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Harold Seltzer to reopen two Seltzer's Steakhouses with his name on them

The founder of Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse in the Tampa Bay area is resurrecting two of them under a slightly different name next week.

And he is offering to make amends with customers stiffed by gift cards made worthless by the chain's abrupt closing on May 17.

Harold Seltzer, a 53-year-old restaurateur who sold his interest in the chain of six stores in 2004, had to bite his lip a lot about his creation's fate.

"It has been incredibly painful watching a company that carries my family name skid downhill under other owners for years, then be dragged through the mud" in such an unceremonious end, he said.

Management left 300 people jobless, then unplugged the phones, leaving thousands of customers clamoring for their gift card money.

"I started working on how to pull all this off right after the closing, partly because my heart went out to all those employees, many of whom I hired years ago," Seltzer said.

Previously named for Harold's grandfather Sam, a Montreal butcher who never owned a restaurant, the new version will be called Harold Seltzer's Steakhouse. The menu will feature most of the same moderately priced dishes and aged USDA choice Angus beef the chain served when Harold Seltzer was in charge.

The St. Petersburg store at 3500 Tyrone Blvd. reopens Oct. 27, the one in Gulf View Square mall in Port Richey will reopen on Oct. 28.

To make up for an estimated $262,000 worth of outstanding gift cards previous owners were not around to honor, Seltzer will offer one free prime rib dinner for each card presented.

The limit is one card per table per night. No one knows how many cards are out there, much less who holds them. "It's not my debt," said Seltzer, who figures he's giving away 10,000 meals if the average card balance was $25. "But I am trying hard to make it right."

Seltzer resigned as Sam Seltzer's president in 2002, then sold his interest after an ugly dispute in 2004, turning over his stake to a group led by his cousin Michael. Michael Seltzer ceded control to lenders after an ill-fated expansion drive in 2009. The company grew to 11 stores, then had to close all five of the new ones scattered from Orlando to Fort Myers.

Each of the remaining six stores — all but one leased — was incorporated separately so each is being liquidated in its own bankruptcy case. A mortgage holder has a secured lien against the Clearwater store.

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the parent company, Sam Seltzer's of America, was dismissed after a plan to reorganize its finances fell apart, leading to the store closings this spring.

A "poor man's bankruptcy case" done under state law was filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court in September to split up the remaining assets among creditors.

Secured creditors claim to be owed $2 million while unsecured creditors, including gift card holders, are owed $1.8 million. Assets are estimated at $53,000.

"Gift card holders are far down the priority list of creditors with claims," said Suzy Tate, a Tampa lawyer handling the case before Circuit Judge Martha Cook.

Gift card holders who want to attempt getting a refund can mail claims to an accountant helping manage the wind down. The address is Larry Hyman, P.O. Box 18625, Tampa, FL 33679.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Harold Seltzer to reopen two Seltzer's Steakhouses with his name on them 10/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 9:36pm]
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