PORT MORRIS — More than half a year after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Bruckner Bar & Grill, its flooded home has proved easier to mend than its owners’ fractured partnership.
Though the beloved restaurant is still shuttered, much of the space has been renovated and there is talk of a possible summer reopening.
But a dispute between the restaurant and its landlord over responsibility for repairs has escalated into a legal battle, and a quarrel between the two restaurant co-owners (one of whom is also part of the landlord company) has moved into arbitration.
It appears ever more likely that when the decade-old eatery reopens, it could be under new management.
When Sandy spurred the Harlem River to surge more than a block inland last October, saltwater and sewage submerged the Bruckner’s basement and part of its main floor, damaging the building, wrecking expensive machinery and ruining thousands of dollars worth of food and alcohol.
Alex Abeles, the managing restaurant owner, Joseph Pryor, the managing building owner, and James Giddings, the restaurant co-owner and building majority owner, clashed almost immediately over who should fund the repairs and how.
“We would love for them to be able to resolve their issues,” said Marlene Cintron, president of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation. “I’d hate for a natural disaster to create an economic disaster.”
As the battle brewed, rent went unpaid, and eventually the landlord took the restaurant to court.
The non-payment claim was eventually withdraw and the restaurant filed its own lawsuit against the landlord, Abeles’ lawyer said.
The suit alleges that the landlord effectively evicted the restaurant without going through the legal process by failing to restore the building to its pre-storm condition, according to the lawyer, M. Teresa Daley of JS Barkats PLLC.
Typically, if a judge backs this legal claim, known as “constructive eviction,” then the tenant is freed from the terms of the lease, but must leave the space.
Abeles appears to have prepared for that scenario by moving some restaurant equipment into storage.
The landlord says that the Bruckner building and utilities have all been repaired and that the dispute really centers on who should replace expensive equipment that was damaged, such as a walk-in refrigerator and a beverage dispenser.
“We paid tons and tons of money to get all the guts of the place back,” said Pryor. But, “we didn’t feel [the restaurant equipment] had anything to do with the landlord.”
The restaurant’s lawsuit argues that the lease says the landlord is, in fact, responsible for replacing such hardware.
Meanwhile, Giddings has taken his dispute with Abeles to arbitration.
Among his claims is that Abeles “abandoned” the restaurant and rejected the landlord’s compromises in hopes of being bought out of his share of the business.
“I think he’s trying to make as much trouble as he can legally so that he’s paid to go away,” said Giddings, adding that Abeles’ co-ownership of a sushi lounge near the Bruckner created a conflict of interest.
Abeles referred questions to his lawyers, Daley and Sunny Barkats.
Barkats called Giddings’ claims “a complete distortion of the truth” and said Abeles “was trying to protect the interest of the restaurant when he sued the landlord.”
He added that Giddings, who owns 65 percent of the landlord company and 50 percent of the restaurant, is the one with conflicted interests.
“The problem with Mr. Giddings is that he’s wearing two hats,” Barkats said.
Despite the disputes, much of the Bruckner has been refurbished.
Walls have been repainted, bathrooms rebuilt and a warped wood floor replaced with tile, according to the Bruckner’s general manager, Joseph Diaz.
He said no re-launch date has been set, but that the restaurant could be ready as soon as late June or July. (Giddings called that timeline "optimistic" and emphasized that "nothing is settled.")
But when the restaurant does reopen, as Giddings and Pryor promise it will, it is possible that another managing co-owner could replace Abeles, whom even Giddings credits with turning the Bruckner into a dining destination and cultural hub.
Rosa Garcia, who worked for six years as the Bruckner’s bookkeeper, hostess and daytime manager, and who currently does bookkeeping for the landlord’s company, has expressed interest in running the restaurant.
“She’s the candidate to take it over if [Abeles] doesn’t resurface,” said Giddings.
Garcia said she would retain Diaz as a manager and keep the Bruckner “as it was.”
Many customers have taken to the Bruckner’s Facebook page to urge both sides to settle their dispute and warn against opening under new management.
“As a manager for 20 years the worst move you can make is to get rid of the person that built your business…[who] took it from nothing and made it the staple/Cheers of the South Bronx,” wrote Jamie Jones, a Port Morris business owner.
Diaz said the restaurant was not only a nucleus of the neighborhood — it was also a source of livelihood for about two-dozen employees and him, who has a one-year-old daughter.
“All of the other junk is a moot point,” he said. “I just want the Bruckner to reopen.”