Widely known chef Jeannie Pierola's KitchenBar pop-up restaurant in Tampa has gotten raves from diners and critics. First at Pinky's, then at the now-closed Chefs on the Loose and most recently at Restaurant BT, Pierola wowed diners with tasting menus and themed a la carte dinners.
But as Pierola gears up to launch her fourth installment of KitchenBar on Thursday at Tampa's new Knife & Co., the owners of KitchenBar's previous host restaurants have come forward to say they were left with a bad taste in their mouths.
"Would I do it again?" BT Nguyen, chef/owner of Restaurant BT muses. "Absolutely (expletive) not." Nguyen goes on to praise Pierola's talent, saying, "I think she's a genius. She has guts and a palate, and she's not afraid of that. Her food is all over the map and exciting."
Steve Schmalhorst, co-owner of Chefs on the Loose, echoes this, saying, "I've always thought she had enormous culinary talent."
But of the brief partnership, he says, "I consider myself smart in business, but sometimes even smart people make mistakes."
In each of the three cases, restaurant owners complain that their staffs were paid late or insufficiently, vendors were left unpaid, kitchens were left in a shambles and Pierola failed to respond to repeated calls, emails or texts.
Pierola responds: "I'm sorry if anyone has bad blood. I've considered all those people my friends and I've known them for years. The pop-ups have been a learning experience. We've learned more as we've gone along.
"The first two were not profitable, and consequently getting everything wrapped up took a little time. But we absolutely did wrap it up. And the last one did better and was profitable, so it offset the losses from the earlier pop-ups."
Pop-up restaurants have had a quick and furious run in American cities. These temporary supper clubs appear, aided by social media like Twitter, in underused restaurants, factories, offices or even private homes, have a brief run, and then they're gone.
But for host restaurants and the pop-up visitor, the impromptu, seat-of-the-pants nature of these unions may breed misunderstandings. In Pierola's case, she agreed to pay for rent, utilities and other overhead, her own food and drink, and wages of any staff she borrowed.
But if an oven breaks, who pays? The burglar alarm goes off in error, who owes the $120 fee? These situations arose at Pinky's and at Chefs, respectively. In each case, the host restaurant feels they, their staffs or vendors were owed money that never materialized.
According to Cary Shirai, co-owner of Pinky's, the restaurant "made nothing off the KitchenBar experience. In fact, we are upside-down from the event. According to Ms. Pierola, she did not make any money off the event, therefore we did not make money. After the event, we were left with a broken oven and missing supplies."
But even more than the money issues, the restaurant owners were disturbed by a deteriorating relationship with Pierola, who once ran the kitchens of Bern's and SideBern's.
Says Schmalhorst, "It's really not about the money, it's about not returning a phone call or returning an email."
Schmalhorst and Nguyen concede some of the problems may have resulted from not getting details in writing.
"I didn't want to write up a contract," says Nguyen. "Just a respectful shake-hands deal. Things didn't turn out as I expected," she adds, citing problems with a linen bill, a wine bill and the state of her kitchen upon Pierola's departure.
For Pierola's part, despite these misunderstandings and bad blood, she's excited about pursuing KitchenBar.
"Why do I do them? Regardless of the fact that I've learned a new set of restaurant skills, like Dinner Impossible, I've reconnected with the diners that I've served for more than 25 years. That's meant the world to me. And I will continue."