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.
Much of this never happened. Sforza and Unique did manage to open three restaurants together, but the fourth never materialized, because a good location could not be found, says Visconti. All the eateries received the expected raves. Judith Stocks wrote in the Sun-Sentinel that few do it better than the behind-the-scenes team of Dennis Max and partners, wife Patti Max and Burt Rapoport. Indeed Max, to his knowledge, has never received a bad review (a claim substantiated by New Times research).
The two companies, however, failed to merge. In 1998, for unknown reasons, the deal changed. Under the new terms, Unique would sell three restaurants, and Sforza would issue four million shares, a move that would require Sforza to assume about three million dollars in debt. No way, Visconti said. I think [Unique] was having some growing pains, he notes. They had internal situations between partners. Max and Rapoport resigned from the board of Sforza Enterprises, and Max gave up his role as president and was succeeded by Visconti. Sforza also canceled Unique's management contracts for Sforza Ristorante and My Martini Grille, and about nine months later, Sforza Enterprises bought Unique's 49 percent stake in the three restaurants they'd opened together. (Sforza retained use of the Max name under a licensing agreement.)
Despite the fact that the Post reported the disbanding as a brawl, Visconti says it was a mutual decision to dissolve, and he has nothing but respect for both Dennis Max and Burt Rapoport. For his part Rapoport calls the situation a learning experience. When you don't have 51 percent of an entity, you're at somebody else's mercy, he says.
But he doesn't argue with Visconti's assessment that the Unique partnership was troubled. Some of the restaurants were not doing as well, and we felt the financial pressure, he recalls. I was running around supervising twelve restaurants, with 30 people reporting to me. I was burnt. Those were the same issues, of course, that had prompted the disintegration of the Max-Militello-Richter trio a decade before. Rapoport and Max, friends and colleagues for 30 years, might have been able to weather this type of rough sea. But Maxaluna would prove the perfect storm, ending both friendship and partnership for good.
When Café Max and Max's Place were sold, Maxaluna became Dennis and Patti Max's flagship restaurant. It never, however, fell under the auspices of Unique Restaurant Concepts, remaining throughout the years a separate and private venture. By 1997 it still was a solid restaurant, but its appeal had begun to fade. On a trip to Aspen, Colorado, where the Maxes kept a second home, Dennis Max visited one of his favorite restaurants, the Ajax Tavern. The chef there, Nick Morfogen, had a national reputation and had known Max for years. Morfogen and his spouse wanted to move to South Florida, and a deal was struck: Morfogen would take over the kitchen at Maxaluna.
Morfogen revitalized Maxaluna pronouncedly, and Max offered him a partnership. The duo decided to shut down, remodel, and reopen as Nick and Max's. The reception from critics was again warm and excited, and diners responded. We had a very strong season, Morfogen remembers.
Summertime, however, hit hard, and the restaurant started losing money. I had to sit down and analyze why it wasn't working, Max reflects. It just didn't have the right focus. In fact, he continues, it was the worst experience I ever had. It was a very sad story. Morfogen couldn't agree more. In July 1999 the partners split, owing to differences of vision, Morfogen says. He's unwilling to go on record with precise details, but sources reveal that a lawsuit ensued, awarding Morfogen monies that have gone unpaid.
The breakup was so difficult that Morfogen does not understand why Max insisted on dining at 32 East, a respected Delray Beach eatery where Morfogen became executive chef after Nick and Max's closed. He grew so frustrated with Max's continued appearances that one night he lost his temper and refused to serve him, an incident that wound up being reported in José Lambiet's Sun-Sentinel gossip column. He would come in and not acknowledge me. He would face the other way, Morfogen says. It was starting to bother me.
Well, he was one of my favorite chefs, Max responds. Why he would want to remind himself repeatedly of the worst experience [he] ever had, however, doesn't mystify everybody. Max tends to keep tabs on both former partners and employees, many of whom have signed noncompete agreements with Max. John Belleme, Unique's former corporate chef, bought the Nick and Max's location with former Unique manager Allison Barber. Now the pair run it as Zemi, a popular bistro. Belleme says he sees Max come in about once a week. He also hosts Burt Rapoport frequently, but notes that Rapoport comes into the restaurant for pleasure. With Max, it's capitalistic curiosity, and he doesn't mind. You don't get into this business to make friends, Belleme says.
