Pie in the Sky
Restaurateur Anthony Russo visibly wrestled with his angst as he told a court last week about the incredible infidelity of his former business confidant.
Glancing toward the frail young man in the white chef's smock, Russo recalled when he gave Jimmy Mounis his first break back in August 1996. He hired him part-time to deliver pizzas at night from Russo's New York Pizzeria in the Medical Center area.
In tones that a father might use for a son, Russo described taking him under his wing, training him in restaurant basics. He shared his family recipes with Mounis, even teaching him how to create the sauce and turn dough into a flavorful foundation for his varied pizzas.
When Russo expanded his New York Pizzeria into the revitalized downtown area in 1998, he turned to his trusted associate to help manage the new eatery. "It was just me and him," Russo explained.
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That outlet, at the edge of the Hyatt Regency complex on Polk Street, flourished. Mounis expanded New York's catering business by building up an impressive corporate client list that included Enron and Continental Airlines.
But the young man eventually turned on him, Russo said. He even tried to lure away customers while he was still working for him. The friction between the two escalated sharply after they parted ways last March.
Russo said he was shocked to discover a new competitor: Midtown Pizzeria, owned and operated by Jimmy Mounis. Russo testified that right there on Midtown's menu was the trademarked phrase about pizza being "prepared the old-fashioned way." The offerings, Russo explained, were virtually identical -- right down to New York's exclusive Party Pizza. And Mounis had to be using Russo's client list.
"He took all the information he needed to open a pizzeria," Russo says. "The whole shebang -- he stole it."
The veteran restaurateur seemingly had every right to indignation over the prodigal pizza maker. But this classic tale of ultimate betrayal has one big problem: Much of it melts away under closer scrutiny.
A longtime clerk at the courthouse didn't even need the case number to check the docket: "Oh, that one -- the Goliath-versus-David suit."
On February 7 the legal megabomb hit as Mounis began only his second week of work in his new two-table Midtown Pizzeria at 2204 Louisiana. Russo, a member of a prominent Galveston restaurant family, owner of four New York Pizzerias and the new Cafe Botticelli, was after much more in his suit than a mere change to Mounis's menu.
He sued his former worker for alleged misrepresentations, trademark infringement, stolen New York records and more. Russo was demanding that Mounis open the books of Midtown so they could be searched for evidence of theft of customers -- or that the court appoint an auditor to investigate those documents.
Mounis, Russo said in his suit, should be barred from even approaching anyone who had been a customer of New York Pizzeria in the last year. He demanded that Mounis be ordered to close his business and get off Russo's turf -- the general downtown area.
And damages? A mere $3 million will do, Russo's suit said. In cafe currency, that's valued at about 150,000 of Midtown's "The Works" pizzas.
New York Pizzeria's chief executive has been in the courts as well as the kitchen before. In 1996 Houston restaurant czar Tony Vallone went to a judge to stop him from using the Anthony's name for his Montrose restaurant. That lawsuit cited customer confusion and led to the now-defunct restaurant's rechristening as Russo's Cafe Anthony.
In the current suit targeting a smaller fish in Houston's food chain, Russo even objected to Mounis using the word "pizzeria" for his new business. But the crust on Russo's allegations began crumbling soon after he took the witness stand in the court of state District Judge Jane Bland.
As Mounis's attorney Ronald M. Cohen argued, it was outlandish for Russo to argue he had exclusive claims on such standard food fare. "Pizza," Cohen told Bland, "is pizza."
Russo took pride in telling about how he trained his former employee in the restaurant business. In fact, Mounis -- a native of Casablanca, Morocco -- had been working for restaurants long before Russo hired him. Those included eateries in New York. When he signed on with Russo, he already was working for The French Corner Catering.
The lawsuit filed by Russo accuses Mounis, while still working at New York, of misrepresenting that Midtown Pizzeria was affiliated with Russo's eatery. In reality, eight months passed before Mounis even started Midtown Pizzeria. When he left New York Pizzeria, he managed two Papa John's outlets before embarking with his brothers on the new venture.
(Russo attorney Steven Engelhardt explained that the urgency of his client's suit led to some allegations that would be dropped -- not unusual in suits seeking restraining orders.)
As for competition in the downtown area, Russo said there really wasn't any except Midtown and, possibly, Frank's Pizza. Downtown residents know from the multitude of pizza-war flyers that the number of outlets vying for business is approaching double digits.
Russo says he believes Mounis signed a one-year noncompete agreement; that accusation wasn't even contained in the lawsuit, and no such document has been uncovered. Likewise, there was only an application by Russo for a trademark on the claim of pizza made the "old-fashioned way." Besides, Cohen notes, such protections are only for slogans used with a business name -- the law itself doesn't forbid others from using the words themselves in text.
Russo says New York Pizzeria still gets faxed orders marked for the attention of Mounis, confusion that he attributes to his competitor's sales efforts.
Other Russo claims created a battle of the menus in Bland's court. Russo boasted that he had the only eatery in Houston that featured his "signature" party pizzas and various ingredients -- basil, fresh garlic, artichoke hearts and so on.
Attorney Cohen showed the obvious credibility problems with that:
He asked Russo, Do you own Little Napoli's on Westheimer?
Then, Cohen instructed him, read from its menu -- the one that lists artichoke hearts as a topping.
Cohen had more menus at the ready -- Mom's Pizza, Pizza Roma and others. Russo, often reluctantly, had to concede that he hardly had a corner on the specialty pizza market.
By the time the cross-examination concluded, Bland advised the attorneys that nobody was going to have to buy padlocks yet for Midtown Pizzeria.
"I doubt I'd shut down this entire business," she said.
The judge did order Mounis not to directly solicit clients who were specifically listed on a New York client list supplied by Russo. The rest of Russo's requested injunctions were denied. However, his lawsuit will continue.
So will the heat between the former associates.
"We had a good friendship. That's what I thought, anyway," says Mounis. "I used to work for his place when I was sick, like this" (hangs his head and coughs) "from 8:30 to 10:30, nonstop. I care about it like it was mine."
Mounis says the rift started when Russo cut his commissions -- Russo says he reduced them because Mounis flirted with female customers rather than focusing on his work.
"I know this guy is gonna say a lot of crazy things," Mounis says. "This is the first time I hear this story. It's stupid. Every time he's gonna create a crazy story because he saw the first one is not working."
Mounis says much of New York's success is attributable to his ideas and efforts when he worked there.
"He has no ideas to give me. I've been in the business 20 years," Russo scoffs. "He was a delivery driver. I trained him from A to Z."
Mounis says he's proud of his new business and doesn't want it linked to anybody else's, especially Russo's.
"I think in America, honest people can survive," he says. "I'm sure I'm gonna stay in business."
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