to consider working again with Dennis Max. Jay Visconti, president of SEI Restaurant Group, Inc., says, “I talk to him at least once a week.” This statement would probably surprise readers of the Palm Beach Post, which reported the disintegration of a planned merger between Unique and SEI, formerly called Sforza Enterprises, much more salaciously.

In 1996 Sforza unveiled Sforza Ristorante, a restaurant-cum-nightclub, on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. Clematis was then a downtown strip struggling to revive, and Sforza was its first big hit. Inspired by Sforza's good reception, the restaurant group decided to introduce another eatery next door called My Martini Grille. To do so Visconti approached Unique. “Dennis Max was a well-known South Florida restaurateur who had a good rep. The idea was to create a large company with his creative involvement.” Sforza hired Unique as the management company for My Martini Grille, which was a smash. Meanwhile Visconti concentrated on taking his company public, with the clear intention that Sforza and privately owned Unique would then merge into one public group called the Max Restaurant Group. Max would be president.

Visconti raised five million dollars in an initial public offering at the end of 1997. Sforza used three million dollars to buy 51 percent of four new restaurants that would bear the Max moniker. Under the terms of the merger agreement, Sforza would then trade 700,000 shares of stock for the outstanding 49 percent of the restaurants. At that point Sforza would merge with Unique and take over Max's Grille and Max's Coffee Shop in Boca Raton for an estimated 1.4 million shares of stock, simultaneously raising $15 to $20 million through a second public offering.

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