UPDATED 1 p.m.: Matthew Antonovich, chef, co-creator and co-owner of Mozzaria, has been forced out of that partnership, while his partnership in Mozz Enoteca & Wine Bar, a business he cofounded in 2010, is in jeopardy.
According to Michael Cooper, who cofounded both concepts with Antonovich, ongoing concerns about Antonovich’s management of Mozzaria led to a July lawsuit and subsequent Aug. 27 ouster by Pallas Partners.
At Mozz, questions about that restaurant’s operational performance have led majority-owner Dr. Mushtaque Juneja to consider Antonovich’s future with the company.
A call placed to Antonovich’s phone last night indicated he is not accepting calls or messages.
In early August, Insider Louisville broke the story that Antonovich was sued by his partners in Mozzaria, located on Fourth Street Live! in the space that once housed Red Star Tavern. In the suit, Antonovich is accused of “making unauthorized payments, diverting assets to another business he manages in which he has an ownership stake.”
Behind several months in rent, Mozzaria was served an eviction notice Aug. 15, but restaurant owners have since reached a settlement with the property owner, The Cordish Companies, and remains in operation.
When called last week to discuss problems at Mozzaria, Antonovich declined comment but requested a face-to-face meeting be scheduled Aug. 20. He did not call to schedule the meeting.
On August 27, the rumor mill ground at a furious pace with claims that Mozz might actually close. And when contacted last night, Cooper, who maintains a 33 percent ownership stake in Mozz, believed it had happened—yet it didn’t.
As a partner at Mozzaria, he is not involved in day-to-day operations at Mozz and chose not to elaborate why.
“It initially was my understanding that Mozz had closed, which is partly because of my separation from the situation by working at Mozzaria,” Cooper said. “Dr. Juneja funded the restaurant late yesterday so it can continue functioning and moving forward without (Antonovich’s) involvement.”
Cooper and Antonovich first met at Casa Grisanti in 1990, where Antonovich was its executive chef and Cooper was a captain.
Antonovich left a year later to become the corporate chef for Grisanti Italian Restaurants, and later moved to Dallas and Denver to operate restaurants there, but the two maintained ties for the ensuing 22 years.
Eager to return to Louisville, where Cooper worked for a coffee distributor, the two discussed creating a restaurant together. When Mozz opened in December of 2010, it was a hit, receiving Louisville magazine’s “Best New Restaurant in 2011” in the publication’s annual reader’s choice survey.
But despite outward appearances, the restaurant quickly encountered some rough spots. Kitchen turnover was especially high, and payments to vendors began slipping beyond normal 30-day terms.
“When they’d come see us, there would almost always be a new kitchen team,” said one supplier, who declined to speak on the record. “It got so I didn’t know anyone’s name in the kitchen.” Other suppliers said they eventually switched to “cash-on-pick-up only” terms with Mozz.
Though he declined to provide details, Cooper said Antonovich’s supervision of Mozz gave him concern the business was not being managed effectively.
“It became tough on our friendship,” Cooper said.
Yet Cooper and Antonovich moved ahead as partners to open Mozzaria on May 2, which quickly ran into trouble.
Asked about the future of both restaurants, Cooper said Mozzaria is back on track and nearly caught up with rent, but that Juneja will have the final say about Mozz.
“He did step in and fund it yesterday, but that’s all I know for now,” Cooper said. “His son is getting married this weekend, so he wants to focus on all that’s involved with that first.”