Greek restaurant Simi Estiatorio closed abruptly on Tuesday, March 22 after less than a year in downtown Austin, allegedly leaving workers without their paychecks. The restaurant is being evicted and the managing partner left the country.
The restaurant’s closure was no simple affair, involving an employee walkout, alleged management directives to break Texas alcohol laws, big names in Austin real estate, and over $700,000 in unpaid rent. Eater spoke with six people involved with the restaurant, including the managing partner George Theodosiou, and two of Simi’s former vendors, to report this story.
Simi opened in May 2021 in the Littlefield Building at 601 Congress Avenue, boasting a menu that included fish flown in fresh from the Mediterranean weekly. The press release for the restaurant opening touted Simi managing partner Theodosiou’s alleged 25 years experience in New York restaurants such as Peter Luger Steak House, the Old Homestead, and Avra Estiatorio. However, per conversations with Theodosiou, the most recent of these positions was in 2007 and none of them were ownership roles. (Eater was not able to confirm Theodosiou’s employment with Peter Luger and Avra Estiatorio). Theodosiou alleges he has consulted on opening 46 restaurant projects in New York, but declined to name any of them.
Although business was ostensibly good at Simi, morale had been low recently, according to Benita Martinez, the restaurant’s former private events coordinator and floor manager. Several staffers allege that they had issues cashing their paychecks as far back as August 2021, but more frequently in February 2022 — if someone deposited their check via mobile deposit, it would sometimes bounce. However, they said they would always receive a new check from Theodosiou that would clear. Theodosiou says that checks bouncing was due to paying the vendors upon delivery, but that he sometimes had to personally borrow money to make payroll.
Starting in late January, the restaurant didn’t have wine or liquor to sell, allegedly due to a problem paying its vendors, according to Martinez, whose responsibilities included sending restaurant invoices to the accountant. Employees reported being told by Theodosiou to buy alcohol from liquor stores directly, skirting requirements from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission stating restaurants with a mixed beverage permit must obtain liquor from a distributor as opposed to a retailer, an allegation that Theodosiou denies. The servers organized a walkout on Friday, March 4, in response to the inability to sell alcohol and the problems with cashing paychecks. Meanwhile, according to staffers, Theodosiou was largely absent from the restaurant. (Theodosiou says he was using this time to find new investors for the restaurant.)
“Working in a fine dining establishment is fun,” says Martinez. “The kind of guests that you get are fun, they’re happy you’re there to entertain them and let them know your knowledge of food and wine. [The servers] felt like they couldn’t do that anymore. They couldn’t be like the servers they wanted to be.”
Martinez says the liquor issue was eventually resolved, but the team still struggled to make it through a packed South by Southwest (SXSW) festival with a small staff, averaging three servers and one bartender per evening, when the crew would normally be double that size. Martinez says that after the exhausting festival, the restaurant was closed on Sunday, March 20 and Monday, March 21, purportedly to give staff a break. However, over the course of those days, staff who usually communicated with Theodosiou daily were unable to reach him. He was last seen by staff at the restaurant on Saturday, March 19, during what would become the final service. Martinez says that the team was initially concerned about Theodosiou’s well-being. On Monday, March 21, staff discovered that his phone went straight to voicemail. Sometime between Sunday and Monday, Theodosiou told the restaurant’s general manager Joshua Harris the restaurant would shut down, and Theodosiou then left the country that Monday.
“I was mad. My whole world collapsed,” says Theodosiou. “I spent three years there building this restaurant, and Monday I would have [been] left with nothing. So for my own sake, and my own personal health, I’d rather walk out and take the keys, than stay there and be the idiot standing outside my restaurant with nothing.”
Simi Estiatorio received a letter dated March 18 stating that it owed back rent of $733,164.96, an amount indicating that the restaurant had not paid rent since opening (Eater was able to review a copy of the document). Theodosiou claims there was an agreement with the building that Simi, whose opening was allegedly delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, would only pay rent after it opened in May 2021. Theodosiou says the restaurant’s rent was $16,515.56 monthly, plus additional profits based on the restaurant’s performance. Eater has reached out to the property management company, ECR, and has not heard back.
On Tuesday, when the restaurant was supposed to reopen, Martinez and Harris made the call to shut down, as they didn’t have the funds to continue paying for costs like food and didn’t feel comfortable starting another pay cycle when they weren’t sure they could pay employees. Martinez and Harris went to Simi that Wednesday to hand out final paychecks. However, only three employees were able to cash those checks, leaving multiple people without payment, according to Martinez.
Martinez started a GoFundMe to cover the rest of the payroll after hearing from employees who couldn’t pay their rent and had to rush out and find another job. “I don’t know what else to do, aside from doing this GoFundMe,” Martinez says. She reported that many employees don’t feel comfortable going to the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), which assists employees with recovering unpaid wages. The claim must be submitted within 180 days of the date the wages were originally due, but Martinez also says many employees don’t think they would qualify. She has received payroll from the restaurant’s accountant and plans to distribute funds from the GoFundMe according to what each employee is owed.
