Sexual Harassment, Stealing Allegations Tear Apart Surfside's 26 Sushi & Tapas
The Chang family, which New Times profiled this past summer, is no longer involved in 26 Sushi & Tapas following the settlement of a spiteful lawsuit in which investor and real-estate developer Morris Kaplan accused the family of financially mismanaging the restaurant. At the same time, the Changs accused Kaplan of using the eatery as a place to employ family and friends with little experience in the restaurant industry while also pursuing an extramarital relationship with Valerie Chang.
The restaurant's genesis traces back to 2013, when Fernando Chang Jr. was working as a private cook in Kaplans' Bal Harbour home. After mentioning that his father, who would eventually become 26's sushi chef, lost his job, the Kaplans suggested they partner to create an upscale kosher sushi restaurant in Bal Harbour, according to court documents.
Tensions began boiling before the place even opened. According to a countersuit filed by the Chang family, Kaplan, as the majority owner of the company, sought to double the restaurant's size without telling anyone and in doing so hired his son-in-law's development company to do the work and a brother-in-law as the general contractor.
"The 26 sushi restaurant was so poorly constructed that the restaurant has experienced and continues to experience severe plumbing problems," the Chang's countersuit claims. "On its opening night, the restaurant's plumbing pipes clogged, causing the kitchen to flood into the dining room."
When the restaurant opened, Fernando Chang Sr., regarded as the observant Jewish community's favorite sushi chef in Miami, manned the sushi bar while his children Valerie and Fernando Jr. ran the hot kitchen.
Chang Jr., who along with other family members declined to comment for this story, said in the lawsuit that he raised various construction concerns with Kaplan as work was being done but that Kaplan said changes couldn't be made without causing "familial and marital problems."
For his part, Kaplan, who invested $1.8 million to start the restaurant, said that as manager and majority owner in the company with his wife Sandra, all such business decisions fell under his purview. Moreover, he alleged Chang mismanaged the company and has been unable to explain purchases made without invoices, withdrawals on the company's bank account that left it unable to make payroll, and the disappearance of petty cash.
"Mr. Chang removed in excess of $46,000 from the restaurant's account without authorization," according to the lawsuit. He "only returned the funds when Mr. and Mrs. Kaplan begged for the money... today $2,000 remains outstanding and unaccounted for."
Yet the most shocking claim is the alleged relationship between Kaplan and Valerie Chang. According to the Changs' countersuit, Kaplan asked her to relocate from Las Vegas to Miami and in 2014 began sending her love letters, cards, and gifts, lasting until as recently as earlier this year. Kaplan would often text her and ask to meet in the middle of the night. He eventually asked that she get a second phone number so the two could communicate unbeknownst to his wife.
Neither Kaplan nor Chang would comment on the matter, though the Changs' countersuit said Valerie, despite trying cut off the relationship, had no choice but to entertain Kaplan's romantic advances given he was the company's primary investor and lifeline.
"The Kaplans... made the decision to sell 26 Sushi's assets in connection with Mrs. Kaplan's vendetta against Ms. Chang and the Chang family," their countersuit argued.
However, Kaplan's lawsuit alleges the Chang family sought to capitalize on his philandering. "Now that the affair is over and Mr. Kaplan has reconciled with his wife, the Changs are exploiting the affair to extort money, humiliate the Kaplans, and take the company," it said.
The lawsuit was ultimately settled in mediation earlier this year, preempting both parties from responding to questions.
"Co-owner Sandra and Morris Kaplan and [the] Changs have amicably terminated their partnership in 26 Sushi and Tapas, and the Kaplans have assumed 100% ownership," Morris Kaplan wrote to New Times in a text message. "The restaurant will continue to provide most of the same wonderful dishes and over the top guest services that 26 has been know[n] for."
Robert Zarco, an attorney for the Changs, said they are happy to have sold their interest and are moving on to other ventures.
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