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Restaurant seeks debt protection

Three weeks ago, entrepreneur Jefferson Kirk announced with plenty of fanfare that he was auctioning off his Jefferson's Restaurant for the best offer, no matter what it was.

Period. Absolutely. Even if the highest bid was $5, Kirk said he would accept it.

The highest bid turned out to be $100,000.

But Kirk apparently decided not to accept it.

Instead, Kirk is trying to bring the one-of-a-kind restaurant back to life, and has put his company under the protection of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to do it.

A week after the auction, Jefferson's Entertainment Inc., Kirk's company, filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The restaurant, located in the Gulfside Square shopping center on U.S. 19, has been closed since.

On Monday, a bankruptcy court judge in Tampa agreed to allow Jefferson's Entertainment to borrow up to $73,000 to try to get the restaurant back on its feet financially as part of the Chapter 11 filing.

Thomas Little, a Clearwater attorney handling the case for Kirk, said the cash infusion will allow his client to re-open Jefferson's in the near future.

Little could offer no explanation for the so-called absolute auction that took place last month.

"It's my understanding that the auction did not go through," Little said. "They couldn't conclude the auction sale with the successful bidder."

The usually talkative Kirk, who also owns a chain of video stores, could not be reached for comment.

Neither could Helene and Ronald Fischbach, who bid $100,000 for Jefferson's at the auction Sept. 13.

One reason, Kirk may have decided against selling to the Fischbachs was because the $100,000 was not nearly enough to settle the restaurant's debts, Little said.

In an interview just before the auction, Kirk said he had sunk between $300,000 and $400,000 into the restaurant, which opened in March.

He said at the time that he still owed about $200,000, but nonetheless would take whatever he could get for the business at the auction _ even if it was $5.

"We've said the auction is absolute," Kirk said in September. "If that's all we get, we'll have to sell."

The restaurant, with pingpong tables, video monitors in every booth, and weekly events ranging from bungee and Velcro jumping to live boxing, drew plenty of customers.

But not enough to offset the enormous expenses Kirk's company took on to open it.

"Basically, I ran out of money twice while building it," Kirk said in September. "I had to beg and borrow from everybody I knew just to get the doors open."