A bitter feast for the House of Sarkis

He built a restaurant group out of talent and toughness, but now Charlie Sarkis has to sell - sundering his cherished empire, and, with it, his family.

Charlie Sarkis Charlie Sarkis’s pugnacious management style helped him create one of Boston’s largest and most prominent restaurant groups. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff/ File 2003)
By Jenn Abelson and Walter V. Robinson
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Charlie Sarkis, as is his habit, is in the middle of a fight.

On the March voice mail, the raspy voice is unmistakably that of the legendary impresario behind such dining destinations as Abe & Louie’s steakhouse and Joe’s American Bar & Grill. Sarkis can be heard beseeching a politically-connected friend to remove “a pain in the ass’’ from a Back Bay architectural board, someone he considers a nuisance to his restaurant empire.

Then there is the threatening memo from a lawyer for Sarkis warning one of his company’s top executives to sign a noncompete agreement or face dismissal. And finally, there’s the terse e-mail sent to Sarkis’s events manager, putting her on indefinite leave without pay.

In each case, the target of Sarkis’s ire is one of his own children. All three had refused to comply with one of the conditions set by the private equity firm that is buying most of Sarkis’s dining company - that they agree not to work in the restaurant business for three years after the sale. The deal comes after Sarkis, who also owns the financially troubled Wonderland Greyhound Park, decided against passing along his Back Bay Restaurant Group - or even selling it - to his children.

His children balked at the noncompete provision because it meant giving up their chosen careers without compensation for the loss.

So the 71-year-old patriarch has moved against them. And now at least two of Sarkis’s six children are planning to open their own rival restaurants in Boston.

It is a painful and distasteful career conclusion for Sarkis, whose pugnacious management style helped him create one of Boston’s largest and most prominent restaurant groups - 33 in all, including 15 Joe’s American Bar & Grill locations; 12 Papa Razzi restaurants and his flagship enterprise, Abe & Louie’s.

His eldest son, Charles Sarkis Jr., 44, was effectively running the company as operations manager when he walked away in February after his job was threatened, according to documents, e-mails, and voicemails that were made available to the Globe by those who received them. His 38-year-old daughter, Amy Sarkis, the chain’s events manager, was suspended without pay on Feb. 8 after she refused to give up her restaurant career as a condition of the sale.

Patrick Sarkis, 42, remains a recruiting director for the 3,400-employee business, even after his father placed the call - captured on voicemail - that sought political help in getting him ousted from the Back Bay Architectural Commission. The elder Sarkis also called Meg Mainzer-Cohen, executive director of the Back Bay Association, to ask her help in getting his son removed. Mainzer-Cohen told the Globe she did receive the request from Sarkis but did not comply.

In a recording of the March voicemail obtained by the Globe, Sarkis, who identifies himself with his name and phone number, says, “It’s my son Patrick. He’s turned into a real problem for me. If you would, I’d appreciate it tremendously. I don’t know how you’d do it. If you can just, ah, erase the job somehow or something. I don’t know. He’s a pain in the ass. He’ll be a pain in the ass. So, thank you, Harry.’’

Sarkis mistakenly left the voicemail on someone else’s phone, and that person made it available to the Globe. Harry, according to present and former officials of Sarkis’s company, is an apparent reference to Harry Collings, a longtime friend of Sarkis who, until his retirement in 2008, was a top official at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Collings remains a confidant of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and serves as his campaign treasurer. But Collings said in an interview last week that he was unaware of the family dispute and Sarkis never talked to him about it, much less sought his intervention.

“I’m just baffled that there would be that message,’’ Collings said of the misdirected voicemail. “I just wish I had that kind of power.’’

Sarkis is eager to complete the restaurant sale in part because of pressing debt related to his Wonderland track, according to a memo from Sarkis’s lawyer, a copy of which was provided to the Globe by a recipient.

In the meantime, the roughly $50 million deal to sell off the bulk of the Back Bay Restaurant Group - 19 of the 33 restaurants - to a private equity firm, Tavistock Group, has still not closed. It’s been delayed for several reasons, including Sarkis’s inability to get three of his children to sign sweeping noncompete agreements that were part of the purchase and sales agreement, according to the documents.

Amy Sarkis said she believes her suspension, documented in an e-mail exchange with one of her father’s senior managers, was related to her refusal to sign the agreement. She and her siblings were not offered any kind of compensation in return for signing the noncompete forms, she said. After the falling out with her father, she moved to Hawaii.

“I had worked for nearly eight years for my dad, made him millions of dollars in private events and always and only had his best interest at heart,’’ Amy Sarkis wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “All I expected in return was the same and I am heart broken that I didn’t get that from him. So disheartening.’’

Charlie Sarkis and his second wife, Jolene, agreed to an interview with the Globe but later canceled the meeting. Jolene Sarkis, a former publisher of Fortune magazine, asked for a detailed list of questions by e-mail and then said she would not answer them, citing what she said were restrictions in the sales agreement with Tavistock.

During a brief phone conversation, Jolene Sarkis said her husband “doesn’t want to be party to a hurtful story about his children. It’s difficult enough to be selling the company and be sick and have all the family emotions. He doesn’t want to get in a situation where more hurtful things are put in print.’’

Charlie Sarkis, who was first diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1995 and had a recurrence last year, wrote in an e-mailed statement: “I am selling my business due to my age, my serious health issues, and my business and personal financial situation. I have made every effort to involve my children in the family business, and I will continue to safeguard their long-term well being.’’

He added: “I care very much about the business I built, and even more about my children, and I will continue - privately - to do the best I can for both.’’

