Buenas Noches

On December 14, a notice was taped to the inside of the glass door at Cafe Noche [2409 Montrose Boulevard, (713)529-2409], stating that the popular Tex-Mex outlet was closed and giving the home and cellular-telephone numbers of Alan Mallett, the executive chef and owner of the nine-year-old operation. A call to the telephone numbers reached Mallett and his wife, Sally, who answered questions and forwarded a press release written the evening of Monday, November 27.

The press release was upbeat and vague, a common attribute of press releases, stating that "After ten years of association with Cafe Noche, it is time for Chef Alan and Sally Mallett to move on to bigger and better things. We are excited about a new beginning, and our only regret is leaving our family of friends, employees, vendors and customers." It got more maudlin from there. It was signed "The Mallett Family."

What led to the closing of the Montrose institution -- one that was, for years, the scene of a weekly roundtable for jackals of the yellow press and their informed sources, among many other events formal and informal -- is still a matter of dispute. At least for the parties involved. Following a three-day trial in County Judge Tony Lindsay's 280th District Court, the court ruled against the Malletts and in favor of plaintiff Harry Bishop, who was given all of the restaurant's equipment, fixtures and furniture. What's more, the court ruled Bishop was owed more than $331,600, plus attorney's fees and court costs.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Originally the property and the restaurant had belonged to longtime Houston restaurateur Bill Sadler, who opened Cafe Noche after selling his River Cafe [3615 Montrose Boulevard, (713)529-0088] in the late 1980s. Mallett, the chef at The River Cafe, says that he moved to the new Tex-Mex operation when it opened in 1991. On November 20, 1996, all parties agree that Sadler sold the Cafe Noche name and restaurant business to Mallett, retaining ownership of the property. After running a new operation, the now defunct Moose Café [reborn as Blue Agave, 1340 West Gray, (713)520-9696], for a few years, Sadler retired to a home in Port Aransas, where he claims to spend most of his time angling for redfish and speckled trout in the shallows along the Gulf Coast.

What happened in the next four years is less clear.

Bishop, reached at the Greenway Plaza office of his Bishop Petroleum, recalls that "In the beginning, Alan and Bill had made a deal with the SBA [Small Business Administration], but Alan's credit wasn't found to be strong enough by the bank. He needed a guarantor, and I stepped up to be guarantor….I would only have to guarantee it for one year. He had to have sales for six months running that amounted to one and a half times the expenses, and I would be off the loan. But he never did that, so I stayed on the loan….I made a personal loan to him in 1997, and that has never been repaid, either."

Mallett refers to the proceedings that separated him from Cafe Noche as "a legal battle," explaining that a "25 percent shareholder took over from a 75 percent shareholder," and adding that the entire affair "is a Montrose Boulevard soap opera."

Bishop goes on to opine that "Alan and Sally did not conduct their business quite right, and the bank accelerated the repayment demand -- payment of the entire sum at one time." In short, Bishop explains he was forced by the bank to try and recoup the loan.

The guarantor says he was not the only one to face financial problems because of the restaurant's demise. The Malletts "did not pay their employees their last two weeks' pay," he claims. On December 13, they called the employees together and told them that Harry Bishop would be there on the [15th], and they would get their paychecks on Friday." But, Bishop observes, "I don't have the authority to write a check for that bank. I certainly can't sign a check."

The employees are not the only unsecured creditors.

"When, on the 14th, Bill Sadler and I went into the restaurant," Bishop counts off, "a lady came to the back door and claimed she was holding $6,000 in bounced paychecks from Cafe Noche that employees had cashed at her convenience store up the street….A man who sold them ice cream came by my office and said that they had paid with a check that bounced."

Indeed, Le Chau, who operates the Sunny's Food Store at 1302 Montrose Boulevard, confirms Bishop's story. "My son has $5,000 to $6,000 worth of returned checks," Chau says. "The manager of the restaurant came in after they closed and cashed a check for $900! After they closed!"

Alan Mallett says of the Sunny Food Store situation, "I don't know anything about that."

The former owner goes on to explain that when he was forced to give up the restaurant, the debts became Bishop's as well. "The ice cream company is not so much interested in the ice cream as they are in getting back their freezer, which they supply to customers," Mallett says. "The payday fell right between the time when the checks were cut and the accounts were turned over to Harry Bishop. If he's in control of the checkbook, how can I write paychecks?" He then adds that "the Department of Labor is investigating this and is preparing a lawsuit against Harry Bishop to pay the employees."

Mallett declares that "Except for the loss of income, it's been a relief. I got to spend Christmas with my family for the first time in 14 years….My immediate plans are to get a chef's job and, in the future with no partners or better partners, try something on a smaller scale."

And what about Cafe Noche? At this point, the future is very much in doubt. But even if it were to reopen, Bishop says, it "needs a liquor license, which takes six to eight weeks" -- Mallett admits to taking the license with him when he left on the 13th -- "it needs some redecorating, repainting. Some chairs and tables are broken and need to be replaced. We have that in mind, but it won't be right away."

But the biggest stumbling block to reopening Cafe Noche may be the man who now owns it: Harry Bishop. As an oilman, he says, "My intent was never to run a restaurant; it was to clean up the mess that was left, financially and physically." Sadler, who still owns the property, seems to be interested in staying a sport fisherman, according to more than one source.

"It will be open again," Bishop guardedly declares, "hopefully."

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George Alexander