The D.C. Tadich Grill has struggled to shake the controversy surrounding the Buich family since it opened. (Dixie D. Vereen for The Washington Post)

When Michael Buich opened a Tadich Grill in Washington in October 2015 — the first spinoff of the famed San Francisco seafood house that can trace its origins to 1849 — his business partner in the project allegedly had no idea that Buich had a sister who lived in the D.C. area and that she had been estranged from the family for decades, according to a recently filed lawsuit.

Nor did the partner know, the complaint alleges, that the estrangement was racially motivated, a revelation that has cost the D.C. restaurant millions of dollars in business over the past two years.

These facts and allegations became clear to Icon Inc., a Seattle-based food service company and co-owner of the D.C. location of Tadich Grill, only after The Washington Post published a story on Oct. 25, 2015, less than three weeks after the restaurant debuted. In her piece, columnist Lonnae O’Neal (now a senior writer at ESPN) wrote that family patriarch Steve Buich disowned his daughter Terri Upshaw after she started a relationship with, and then married and had children with, former National Football League lineman Gene Upshaw. Terri Upshaw is white, and her late husband was African American (not to mention a Hall of Fame inductee and the former executive director of the NFL Players Association).

When Terri Upshaw told her father in the early 1980s that she was going to move to Washington with a black man, Steve Buich “told me that’s it — you’re out of the family. Change your last name, and don’t ever call us again,” Upshaw told O’Neal.

The controversy immediately and adversely affected the D.C. outlet of Tadich Grill, according to a lawsuit filed last month in San Francisco Superior Court. Customers (and even those who had never set foot in the restaurant) took to Yelp and other online platforms to register their disdain over a family estrangement allegedly rooted in racism. The restaurant never recovered from the negative press and the Internet protests, the complaint notes, alleging the D.C. Tadich Grill had “net losses in the millions in 2015 and 2016″ and “lost money every month since The Washington Post story broke,” despite generally positive reviews.

“What happened as a result of the press and social media, the restaurant never developed a solid local clientele, and that’s key to a restaurant,” said Gerard Centioli, president and chief executive of both Icon and the Tadich Grill of Washington DC LLC. “You need a solid base upon which you build that.”

Cioppino is a popular dish on the Tadich Grill menu. (Dixie D. Vereen for The Washington Post)

Icon’s charges are set forth in a breach-of-contract and concealment lawsuit first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. Aside from partnering with Michael Buich to co-own and operate the Tadich Grill in Washington, Icon also managed the original Tadich Grill in San Francisco from February 2009 to September 2017. Icon alleges that Buich terminated the San Francisco management agreement without cause or without presenting any problems that Icon could try to remedy. Icon also alleges that Buich and Tadich interfered with contracts that Icon had entered with third-party vendors to provide accounting and other services to the California restaurant. Icon is seeking about $2.5 million in damages.

Michael Buich, in a written statement provided by his public relations firm, denied the charges. “We strongly believe that Icon’s allegations are not only without merit, but are in retaliation — as well as an attempt to distract from its sub-par management of Tadich Grill of Washington, D.C.”

“Due to Icon’s poor practices in San Francisco, we had no choice but to terminate Icon as manager after attempting to resolve issues with them,” Buich added in the statement. “We terminated Icon to safeguard our business, our employees, their families and the values and traditions that Tadich Grill has — and will continue to provide — the citizens and visitors of the San Francisco Bay Area for generations to come.”

Buich was traveling and unavailable for comment, according to Sam Singer, president of Singer Associates, a San Francisco-based public relations and crisis management firm. Singer told The Post that he couldn’t go into specifics about Icon’s alleged mismanagement of the Tadich Grill in San Francisco but said, “Icon unilaterally took action that was detrimental to Tadich Grill without informing them of those actions.”

Singer could not comment on whether Michael Buich had told Icon about Terri Upshaw and her long estrangement with the Buich family. But Singer denied Icon’s allegation that Steve Buich may still have a role and an ownership stake in Tadich Grill, despite previous claims that the elder Buich has had no involvement with the restaurant for more than 20 years.

Singer acknowledged that Steve Buich served as secretary for Tadich Grill until 2008 but added that the elder Buich “had no involvement in the day-to-day operations.” Singer also said Steve Buich has no ownership stake in Tadich. “Michael is the sole owner,” Singer added.

The ownership of Tadich Grill and the Buich family’s controversial relationship with Terri Upshaw are central to Icon’s lawsuit. Icon alleges that Buich withheld information about Upshaw and her potentially PR-damaging estrangement with the family to induce Icon into signing contracts and agreements with favorable terms to Tadich Grill, including lower management fees and the assumption of a general manager’s salary in San Francisco. Icon claims it provided the favorable terms only because Tadich Grill agreed to partner with Icon to open other locations of the famous restaurant, including the one in Washington.

What’s more, Icon alleges that it agreed to remain silent even as stories about Upshaw’s estrangement appeared in publications such as The Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today. The stories, Icon alleges, hurt the bottom line of both locations of Tadich Grill, but Icon didn’t issue any public statements to mitigate the damage because Michael Buich argued the family dispute had nothing to do with the restaurants. It was a fight between father and daughter.

In fact, Michael Buich issued a statement to The Post in November 2015, making that claim: “To be clear, none of the parties involved in this family dispute own or operate the current restaurant operations in any way, and our restaurants continue to employ and serve people of all races, religions and countries of origin. We believe strongly that discrimination in any form should never be tolerated.”

“We accepted the family position that it wasn’t a business issue,” said Centioli, the president and CEO of Icon. “We relied on that statement to our peril.” Icon alleges that Michael Buich also has not had contact with his sister for decades (Terri Upshaw told The Post much the same thing in 2015), suggesting the family conflict is not just reserved to father and daughter.

Singer, the spokesman for Michael Buich, denied that his client has not been in touch with his sister for decades. The siblings are “regularly in contact,” Singer said. Michael “has had a loving brother-sister relationship with her,” the spokesman added.

Icon may no longer operate the original Tadich Grill in San Francisco, but the company still co-owns and operates the D.C. location with Michael Buich. Centioli said that Icon and Buich are planning to enter mediation discussions to solve their differences and move forward with Tadich Grill in Washington. Centioli said he doesn’t want to close the D.C. Tadich Grill.

“The long-term outcome will be dependent on the processes that we are going through, both the legal process in California and the meditation process,” Centioli said. “It’s important in a meditation process to go in open-minded.”

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