“One of my prides of my entire career was being the general manager of Simi Estiatorio,” says Harris. “I had a great staff. I knew there’s fluctuation in a first year of business. And all I did was fight for them. I love them and I miss them.”
The restaurant still owes money to other vendors, including their former PR company, Say My Name Communications, and Heritage Seafood, which Theodosiou later confirmed in interviews.
“We took George on his word, and given the concept, location, and investors we were told were involved, we had no reason to question him,” says Samantha Davidson of Say My Name Communications. “We were contracted to build excitement, anticipation, and demand for Simi, and unfortunately for us, we did our job but weren’t paid in full for it. We ended our relationship with Simi a few months ago due to lack of payment and there is still a significant unpaid balance.”
Ben McBride of Heritage Seafood started working with Simi the week of SXSW, where the restaurant quickly ran up a $6,500 tab, which McBride says they paid, and then a $9,600 tab, which went unpaid. McBride was able to repossess some of the frozen octopus he had sold the restaurant to ameliorate his financial damage, but it will still take him a while to recoup his loss. “If this had happened a couple of months earlier, it might have put me out of business immediately,” says McBride, who has owned Heritage for six years. “But fortunately, things are getting better all over. And my business is kind of on the upswing. I just kind of had to take this in stride, and count myself lucky that everyone else is doing well.”
Theodosiou handled all of Simi’s finances with the restaurant’s accountant. However, Martinez is confused about why there were problems with money when sales seemed good. “There’s no way that this restaurant’s not making money,” says Martinez. “I started looking at our sales and, on a Wednesday night, we [had] $7,000 in sales. But come Saturday, we [had] $20,000. Friday, Thursday, it’s still busy. If payroll is $40,000 to $60,000, I’m not understanding that people are having trouble cashing checks. I’m not understanding why we can’t pay vendors. It just didn’t add up to me.”
Although Theodosiou was the lone name on Simi on Congress, LLC, which operated Simi Estiatorio, he told Eater he only owns 25 percent of the restaurant. A company agreement for Simi on Congress lists Theodosiou as manager and Theodosiou, David Kahn (via 601 Congress, LP), and Hristos Nikolakos as initial members. The document is also initialed by an “EM,” who Theodosiou alleges is Eddie Margain. Kahn and Margain are high-profile investors in the Austin FC soccer team, among other ventures around Austin. Nikolakos and Theodosiou agree that Nikolakos never actually put in his investment.
Kahn is also part of the group that purchased the Littlefield Building in 2015. If he is indeed a partner, the large amount of rent owed is even murkier, because it seems unlikely that Simi could be in the building for two years without paying rent without Kahn’s knowledge or blessing. “[The other investors were] public knowledge to everybody that worked at the restaurant,” says one employee who wanted to remain anonymous. “Anytime David Kahn sent us a table, we sent them mojitos. Anytime Eddie was in the lobby walking past, you know, we said, ‘Hi,’ because he owned the building.”
A representative for Margain responded via email to say, “Eddie is NOT an investor in the Simi restaurant. Through the investment company, we own part of the Littlefield Building as part of our real estate portfolio. Simi was a tenant at the building. We don’t manage the building nor the leasing.”
Interestingly, the previous tenant of 601 Congress Avenue, Due Forni, also closed abruptly in 2016 (almost exactly one year after Kahn bought the building), with employees claiming they did not receive final paychecks. This kind of wage theft is unfortunately common in the restaurant industry.
The employees are confused as to why any other existing partners aren’t stepping in to help cover payroll, and why they may have invested in a venture with Theodosiou when a background check would have revealed whether he had exaggerated the breadth of his restaurant experience.
“I was hoping an investor would just step up and you know, give us $50,000,” says Martinez. “And I know saying that out loud sounds crazy. But I just thought they had so much money to give to George with all of his broken, empty promises, that maybe they would be like, ‘I’m so sorry. You guys got screwed, too. Here’s to getting you paid a little bit.’”
Theodosiou echoes this, saying, “I’m the little guy. There’s another 75 percent out there.”
Kahn responded to Eater in an email, saying, in part, “[As landlord group] we have supported over 70 restaurants, coffee shops, and bars in Austin since 1990. […] We supported every tenant financially throughout the pandemic with a high degree of flexibility. We are obviously disappointed that Simi closed and we are doing our very best to recoup our losses and find a new tenant for the space.”
As for Theodosiou, he says his investors tried to shut down the restaurant two months in because they were used to the margins of commercial real estate as opposed to the slim margins of restaurants, and it’s a miracle Simi lasted for 10 months. He acknowledges that he looks bad in this situation but says he is focused on finding a way to pay his former staff, though in conversations they remain skeptical of this. “I will get it done from my own personal funds, not the business,” he said. “I don’t think that the restaurant is going to relaunch or reopen or anything. But, I’m going to make [payroll] happen. And I apologize the way it went out this way. But I couldn’t take it anymore.”
He also claims to be working with investors for different restaurant projects for his next venture somewhere.