ST. PETERSBURG — One of St. Petersburg's most celebrated, and controversial, chefs is not cooking in a restaurant today. Or any time soon.
Domenica Macchia — formerly of Redwoods, MJ's, Diner 437, BellaBrava and Shackleton's Folly, all in St. Petersburg — has been hit with a temporary injunction over a noncompete contract she signed with her former employer. That means this itinerant local chef is legally forbidden to ply her trade in any Pinellas County restaurant, in any capacity, until February 2014, according to her lawyer, Francis M. King.
Some restaurant industry analysts estimate that chefs change jobs every 12 to 24 months, which is why it was perhaps unwise for Macchia to have signed such an agreement with Three Birds Tavern when she began working there in March 2011. Macchia and Three Birds had an acrimonious parting (not the first for Macchia) toward the end of 2012, and in January Three Birds' owners Robin and Jack King filed a lawsuit against her in Pinellas County for breach of contract.
In addition, the Kings filed a suit against Dan Soronen. Formerly the owner of the Old Northeast Tavern, Shackleton's Folly and Brewburgers, all in St. Petersburg, Soronen took over management of Beak's Old Florida along with new owner Jason McNeil, renaming the bar/restaurant at 2451 Central Ave. Beak's St. Pete and bringing on chef Macchia. Despite having had a falling out while working together at Shackleton's Folly, Soronen was eager to have Macchia "revamp the whole menu."
On Tuesday, a new menu was unveiled. And, on Thursday, Macchia received news about the injunction.
Why would a seasoned chef sign such an agreement?
"I signed a contract because I had been out of work for 10 months, my lights were going out in seven days," explains Macchia. "I never read it."
Whether this was wise is clearly moot, but it does raise questions about intellectual property and trade secrets in the restaurant business.
Macchia has made a name for herself with signature items such as a bacon brittle with seared scallops that she developed at MJ's and a bacon onion jam she invented at Diner 437 (she likes bacon). She has brought those with her in subsequent ventures, but neither appears on Beak's new menu. Are there menu items on Beak's new menu that reprise, or plagiarize, menu items from Three Birds' menu? No.
McNeil, who has put Macchia on administrative leave at Beak's with pay, thinks the suit is frivolous.
"My gut is it's a simple case of bullying, a case of who has the most money wins. I don't think that Beak's competes with them in any way. It's a totally different environment and atmosphere."
A not-yet-scheduled meeting with a judge will determine the permanent ruling in this case. The Kings could not be reached Friday for comment, but opinions about the suit have come from other arenas as well. Jonathan Pollard, a trial lawyer and litigator in Fort Lauderdale, took up the issue on his blog, TheNonCompeteBlog.com.
"At least in Florida, an agreement not to compete falls in the same category of illegal contract or conspiracy unless it is necessary to protect a legitimate business interest," he writes. "The question, then, is whether or not a non-compete agreement is necessary to protect a restaurant when a prominent chef jumps ship and goes to work for another restaurant across town. There are no trade secrets at issue. There is no confidential information. There are no unique customer relationships, because restaurant patrons frequent many different restaurants."
At least one customer agrees. Annette Baesel, a St. Petersburg resident and retired environmental planner, has followed Macchia's career in St. Petersburg restaurants.
"This isn't like Le Bernardin, like they've invested years in a chef. That's not the food scene in St. Petersburg. It doesn't make any sense. No one eats at the same restaurant every night of the week. We eat out four to five times a week, almost always in St. Petersburg. What (the Kings) are doing is denying me the pleasure of going somewhere that she cooks just because they got their knickers in a twist."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.