OVER-THE-RHINE (FOX19) - A now-closed Italian restaurant in Over-the-Rhine and its owner are suing the nonprofit agency responsible for much of the development in Cincinnati’s urban core, accusing them fraud and misrepresentation.
Panino and owner Nino Loreto allege in court documents filed Thursday that Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) lured them from their popular food truck downtown to launch a restaurant on Vine Street with the promise of an outdoor patio, or beer garden, that would make their business unique and successful.
Panino opened on Vine Street in late November 2016, specializing in sandwiches, handcrafted charcuterie, locally sourced meats, and craft cocktails.
The beer garden Loreto said he was promised - the one he included in his proposed business plan to be able to pay his $5,800 monthly rent - was supposed to be built in spring 2017, but ultimately never came to be.
As a result, he said he was unable to make his rent and, after trying unsuccessfully to work out compromises, was told to leave and shut down late last year.
Now, Loreto says he feels like he was just strung along and “sold a bill of goods.”
“They presented me with a drawing with an outdoor beer garden. It already showed an outdoor bar with a covered roof over the bar, seating, firepits, and entrance through an archway. That was the single thing that got us to jump on that space.”
But in the end, he says, the space outside his restaurant where the beer garden would go, was designated to be a public park, a plan he only found out about after Panino was already open.
“It was too late to turn back. I already invested my entire life savings on the promise of this,” Loreto said in an interview Thursday at his attorney’s law firm.
The accusations were filed in a breach of contract countersuit from Panino and Loreto in response to litigation recently filed by Cintrifuse Landlord LLC, a 3CDC subsidiary, and the new, third-party claim against 3CDC.
Cintrifuse sued Panino and Loreto for $85,000 in back rent, court records show. They are also trying to place a lien on kitchen equipment Loreto used at Panino, Loreto’s lawyer says, and must keep in order to reopen a restaurant elsewhere.
Nino Loreto and his father, Remo, say the whole ordeal has been stressful for their entire family.
“This young man has worked for the past three years completely without pay,” Remo Loreto said.
He sunk his part of his retirement savings into the venture, and Nino Loreto said he spent his entire life’s savings, $50,000, only to have the name of his restaurant now damaged.
“The ultimate result here is the perceived tarnish on Panino’s for having closed down and there were things that happened that had nothing to do with him,” Remo Loreto said. “Nino is committed to the people in that neighborhood and always will be. They offered to put in a play area for kids at one point and do a lot of things down there no one has done.”
Panino and its owner also allege in legal documents “conspiracy to commit abuse of process through actions of its subsidiary."
The lawsuit maintains Steve Leeper, president and CEO of 3CDC, made a threat to Nino Loreto’s father, who is from Italy, after a meeting last year where the two parties tried to sit down work out their differences. Nino Loreto said it was at that point he realized his restaurant would inevitably close.
Leeper, the suit states, “indicated to Remo Loreto, an agent for Panino, LLC, that he was a Sicilian, and that ‘Sicilians approach you with a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a switchblade in the other,’ clearly implying that if Defendants did not do his bidding, that 3CDC would work to cripple the son’s business and interfere with its reopening.”
“.....Cintrifuse Landlord LLC, the Plaintiff/Counterclaim Defendant in this action, in spite of being in integral part of 3CDC since May 5, 2013, and in spite of having multiple restaurants and other businesses default on their rent, has never, until this case, brought an action in Replevin and for back payment of disputed rent.”
Remo Loreto said Leeper’s alleged remark left him “dumbfounded” and “speechless."
“I couldn’t believe (Leeper) would have the nerve to say that, an obvious threat,” Remo Loreto said Thursday. "He disparaged all Italians by threatening a violent act. He was using that as an example. He could have said ‘Remo, you take the take deal we offered you or I will sue you.’ But he specifically chose to say switchblade. The implication is he is going to hurt us and he has done everything he can since then to hurt us senseless.”
Remo Loreto says the family will continue to support Nino Loreto and his dream “no matter what, whether it’s a new restaurant or a new activity maybe outside the food industry. I know people don’t want that. People love his food.”
A spokesman for 3CDC, Joe Rudemiller, said the agency did make good faith efforts to build a beer garden, but the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, which manages the public space, denied their request.
He released the following statement to FOX19 NOW on behalf of 3CDC:
“We are always hopeful that our tenants will be successful, and we are disappointed that Panino did not generate enough sales for the business to be profitable. We tried to come to an amicable resolution with Panino by putting forth what we felt was an incredibly generous settlement offer. It is unfortunate that Panino decided to take equipment that belonged to 3CDC per the terms of the lease, rather than agreeing to part on good terms as we had hoped and proposed as part of that settlement offer.
Rudemiller also said Leeper denies saying the statement to Remo Loreto and would point out that the meeting he attended with both Nino Loreto and Remo Loreto “was an amicable one that ended on good terms.”