Controversy Erupts Over Reopening of Bengoni's, Beloved Institution in Overland [UPDATE]
|Gary Eisen's "open letter to the public" which he wanted to publish in the local paper.|
Eisen says he and his wife, Nancy, purchased Bengoni's from Smith's uncle and grew the business from a 40-seat restaurant to 96 seats. He says when times were good he made a six-figure salary, paid his manager $50,000, and was able to offer his employees health care and paid vacations.
"We built a legacy in north county," he says.
Then, after September 11, 2001, Eisen says, business began to dry up. He and his wife cashed in their 401Ks to try to keep afloat, to no avail. They lost their home, their car, then the restaurant and finally, declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2007. He says the painful way that Bengoni's closed makes it more difficult to see someone outside of his family take the name.
"If money was not the issue, [my kids] would own Bengoni's," says Eisen. "In a sense, I'm thankful, I'm glad Nancy passed before all of this hullabaloo."
Eisen agrees that because of the way he walked away from the business, he has no legal right to the name or the signs. But he says it's more the principle of the thing that bothers him. He says he's stayed up late into the night reading threads on the Overland Facebook page about the controversy.
"I thought it was disrespectful for him to take this on without even calling me," he says. "I have no legal [right] to the name, but I think the way he's done it is a little tacky. I think he's shooting himself in the foot with Overland. It's small-town politics in Overland."
As for Smith, he's not quite sure how he will proceed. He says some of the confusion comes from the fact that he's not a blood relative of his uncle -- Smith's step-father is the uncle's brother. And when he started telling people he would use the "original" Bengoni's recipes, he meant the ones the uncle used in the '70s, not the ones the Eisen family used -- specifically for their famous house salad dressing and pizza sauce. But now even his uncle is balking, given the amount of drama the name has caused. Smith says he's had people come up to him while he's working on the new restaurant and yell at him.
"I've got both sides of the business ready to go, and I just don't know what's right to do. I've talked to a lawyer, I've registered the name with secretary of state of Missouri. It's mine at this point," he says. "Do I pull the trigger and use the name? Legally I can, but morally, what's right?"
He's got a second name in mind -- Basilio's -- but is upset to have lost the money moving the Bengoni's signs.
"Six-thousand people in Overland want to see the Bengoni's back, and all I'm doing is bringing back the salad dressing and pizza sauce," he says. "Everybody was excited and wanted to know more. My phone was ringing off the hook."
Smith says his new restaurant will be open this Friday. What it will be called remains to be seen. You can follow its progress on this Facebook page, currently called Bengonis.
Situation resolved! Click through for Smith's final decision.