Three short months into business, SooWoo -- a Japanese/Korean restaurant located just off Fifth Street and Washington Avenue in South Beach -- has been shuttered. The place, which occupied a variety of locales before moving to the Beach, got off to a rocky start after several employees claimed -- and management denied -- they hadn't been paid.
As of yesterday, all of the teppanyaki tables had been cleared out of the SoBe location, and the only thing that remained was the center bar. The PR firm that represents the restaurant, Tara Ink, confirmed the place has closed permanently. Nick D'Annunzio said the closure was due to lack of rent payment, thus causing the landlord to take action.
The restaurant's opening chef, Joe Bonavita Jr., walked out the day after Christmas. "I was paid three weeks of work for four months," he told New Times. "I've never seen a restaurant run like this."
This was the fourth installment of SooWoo, with previous locations ranging from Doral to Pembroke Pines and Hollywood, all of which closed just as quickly.
Just a few weeks ago, owner Bok H. An told New Times he hoped to make this "one of the most original Japanese-and-Korean combination restaurants in the USA, not just in Miami."
The 200-seat space was designed by award-winning Callin Fortis of Big Time Design Studios. Teppanyaki tables filled 80 percent of the restaurant. There was also a sushi bar, lounge seating, and regular tables.
Bonavita quit the day after Christmas. "Now it's hard for me to find a job because they're slandering my name," he said. Bonavita has done internships with some of the nation's most elite restaurants, including Per Se, Le Bernardin, and Daniel in New York City. He also worked in the kitchen of Alinea for a year as chef de partie.
Three other sources who asked not be named claim they were owed thousands of dollars for months. "[Bok An] took forever forever to pay," says one source, "sometimes months, and when he did, he did so in cash... For us it's not that bad 'cause we worked off tips, but the people in the kitchen had families and couldn't make rent."
New Times contacted An, who said, "There was zero employees that never got paid. What happened during 2013 in Doral was that payments were delayed because we had a cash flow crunch, but we always caught up."
As for Bonavita, he said before the closure: "As an owner operating a restaurant for 18 years, I wouldn't have lasted if I didn't pay my staff because I'm not a one-man show. I can't be in operation not paying my staff or vendors. I know there's bad press that went out, but I wish nothing but success for that gentleman. He went on a rampage on social media, but it is what it is. We had a couple of disagreements, but I wish them nothing but the best."
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