Maybe not, but it can be a sure way to lose them. Rumors that Max misused Unique funds to keep Maxaluna from going under abound; these allegations only reinforced Rapoport's decision, which already had been made after the Sforza incident, to walk away from Unique. As a result the three Prezzos, all limited partnerships, have been sold, as well as Rapoport's interests in any other Unique ventures. At the moment he's still a partner in Max's Grille, but we speak through our attorneys, Rapoport says rather grimly. At this point I think we're both happy to be away from each other.
As for Max, he refuses to be sentimental and likens the falling out to a divorce. When it comes to Burt and I, it wasn't really a marriage, because Patti and I founded the business, he observes. It wasn't a partnership that we started together.
As for his real marriage, it seems as though Max romanced more than palates. In 1999, after nineteen years of marriage, Patti Max filed for divorce, citing adultery (according to divorce documents, apparently involving a Ukrainian mistress, her pregnancy, and an abortion). Paperwork relating to the case shows Patti allegedly had caught her husband cheating on her in 1987. Before reconciling, she asked him to sign an agreement promising that if he committed adultery again, he'd pay her five million dollars in assets. Supposedly she caught him again in 1998 but gave him another chance; then came the Ukrainian woman. Patti Max also claims Dennis had been consorting with a prostitute in Colorado.
Max won't answer questions about his impending divorce, except to say that he had one of the most beautiful and perfect marriages. It was a storybook romance; the whole story for twenty years couldn't have been a better story. Indeed he displays the same kind of blind optimism, as if his actions have no consequences, that he does when talking about former, possibly embittered partners. He won't refer to Patti as his ex-wife, though in the next breath he'll mention a date he had. But the 54-year-old will concede this: It's clear to him, as well to friends and associates, that he's in the midst of my own midlife crisis issues, both in business and in my personal life.
Epilogue: As Max's star was dimming, Mark Militello's was brightening. After Mark's Place closed, Militello focused on Mark's Las Olas, which became his cornerstone. And upon it he is building an empire. New investors have helped him open Mark's at the Park in Boca Raton, a restaurant that competes almost directly with Max's Grille. And while critics like M.L. Warren of the Sun-Sentinel have called that venture underwhelming and another step in the direction of mass appeal, the location seems to be thriving.
The real kicker came this year, when Militello unveiled Mark's South Beach in the Nash Hotel. Though he'd disavowed Miami-Dade diners in his flight north, Militello was welcomed by locals with all the fervor befitting a celebrity chef. Not since Mark's Place has Militello been so in his element.
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Militello's return to Miami also has reconciled him with former employees. He stitched up a long-standing rift with Barbara Raichlen, his publicist as well as a family friend; the pair had stopped speaking when Raichlen took a job at Mary Anne Richter's Petrossian. He also can keep an eye on the chefs he trained who now run their own eateries, namely Michelle Bernstein, who will be a chef at the new Mandarin Oriental restaurant (and who will retain a business interest in The Strand), and Kris Wessel of Liaison. Finally given Militello's history, Mark's South Beach just might be his pivotal restaurant. Before, when Militello opened the third place, operations went to the compost heap. But this heap is proving fertile. Militello will soon debut yet another restaurant -- his fourth -- in West Palm Beach.
In fact Miami may heal all wounds. Richter and Rosenberg have reconciled with Max to open Max's Place, and Max currently has plans to open more restaurants with his son from a former marriage, Tucker.
As for Rapoport, who opened Burt's on the Beach in Hollywood and intends to debut another bistro called Henry's in Boca Raton by the end of the year, he seems to have recovered from betrayals, perceived or otherwise. But just to complete the vicious circle, word has it that he's scouting a third location in North Miami: the former Mark's Place, né Max's Place. Would a Burt's Place be closure for him, or just a modicum of sweet revenge?
Jen Karetnick will be on maternity leave for the next month and will return to these pages in December.