Proino Breakfast Club, named 'Best of Largo,' has trail of money problems, records show

Proino Breakfast Club, in the center of the downtown redevelopment area, was voted “Best of Largo’’ in 2015.
Proino Breakfast Club, in the center of the downtown redevelopment area, was voted “Best of Largo’’ in 2015.
Published Nov. 23, 2016

LARGO — A restaurant once voted "Best of Largo" and a magnet to the city's aspiring downtown is facing several lawsuits claiming the owner has missed rent payments and left thousands of dollars in debts unpaid.

According to court records, George Soulellis, owner of Proino Breakfast Club, owes his landlord four months of rent and common area expenses totaling more than $17,800. Another lawsuit states he never returned a $70,000 deposit put down by a man wanting to buy one of his restaurant locations who later canceled the deal. A third says Soulellis paid a friend back for a personal loan with three checks that bounced due to insufficient funds.

"He's not an honest guy," said Markos Bahas, the man who said he lent money to Soulellis. "I thought, 'He's a good guy. He's a businessman.' But that was wrong. I was wrong."

Soulellis said in an interview there was "no basis" to his landlord's lawsuit, adding that it had already been rectified. But court records show there have been no updates since the complaint was filed Oct. 23 and Richard Franzblau, the attorney representing the landlord, said the suit is ongoing. Soulellis did not respond to followup requests for comment.

Proino opened in March 2013 at 201 W Bay Drive in what used to be a Crispers. Since then, it has drawn positive reviews online and became the meeting place for Mayor Woody Brown's monthly coffee chat with residents. It was voted best of Largo in a 2015 contest sponsored by the city and the Largo Leader. A year later, Soulellis bought property at 14400 Walsingham Road that would become the restaurant's second location.

The original location is renting space in a shopping center owned by Sunrise Plaza Enterprise. Nazim Ali, an associate owner of the plaza, said Soulellis has had issues paying rent on time since last year. He said he tried to work with Soulellis on the payments, but then his checks started to bounce, frustrating him and his business partner. They may pursue eviction.

"It's not worth it if he's going to be a liability," Ali said.

Brown said he was unaware of the lawsuits until the Tampa Bay Times brought them to his attention this week. He said he picked Proino because the restaurant gives them free coffee and it's in the heart of the downtown redevelopment district — a struggling area the city has prioritized for revitalization.

"That's unfortunate," he said. "I certainly would have to look into what's happening with all of that."

A man from Canada intended to buy the restaurant's Walsingham location in April, according to another lawsuit. Allen Mardani put down $20,000 then an additional $50,000 as a deposit for the business sale. During the due diligence process, Mardani backed out of the sale. When he tried to get the deposit back, Soulellis had already used some of the money to pay a contractor who was providing build-out services for a third location on Clearwater Beach, the lawsuit says.

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Mardani declined to comment. Soulellis, who has also owned restaurants in Canada, filed a motion Nov. 7 to dismiss the lawsuit. A judge had not ruled on that motion as of Tuesday, according to court records.

The Clearwater Beach location never came to fruition. State business records show he filed paperwork under the Proino name at 770 S Gulfview Blvd. He was working with Ernest Utegaard, a general contractor. Utegaard said they went their separate ways; he declined to say why because they signed a confidentiality agreement. Utegaard took over the lease and will open his own breakfast and lunch restaurant called the Floridian Beach Cafe, he said.

Bahas, the man who said he loaned Soulellis $50,000, said they met through the local Greek community. When Soulellis asked for the loan for his business, he gave him money he was going to spend on a car, thinking he would get it back in a month.

Soulellis paid him in increments of $12,500. One after another, the checks bounced, Bahas said.

"Every time I called him, he would tell me, 'Next week, next week,' " Bahas said.

Bahas hired Tarpon Springs-based attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos, who said Soulellis has made good on one of the checks.

Along with the lawsuits, records show Soulellis fell behind on payments to food vendors. In August, a Manatee County judge ruled that Soulellis owed about $30,000 to Sysco West Coast Florida, a Palmetto-based food distributor, after he failed to pay the company since January.

Another distributor, Lorenzo Marini, said in a complaint Soulellis owed him about $3,000 in unpaid invoices for fruit and vegetable delivery. Marini, the owner of Lakeview Produce, based in Clearwater, said Soulellis approached him in September or October of last year to go into business. He didn't pay from the beginning, Marini said.

Soulellis eventually paid some of his balance, Marini said, but for the rest, he had to turn to the courts. Soulellis paid back the debt in August after a judge ruled in Marini's favor, according to records.

Right around the time Marini said he and Soulellis entered into business, property records show Soulellis bought a house in Island Estates for $625,000. It sits just across the street from a condominium he bought two years before, overlooking the water.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 445-4157 or Follow @kathrynvarn.