SHREWSBURY – The company that owns the property formerly occupied by the Buca Di Beppo restaurant on Route 9 west at the Burns Bridge has sued the restaurant owner, alleging breach of contract for abruptly closing the business without notice more than three years ago and for hundreds of thousands of dollars of deferred maintenance that has left the building with significant damage.
Cranston, Rhode Island-based Renaissance Development Corp., filed the complaint Aug. 22 against Buca Restaurants Inc. and its parent company, Orlando, Florida-based Planet Hollywood International Inc., in U.S. District Court.
Janice Matthews, vice president of the Jan Companies, RDC’s parent, said that during an inspection of the premises earlier this year the owner confirmed the code violations, lack of maintenance and repairs and other problems of which they were notified by Shrewsbury officials.
“The place wasn’t being maintained. There were homeless people living in it,” she said by phone Thursday, adding that her company has tried for years, including filing a lawsuit in 2015, to get Buca to perform its contractual obligations.
The Jan Companies has owned the property since buying it at auction when it was McQuale’s Food and Spirits. Buca, the successor to Vinny T’s of Boston, has leased the property since about 2001. The lease, which was amended twice - Aug. 24, 2010, and Sept. 15, 2014 – expires May 31, 2020.
“Two months after signing the second amendment, (Buca owners) ceased making payments to (RDC) … (Buca owners) eventually ceased all business operations at the Shrewsbury premises without permission from” RDC, the plaintiff maintains in the lawsuit.
In January 2015 – during reconstruction of the Burns Bridge – Buca notified selectmen that the restaurant was temporarily closing and reviewing its options. The business never reopened.
The following month, RDC filed its first litigation against Buca in federal court alleging breach of contract.
The court ruled in RDC’s favor, leading to an agreement between the parties on April 1, 2016, that provided for Buca to pay RDC $686,779 over time. The agreement also reduced the monthly rent from $36,299 to $25,000, if the company were to perform the obligations of the lease.
In addition to paying the rent in a timely fashion, and the $686,779 judgment, Buca companies and parent company Planet Hollywood were obligated to “maintain and repair the Shrewsbury premises, including the roof and parking areas, and to make all repairs, alterations, additions or replacements required by any order or regulation of local or state authorities. The lease also provides that (Buca) may not vacate the Shrewsbury premises for more than six months.”
Ms. Matthews said the six months is routine in contracts in case a lessee wants to shut down to make renovations.
By early fall of 2016, town officials repeatedly contacted RDC about Buca’s failure to perform necessary repairs and maintenance at the property, including addressing fire and safety issues, lack of permits and failure to make the vacant building secure and weather tight, according to the lawsuit. Copies of the police log, an exhibit with the case, show several incidences of vandalism and break-ins at the property.
RDC notified Buca that they were in default of their obligations to maintain the building and the town subsequently issued a formal notice of code violations.
The notice was sent to Buca and Planet Hollywood, “but little or no progress was made to address the code violations,” RDC maintains in the latest lawsuit.
The lessee made “empty promises” for months, and after a second default letter from the owner Buca provided estimates from contractors to perform more than half a million dollars worth of necessary work and said the work would begin by November 2017, “but the work actually performed involved merely landscaping and minor cosmetic repairs,” according to the lawsuit.
A 21-item list of needed repairs and maintenance RDC sent to Buca and Planet Hollywood included addressing mold throughout the building, due to unmitigated flooding, rotted exterior deck floors, rotted wooden window sills and casings, and a parking lot filled with potholes.
On Jan. 10, 2018, the owner inspected the property and confirmed that Buca still had not made the obligated maintenance and repairs.
The company allegedly further breached the lease by vacating the property for more than six months.
The lawsuit seeks $36,299.23 in monthly rent through the end of the lease on May 31, 2020, and no less than $571,000 for repairs and maintenance, plus all court costs and interest at the rate of 18 percent per year. Ms. Matthews said the repairs likely would cost more. She estimated the cost of a new roof alone would be at least $200,000.
RDC is also requesting that First Data, the defendants’ credit card processor, be ordered to withhold and segregate $1.2 million from any current or future money owed to or held by the lessee pending further order of the court.
Workers were seen at the property this week, seemingly making repairs. Patty Sheehan, the town’s building inspector, said the former restaurant operator does not have permits to do any significant work at the site.
Amy Sadowsky, vice president of Planet Hollywood International, owner of Buca di Beppo, indicated in a recent email that the building is being well maintained.
“At the moment we are following through on a commitment with the landlord to keep the building well maintained. We have been paying our rent while the location has been closed and are now making some repairs and other improvements while the site is being marketed for other uses.”
In a follow-up email Wednesday, Ms. Sadowsky said workers were repairing the roof, addressing water damage and doing some painting. “We hope to release the space back to the landlord very soon.”
The 11,283-square-foot, 249-seat restaurant occupies a prime waterfront location on the shore of Lake Quinsigamond at the Worcester city line.
Jay Thomas, president of the Lakeway Business District Association, said the building is an “eyesore” and needs lots of work. He said the entire Lakeway Business District has been revitalized, except for the former Buca property at 7 Boston Turnpike.
“Something needs to be done there. It’s an eyesore," said Mr. Thomas, who with his brother, Walter, co-owns Thomas Auto Parts.
The restaurant was built in 1989, after seven homes were removed, and originally was owned by Richard A. Qualey, a former local firefighter, and William C. McLay, a Worcester architect, who formed McQuale Corp.
McQuale’s Food and Spirits operated until the end of 1993, when the former Shawmut Worcester County Bank, which held a $1.5 million mortgage on the property, put it on the auction block.
J. Robert Seder, a Worcester lawyer who represented the restaurant owners at the time, said the restaurant was put on the block despite being highly profitable. He said difficulties arose when the bank note matured and the bank failed to renew it. Mr. Qualey's wife, Dolores, on Thursday said the original owners eventually sued the bank and were awarded a substantial settlement.
The current owner, the Jan Companies, which owns many Burger King, Popeye's and other restaurants, purchased the property at auction in December 1993, for $1.8 million. The current assessed value is $2.2 million.
The former McQuale's operated as an East Side Mario's until March 2001, when it became a Vinny Testa's restaurant. The name changed to Vinny T's of Boston in 2003. The Vinny T’s were converted to Buca di Beppo restaurants in 2006, before being sold to Bertucci’s Corp.
Two years later, Planet Hollywood International purchased the Buca chain. In June, Earl Enterprises, which owns Planet Hollywood and Buca, acquired the Northboro-based Bertucci's in a bankruptcy auction.