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Donald Trump, José Andrés and the death of a grand Washington restaurant

Protesters demonstrate against Donald Trump outside his planned $200 million hotel in the Old Post Office Pavilion last summer. José Andrés ditched plans for a restaurant there the day before. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

He called it Topo Atrio, his vision for a sumptuous hotel restaurant befitting a $200 million makeover of the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

José Andrés designed a 212-seat, 9,000-square-foot dining room clad in travertine limestone and trimmed in gold. Costing nearly $7 million to build, it would feature hand-carved cured ham from the black-footed Iberico pigs of his native Spain and squid ink pasta with head-on red shrimp, cuttlefish and aioli.

But as Andrés prepared to present his final plans, the man whose name would be on the new hotel, Donald Trump, had some business of his own.

The billionaire developer took the stage at Trump Tower in New York to announce his candidacy for president and, in the process, railed against Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists.

Just over a week later, the chief executive at Andrés’s restaurant company picked up her iPhone and fired a quick message to Trump’s daughter Ivanka with the subject: We need to talk.

“Getting crushed over DJT comments about Latinos and Mexicans. Need your help,” she wrote last summer.

So began the end of what seemed a promising pairing of celebrity developer and internationally renowned chef, each hoping to trade on the other’s fame. Instead the two are suing each other, filling a court file with affidavits and correspondence chronicling what has become a stubborn standoff between two powerful personalities.

Trump has taken a particular interest in the Old Post Office project, citing it on the campaign trail as a symbol of his business acumen and bragging it will be open when the nation is ready to inaugurate its next president. In the fallout over the restaurant deal, he wasted little time in personally seizing the more than $250,000 Andrés’s company had set aside as collateral at the start of the project.

The outspoken Trump has said little about the court fight, and he and company officials declined to comment for this story. Andrés and his team, too, declined comment on the ongoing legal matter, but the native of Spain who became a U.S. citizen in 2013 has not kept quiet about his opposition to candidate Trump.

“Dear @MSNBC and @FOXTV why do you give so much live tv to somebody who is a racist,a divider? Somebody who doesn’t love USA,but himself?,” Andrés tweeted in March.

Still, court records show difficulties Andrés may face in court. The contract with Trump includes no morality clause that the chef could invoke to say he was harmed. And the agreement specifically excludes a trial by jury, saying that any dispute that lands in court must be decided by a judge.

For now, Andrés’s attorneys are building a case around the damage that they say Trump’s comments had on the restaurant’s prospects, and the company has been busy surveying potential investors, patrons and employees of the restaurant to gauge the effect of Trump’s attacks on immigrants — and, in particular, Hispanics.

Both sides appear to be digging in. As Trump said during a March news conference: “I don’t settle lawsuits — very rare — because once you settle lawsuits, everybody sues you.”

D.C.’s ‘most exciting location’

When Andrés began serving Spanish-themed small plates on Seventh Street in 1993, there was no basketball arena downtown, Metro’s Green Line was only two years old and the neighborhood’s current moniker, Penn Quarter, had not been coined. The city’s restaurant boom was two decades off.

Andrés built his empire with business partner Rob Wilder one restaurant at a time, adding Zaytinya, Oyamel, Beefsteak and others in the District, plus outposts in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and Puerto Rico. Success in the kitchen advanced him as a television star, philanthropist and celebrity, one whom Time Magazine named one of the world’s most influential people in 2012.

Andrés became one of the few international food stars distinct to Washington, his adopted home town, where he has a bar, food truck and seven area restaurants and has been lauded by officials for his investments and belief in the city.

The chef’s stature in the District was attractive to the developer, whose sons and daughter handle day-to-day operations. Although they have hotels in five American cities and three foreign countries, the Trumps pride themselves on building getaways for their high-rolling guests that feel of and about the places they are in, even if they are all encased in the same shimmer and shine.

To that end, the Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C. is to feature large “presidential” suites, public access to the historic clock tower on the roof and a curated museum dedicated to the 19th century building and the Bells of Congress that hang above. Ivanka, who oversaw its development and who lived in Washington briefly while attending Georgetown University, has repeatedly talked about respecting the building’s historic place in the city even as she designed the spa and bathrooms trimmed in gold.

“Anyone who is concerned about how we may alter or affect the historic character of the building can be assuaged by looking at our plans,” she said in 2012, seeking to reassure preservationists. “This isn’t, I think, a very polarizing concept.”

In search of a D.C. chef to match, the Trumps refrained from using their New York connections and hired a restaurant adviser, Bethesda, Md.-based Streetsense, that they met through D.C. developer Douglas Jemal.