Jolene Sarkis is pressing very hard for the sale. But her husband, who opened his first restaurant in 1964, is feeling some reluctance, according to a close family friend who spoke about the feud on the condition that he not be identified.

“It’s his whole life,’’ the family friend said of Charlie’s work. “He’s a star. People snap to attention.’’

The handling of the restaurant sale has reopened family wounds for the second time in two decades. Sarkis’s contentious divorce from his first wife, and the mother of his children, Nancy Hennessey, created deep rifts. His second wife, Jolene, does not have a close relationship with the children.

Michael Wood, an executive vice president with Tavistock, said he expects the deal with Back Bay Restaurant Group to close in the next month. The sale process has taken much longer than expected, according to Wood, because of delays with landlord approvals for leases, and the extensive Massachusetts liquor license approval process.

Wood declined to provide details on the purchase price. He explained, in an e-mail, that noncompete agreements are a standard part of acquiring any business.

“We are aware that some of the children are or have been involved in the restaurant business,’’ Wood wrote. “We are not aware of any plans for the children to open other restaurants.’’

Paul Sarkis, 43, who worked as executive vice president at his father’s company from 1990 to 2002, said he and his brother, Charles, offered $70 million to buy the entire restaurant business about five years ago. Paul Sarkis, who works as an actor in Los Angeles, said in an interview that his father responded that it was not the right time for a sale.

After Tavistock made a bid for the company last fall, Paul said his father gave him and his brother Charles Jr. only days to beat the price. In January, Sarkis offered to sell his sons a piece of the business - the 12-unit Papa Razzi chain - for $15 million as long as the noncompete agreement was signed two days later. If Charles Jr. did not comply, he was told he would be fired.

In a copy of a Jan. 8 memo, obtained by the Globe, attorney Matthew T. Marcello of the Providence law firm, Hinckley Allen Snyder, wrote that the elder Sarkis and his wife are under “increased financial pressure’’ because of $10 million of Wonderland Greyhound Park debt that was coming due. The track, in Revere, shut down in the summer of 2010, after dog racing was outlawed in the state.

“We are now at a ‘fork in the road’ which necessitates the making of immediate and hard decisions,’’ Marcello wrote to Charles Jr.

He detailed the conditions and concluded: “If the issues . . . are not resolved by not later than 5:00 PM on Monday January 10, 2011, then regretfully, we will consider your employment terminated effective as of 5:00 PM on Friday January 15, 2011.’’

Charles Jr. declined Globe requests for an interview. He resigned in February - after a year in which his role expanded because of his father’s illness and the chain earned record revenues of about $150 million, according to two former officials of the company.

“It was clear to me that the process was not designed for us to succeed,’’ Paul Sarkis said. “It was a charade - so he could say he offered us a chance to buy. If my dad does not sell the company to us, of course we are going to start our own restaurants. Charles and I have been looking for years.’’

The longtime family friend said he’s saddened that the elder Sarkis and his children could not work out an amicable transfer of the business, in part, because Charles Jr. and Paul are more than capable of growing the Back Bay Restaurant Group.

“Paul is brilliant, and a far better manager of the company than his father,’’ the family friend said, adding: “[Charles Jr.] has it down to a science - the costs, the labor etc. Plus he has a great demeanor. He looks the part,’’ the friend said. “With the name Charles Sarkis, Tavistock has to be worried that he’s been discarded and might open up Charlie Sarkis’s Steakhouse up the street.’’

But the elder Sarkis does not believe his children are skilled enough to run the business, the friend said. “[He] doesn’t think they are serious enough,’’ he said.

In January and February, Jolene and Charlie made a series of calls to the children praising their work for the company but also pleading with them to sign the noncompete forms.

In a recording of one of these voicemails, Jolene said, “I’m sorry to bother you again. I was just on the phone with [our attorney] and he wanted me to log in one more call to make sure that I had carefully explained the situation with Tavistock. We’ve told them all that you’ve accomplished and delivered for us. And they are interested in keeping you on. But if they don’t get the signed form, they’re not interested in interviewing anybody who is not, sort of, willing to be on the team like that. And so [the attorney] wanted to make sure that I had explained that without that, you probably don’t have a job going forward if this deal closes.’’

By the end of March, Sarkis, still without any noncompete agreements in hand, was pursuing the only child who still worked for him, Patrick. That was when Sarkis left the voicemail, on March 22, to get his son off the Back Bay Architectural Commission. The family friend said Sarkis wanted to oust Patrick from the commission because of concerns that Patrick would cause problems for the chain after Tavistock took over.

Sarkis then made the same request of Mainzer-Cohen of the Back Bay Association. Patrick serves as the association’s representative on the Back Bay Architectural Commission.

According to Mainzer-Cohen, Sarkis told her he was upset over demands by the commission to remove neon signs from the stores, including at Joe’s American Bar & Grill on Newbury Street, and wanted Patrick off the board. Mainzer-Cohen said she explained to Sarkis that the neon sign issues were being pushed by a neighborhood group and Patrick had nothing to do with the efforts. Mainzer-Cohen declined further comment.

Patrick Sarkis would not discuss the matter. His brother, Paul, however, said the siblings share in the sadness and disappointment over their father’s behavior.

“I have a sense of grief and mourning; this is an eye-opening experience about how a father feels about his children. Each incident is horrifying by itself. But taken together, it’s inexplicable,’’ Paul Sarkis said. “But in the end these are his assets, and he has a right to do with them as he pleases.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at


Get Adobe Flash player