By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
Old Town residents craving sushi were left perplexed this week to be greeted with a sign on the front of the Flying Fish restaurant, a staple at 815 King St. since it opened in 2005, that said it was closing on Sunday, April 19 for “repairs and renovations.”
Even more confusing was the news Monday that every piece of restaurant equipment, furniture and decor was up for sale on an online auction, including the 55-inch flat screen televisions, the sushi display cases and the waste bins. Alexandria-based Rasmus Auctions are leading the sale, with noon to 4 p.m. Friday advertised as a time for the public to inspect the merchandise on offer and an April 27 deadline for bids.
But the apparent closure was something that former employee and manager Jimmy Madden said he saw coming, and was part of the reason he left the Flying Fish for a position at Two NineTeen on King Street a few months ago.
“A couple of weeks ago, because my wife works for PetSmart — she’s really big into animals and stuff like that — she was helping him keep the fish tanks he has there clean,” Madden said. “She was giving him new ideas for the fish. I ran into him in the grocery store and he was like, ‘Listen, can your wife find a home for these fish? I can’t take them with me.’
“I’m like, ‘Where are you going?’ And he wouldn’t answer, so I told the entire staff. I was like, ‘Listen, he’s trying to get rid of his pets, I don’t know a more obvious sign than that that someone’s leaving.’ They were like, ‘He said in September, it’s remodeling.’ All of a sudden it’s happened.”
Staff reported being told of the abrupt closure on Saturday evening — the restaurant was usually open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturdays — during their shifts. But it was not owner Larry Vallieres who told them at the time, but rather the kitchen manager, who informed them that the kitchen was being packed up and that the restaurant would be closed.
“We heard rumors through the kitchen staff,” said former employee and manager Alex Anastasia. “Once those rumors started to fly, they started flying around the entire restaurant and then pretty much the entire staff knew halfway through the shift on Saturday.”
They had started to notice things amiss as early as Friday, when the restaurant began to run out of basic supplies like food, alcohol and liquor. It quickly became apparent that orders to suppliers had not been placed.
“Pretty much as the shift progressed, we as the long-standing staff there pretty much started putting the pieces together,” said Alexis Von Schoening, a full-time employee and manager who had worked at the Flying Fish for a total of five years between two stints. “We had not gotten a beer order in, we had not gotten a liquor order in, the kitchen started running out of food, which means the kitchen didn’t order any food.
“About a couple of hours into the shift, we were like, ‘That’s it, the writing is on the wall.’ We started suspecting things on Friday when we came in and stuff was already in short supply.”
At the end of the night, Von Schoening said that Vallieres called his staff together and apologized for the restaurant needing to close. Von Schoening recalled that he reportedly was trying to find investors to help finance the business, but they had not come through in time.
Both employees noted the issues that Vallieres had with the lease of his property, owned by Rob Kaufman of commercial real estate company PMA Properties. His lease originally had been scheduled to expire in February, but he negotiated an extension.
The two parties ran into difficulties when it came to negotiating rent, with Kaufman apparently wanting a higher monthly rate from Vallieres than the approximately $16,000 per month he was paying.
“Basically [Vallieres’] lease ran up and the owner of the building was asking for an extra $10,000,” Madden said. “He wanted $26,000 a month and my boss couldn’t wrap his head around it. I told him to just open for lunch and that’ll cover your bill, you make more than enough money here. He couldn’t wrap his head around it, so he decided to close the building.”
“I did have some meetings with him in his office, where he’s trying to show us the lease and he made the landlord come into the building at one point and tell us that we were not closing,” Von Schoening said. “From what we put together and what Larry himself said was that it was a leasing disagreement. Rob wanted more rent, and that was the spur of all the rumors.”
Those rumors swelled for months, and the uncertainty was the catalyst for Madden to resign and move to Two NineTeen. All three former employees noted that it created a tense atmosphere, with staff feeling insecure in their futures.
“I tried warning everybody about the place closing down, and people were halfway-listening,” Madden said. “They didn’t discredit me completely but they just weren’t sure so it caused a lot of panic amongst staff.
“I didn’t really know what was going on, what was happening, and in the end when it finally happened they all were destroyed. Every single one of them. The way they found out was halfway through the shift, the kitchen manager finally broke and told them it was their last day and they’re packing up the kitchen so be ready with everything.”
“The owner tried to tell us that oh no, he wasn’t shutting down, it was staying open, it was staying open later and renovations were going to happen later in the year,” Anastasia said. “Essentially, he pretty much lied to everybody.”
Vallieres is rumored to have done something similar with a restaurant he owned 10 years ago called King Pepper, located at 808 King St. where the Flat Iron Steak & Saloon now sits. Madden and Von Schoening both said they had heard allegations that, much as with the Flying Fish this year, Vallieres locked the doors, said renovations were underway and sold all the assets.
Thankfully for the eight front-of-house staff of the Flying Fish, a resolution has been found already. After some work behind the scenes by Madden, the employees all have been offered positions at Two NineTeen following a successful joint interview.
“I got the play-by-play all the way down the street,” Madden said. “That night [Saturday], I talked to my current owner Patty and told her, ‘Listen, you have a group of rockstars down the street who have just lost their home. It’s one of the strongest staffs I’ve ever worked with. I would hire every single one of them right now.’”
Neither Vallieres nor Kaufman responded to calls for comment for this article.