Andrés was not the only big name in Washington they approached. Early on, the Trumps, according to executives familiar with the search, contacted Patrick O’Connell of the famed Inn at Little Washington in Rappahannock County, Va., about opening a D.C. flagship restaurant.

Ultimately, Trump and his family settled on Andrés, agreeing to hand him the hotel’s marquee space, one to be built on a raised platform next to the hotel lobby. Court documents describe their agreement: The 224-page lease — technically a sublease because the Trumps lease the building from the government — gave Andrés the 9,018-square-foot space for 10 years. Andrés agreed to pay $28,750 a month for the first five years, $31,625 a month for the next five, and would receive a cut of the profit.

The Trumps would also pay for the chef’s likeness and promotional abilities, even in situations when he had little or no responsibility for cooking or preparing food.

The main “Cortile Bar” would serve drinks and bar food featuring Andrés’s “culinary expertise,” although he would not operate it. In return, Andrés would get a 5 percent cut of food sales and a 4 percent cut of drink receipts. He also would get 5 percent of sales from a “José Andrés Banquet Menu.”

Andrés agreed not to open another hotel restaurant downtown. The chef outlined his concept for Topo Atrio in the contract with no shortage of romance:

“Into the heart of Washington DC at the city’s newest, most luxurious and iconic hotel comes José Andrés’ own iconic, flagship restaurant — a modern, fine dining approach to the Spanish cuisine for which he’s internationally known.”

For Andrés, the restaurant would be one of his biggest, and most expensive. He and Trump seemed happy with the deal. Trump issued a news release in December 2014: “We’ve tapped one of the very best in the field . . . to create a restaurant concept that will live up to the unrivaled offerings of what will be one of the finest hotels anywhere in the world.” The chef tweeted a picture of himself enjoying a round of golf at Trump National Doral in Miami.

Then, six months after the agreement, Trump began his run for president on June 16, launching a rhetorical war against immigrants with these comments: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

An agreement sours

Nine days passed before Kimberly Grant, chief executive of Andrés’ company, ThinkFoodGroup, emailed Ivanka Trump for help, according to an exchange filed as part of the legal case. Her message did not appear to surprise Donald Trump Jr., who wrote back after being forwarded the message: “Yes I was waiting for that one.”

The Trump executive assigned to developing the hotel, David Orowitz, voiced his frustration in an email contained in the public court file. At the time, the Trumps were hoping to open a year later, in June 2016.

“Ugh. This is not surprising and would expect that this will not be the last we hear of it. At least for formal, prepared speeches, can someone vet going forward? Hopefully the Latino community does not organize against us more broadly in DC / across Trump properties.”

In typical hotel restaurant deals, the owner builds the restaurant and hires a chef to manage it. In this case the Trumps — who had agreed to spend $200 million on the project, far more than other bidders — negotiated a deal in which Andrés would pay to design and build his own restaurant.

They wanted the chef to have skin in the game, and he agreed.

Andrés, who had enlisted New York architect David Rockwell, has estimated building his share of the restaurant would cost $5.4 million, which would require taking out a $3.6 million commercial loan. By June of last year, ThinkFoodGroup estimated that it had spent more than $350,000 on designs and plans, court records show.

Marketing and design executives on both sides worked to advance the plans. After seeing the latest design, Trump’s interior designer, Giavona Pirolo emailed that Ivanka “really loved” the new presentation and offered some advice for presenting to Trump, or “DJT.”

ThinkFoodGroup’s chief marketing officer, Michael Doneff, wrote back that Andrés approved of tweaks from the Trump side, as long as “we preserve the travertine and temper the shine.”

Before Trump announced his candidacy, a major design meeting had been scheduled for June 30, in which Andrés and Rockwell would present their latest vision in a large conference room on the 25th floor of Trump Tower in New York to Donald Trump, Ivanka, Don Jr. and other executives.

Then came Donald Trump’s campaign remarks, and top executives on both sides sought to manage the fallout with their bosses.

According to emails, Ivanka connected her father and the chef days before the planned meeting. Grant wrote her in appreciation:

Indeed, the afternoon before the meeting, the chef tweeted a lukewarm defense of the deal, writing that “as everybody knows don’t agree or support in any way or form with his comments. @thinkfoodgroup is just leasing a space in his hotel.”

But the star chef never appeared the next day and the meeting was canceled. The chef wrote Ivanka and Don Jr. the next morning:

Five days later, on July 6, Trump continued his broadside on immigration with another statement: “What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”

An online petition from D.C. resident Erick Sanchez urging Andrés to pull out received 2,769 signatures in six days. While the names were still coming, Andrés sent The Washington Post a statement saying that the restaurant could no longer open and condemning Trump’s position on immigration: “I believe that every human being deserves respect, regardless of immigration status.”

ThinkFoodGroup wrote to the Trump Organization, saying that “Jose Andres’ success is built on an open-hearted call to the world to say ‘Welcome! Comemos! Enjoy!’ And we now have a landlord whose message is ‘Go home, criminals, and take your infectious diseases with you.’ ”

In August of last year, Trump sued Andrés for $10 million.

Calculating losses

After Andrés countersued for $8 million, the two sides began fighting in court.

Trump’s attorneys have tried to play down the presidential candidate’s role in the restaurant negotiations, saying that Don Jr., Ivanka and their brother Eric are responsible for the day-to-day management and operation of the Old Post Office project.

On the campaign trail, Trump has offered a different impression.

“I built an amazing company,” he said in March after Mitt Romney called his career into question. “And one of the reasons you know it’s amazing: The hottest development site, probably in the history of the General Services Administration . . . is the Old Post Office site . . . in Washington D.C., an entire block fronting on Pennsylvania Avenue. In other words, if I don’t get to the White House, I’m getting there anyway.”

It was also Trump himself who signed the lease with ThinkFoodGroup. And it is his signature on the document withdrawing $258,171 ThinkFoodGroup had put up as collateral after the chef backed out, according to court filings.

Trump may also have to appear personally to respond to the fuss over his comments, as the judge in a parallel case, between the developer and chef Geoffrey Zakarian — who backed out of a lease for a second restaurant in the hotel — ordered Trump to make himself available in Washington to be deposed in that case. Attorneys have not taken depositions and the details probably will fall under court orders allowing some testimony to be kept secret.

Andrés and his attorneys have constructed a lengthy argument that after the candidate’s comments, potential investors, employees and patrons of Topo Atrio — particularly Hispanic ones — would have steered clear of the restaurant, dooming it.

Restaurant investor Todd Klein, who has backed 10 ThinkFoodGroup restaurants, submitted an affidavit saying that the comments “had the effect of eroding the establishment’s projected client base, which, in turn, increased the risk that the establishment would be unable to pay its debt.”

Other potential investors and ThinkFoodGroup’s banker, Robert P. Pincus of EagleBank, applauded the move. “Congratulations, Trump left TFG and Jose NO choice,” Pincus wrote in an email to the company.

ThinkFoodGroup also tried to ascertain how many of its employees and patrons were Hispanic. After surveying 1,215 employees at a dozen of its restaurants, it found that 51 percent were Hispanic. As of last summer, the company estimates that Hispanic patrons made 11 percent of online reservations at its restaurants, as well as 15 percent of online reservations at local Jaleo locations.

ThinkFoodGroup has estimated that it would receive a profit of $1.1 million over the first six years of operation. Removing 12 percent for its estimated Hispanic business, it calculated that Topo Atrio would instead lose a similar amount.

“Trump should have known that his statements on immigration would have an adverse impact on the development of a Spanish fine-dining restaurant in a Trump-affiliated building,” Andrés’s attorneys say in court documents. Worse, they suggested that “fine dining patrons eschew controversial sites,” which could have turned off diners of any ethnicity to his restaurants.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) came to the chef’s defense, telling Ivanka that she did not want to see one of her local businesses bullied. “One of our business owners could be harmed in some dealings with the Trumps, which troubles me a lot,” Bowser said in an interview. “So we really would like them to resolve that.”

Trump’s attorneys argue the estimates are misleading and add that the candidate’s comments have no bearing on the lease.

In documents that remain under seal, the Trumps also allege, according to two people familiar with the case, that Andrés may have had reservations before he pulled out. “They were frustrated with the design and construction process and behind generally on getting the documents done,” said one official familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing. Andrés’s attorneys deny the allegations in court filings.

The evidence produced by ThinkFoodGroup “is as irrelevant as evidence of how many delegates or votes Mr. Trump has received in the Republican primaries,” Trump’s attorney told the court. Trump’s position on immigration, his attorney argued, wasn’t new and his “willingness to frankly share his opinions” was widely known.

Though both sides are jockeying for legal advantage now, most such disagreements end in a settlement.

Last fall the Trumps announced that BLT Prime, owned by New York’s ESquared Hospitality, would take over the restaurant space. Chef Oliver Beckert would oversee room service, catering and banquet services.

Though he has avoided commenting on the ongoing legal wrangling, Andrés did take to Twitter days before the Republican primary in Maryland, tweeting a link to an anti-Trump editorial and adding a message: “PEOPLE OF Maryland! remember! When You vote remember who only cares about himself?”

Trump won the state’s primary with 54 percent of the vote.

Staff writers Keith L. Alexander and Tim Carman contributed to this report.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz