The Pasta House Boy

A black restaurateur says he was used as a frontman -- but didn't know it

Arlando Mischeaux says he used to worship J. Kim Tucci, one of the owners of St. Louis-based Pasta House Co. -- that is, until the day Tucci locked him out of his own restaurant.

Sitting at the dining-room table in his University City apartment, Mischeaux wistfully recalls the days when he hung around Tucci's house, running errands, serving parties and driving Tucci wherever he wished to go.

"I would do anything for that man, no questions asked," Mischeaux says, "and he would do anything for me."

Mischeaux began working as a busboy at one of Tucci's Pasta House Co. restaurants -- the Flamingo Caf in the Central West End -- in 1983, shortly after graduating from Central High School in North St. Louis. He remembers meeting Tucci months later, in 1984.

"My manager sent me to get a Big Mac and fries. Here we are around all this great food, oysters on the half-shell and stuff like that, and he's sending me out for a Big Mac and fries. I asked him why he wants to do that, and he told me, 'Never mind, just do it.' I told him I took the bus to work, I didn't have a car, and he reached into his pocket and took out his car keys and gave them to me and told me again to go to McDonald's and get a Big Mac and fries. When I got back, I said, 'Who are they for?' He pointed to this guy I didn't know and told me, 'Take them out to that man standing outside.' That was Luther Boykins, and he was talking to another guy. That was Kim [Tucci].

"When I got closer, I heard them talking about this new red Mercedes roadster Kim had just bought ... Kim said he bought it because he liked the color. I decided right then that this was a guy I wanted to know."

Soon after that meeting, Mischeaux was catering parties at Tucci's house, where he met some of the city's political heavyweights, including St. Louis Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, state Sen. J.B. "Jet" Banks, and U.S. Rep. Bill Clay (D-1st). It was all very exciting for a youth who grew up at Grand Boulevard and Kossuth Avenue, on the North Side.

"[Tucci] had brought me into his home, and that impressed me," Mischeaux says. His style, his influence in the business community and his influence with politicians also impressed the young busboy.

Tucci agrees that he and Mischeaux became very close. "He was like a son to me," Tucci says. "The guy spent holidays with me and everything."

This unusual father/son relationship began to unravel, however, when Mischeaux got the idea that he was more than a gofer. The seeds of that idea lay in the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport affirmative-action program for disadvantaged business enterprises, companies owned by minorities and women.

A busy airport is a prime location for a restaurant. People have time to kill, and they're hungry, because many flights no longer serve full meals. An airport location is good advertising, too. Millions of people a year pass a restaurant's signs.

At Lambert, as at so many other airports, all the food and beverage concessions are lumped into one large contract and given to a single company. In St. Louis, that company is HMS Host Inc., the nation's largest food-and-beverage-concessions operator. The name-brand restaurants travelers see at Lambert, such as Chili's, Starbucks and Pizza Hut, are operated by Host, which acts as the franchisee for each chain. But when an airport contracts with one concessionaire to provide services, the effect can be to close the airport to smaller and locally based businesses.

In 1997, Host's contract to operate the concessions at Lambert came up for renewal. Using federal affirmative-action regulations, the city negotiated a contract in which Host agreed to subcontract certain food and beverage facilities to certified DBEs. Those facilities were not just kiosks; they included the main restaurant on Concourse D, what Host calls the "anchor facility" for the concourse.

Here was an opportunity for Pasta House to get into the airport, if only they could find a DBE to partner with. In early 1997, Tucci pitched the idea to Mischeaux, who by that time had 14 years in the restaurant business. He was the Pasta House's catering supervisor and assistant manager at Mike Shannon's Steaks & Seafood restaurant downtown.

In November 1997, with Tucci's direction and the help of the Pasta House's attorneys, the firm of Deeba Sauter Herd, Mischeaux registered Arlando Inc. with the Missouri Secretary of State's office. For $255, Mischeaux received 255 shares of the company's stock. Tucci, John Ferrara (now deceased) and Joe Fresta, the three Pasta House owners, each received 81.67 shares of stock, making Mischeaux the majority owner with 51 percent of the total stock. The new company's articles of incorporation and bylaws specified that it would be run by a board of directors of one, and on Nov. 19, 1997, the four shareholders elected Mischeaux as that director.

Tucci then arranged a $200,000 loan to Mischeaux from the Pasta House's bankers at Union Planters Bank. That was to serve as Mischeaux's contribution to Arlando Inc.'s start-up capital. Tucci also had Mischeaux sign a franchise application.

With all the pieces in place, Arlando Inc. applied on April 27, 1998, to Lambert's Contracts Administration Office for certification as a DBE. After an investigation, including interviews with Mischeaux and Tucci, DBE program officer Robert Salarano recommended rejecting the application. On paper, Mischeaux had both majority ownership and control of the company, but Salarano was concerned about the source of Mischeaux's financing. "Kim arranged the loan for Arlando through his own banker, and that loan was Arlando's investment in the company. He had no money of his own," says Jack Thomas, current manager of the airport's DBE program.

Mischeaux says the rejection surprised Tucci because Tucci had discussed the opportunity with his friends, Boykins and airport director Leonard Griggs, before starting Arlando Inc. Tucci, Mischeaux says, blamed Mayor Clarence Harmon for the rejection.

"Kim put pressure on Harmon through Clay, Banks, Martie Aboussie and anyone else he knew to get us approved," Mischeaux says. "I got my uncle, Charles Mischeaux, then the NAACP president, to write a letter to Harmon, too."

In March 1999, Jack Thomas took over the airport's DBE program from Salarano. Tucci became optimistic about getting the DBE certification, Mischeaux says. "He said Jack owed him a favor." And sure enough, on April 27, 1999, the airport authority certified Arlando Inc. as a DBE. Thomas insists he didn't do Tucci any favors and that the decision to approve Arlando Inc. wasn't even his. "A lawyer in the city counselor's office told us to recommend approval, that the sort of arrangement where Kim got the loan for Arlando is common in business," he says. "Besides, Arlando was the one on the hook for the loan, not the company."

With the DBE certification finally in hand, Mischeaux began the lengthy process of negotiating a lease with Host, designing the restaurant and getting the necessary building permits.

Tucci groomed Mischeaux for his future position. He sent Mischeaux through the Pasta House management-training program and gave him experience managing various stores. But he also reorganized the company, expanding the board of directors of Arlando Inc. to three -- Mischeaux, Tucci and Ferrara -- and giving the board veto power over Mischeaux's ability to sell his stock. Mischeaux, still trusting Tucci, says he relied on Pasta House lawyers for his legal advice.

On June 27, 2001, Arlando Inc. opened its airport Pasta House. In its first month, the restaurant did more than $199,000 in business. "You expect to start out slow, but we were already on track to meet our projections of $2.5 million a year in sales. At the same spot, Host had had sales of $1.5 million a year," Mischeaux says proudly.

Then the trouble began.

"Kim called me down to his office and said he was going to reassign me to another store. The next day, I told him if that's what he wanted, OK ... I wasn't happy, but I didn't want to blow the opportunity of ownership. This store was going to make millions."

For the next month, Mischeaux says, he split his time between the airport and the Pasta House's Clock Tower restaurant on West Florissant Avenue.

On Sept. 6, Mischeaux says, he got another call to see Tucci at his office, this time at 10:30 the next morning.

There, Mischeaux says, he was told he was losing the store. Pasta House would return his $45,000 franchise fee in 12 monthly payments, but only if Mischeaux agreed not to take any action against Pasta House and left his name on everything at the airport.

"Luther Boykins was at the table," Mischeaux says. "He said he wanted to be the owner, but I had the [restaurant] experience" that had been necessary to get certification.

Mischeaux says he refused the deal, and Tucci told him to turn in his keys, his badge and his parking card, then warned him to stay away from the airport. "Knowing Kim, I took it very seriously and never made any attempt to go out there," Mischeaux says. "I'm not going to risk my life or risk arrest by making a scene."

Boykins calls Mischeaux's story "the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. I have no interest in any Pasta House restaurant at the airport. No one ever brought it to me to have an interest in it ... I like Arlando, but I'm surprised he would say something like that."

Tucci insists that Mischeaux was not a frontman; rather he lost the franchise because "he has personal problems, which I can't talk about, and needs help." Tucci adds the bank called in its loan, and Mischeaux couldn't pay it. That, of course, was the loan Tucci secured for him, the same loan that had caused Salarano to question whether Arlando Inc. was a bona fide DBE.

Mischeaux -- the sole black stockholder at Arlando Inc. -- was stripped of his franchise by his white partners just three weeks before Mayor Francis Slay fired longtime civil-rights activist Percy Green and the rest of Green's minority-certification staff. Slay put Jack Thomas and Lambert in charge of all DBE certifications for the city, saying the airport did a better job. "We were more confident with the airport's process," Slay said [Peter Downs, "No Mercy for Percy," Oct. 3]. Green complained that Slay's move would make it easier for front companies to do business.

With Mischeaux gone, what happens to the Pasta House at the airport?

For now, nothing.

Thomas says that even though Arlando Inc. got into the airport as a DBE but no longer qualifies as such, "They don't lose their contract or lease," he says. Their lease, by the way, runs all the way to Jan. 31, 2013. Since the Riverfront Times first asked Thomas about Mischeaux, the airport has forwarded a "notice of proposed decertification" to Arlando Inc. But even if Arlando Inc. loses its certification, Thomas says, Host still exceeds the airport's goal to have 30 percent of the food business operated by DBEs -- so no action would be taken against Host or the Pasta House franchisee.

Tucci says that is his understanding, too. But, he says, "We're looking for another DBE. Host has been aware of all this. We've been taking them through it step by step."

Steve Izant, Host's vice president for business development, tells a different story. Pasta House never has formally told Host that it revoked Arlando Inc.'s franchise, he says. "Butch Howard [Host's regional vice president of operations] went down there one day to check on something, and when he asked for Arlando, they said, 'Gee, he's no longer with us.'"

Adding that Host is not going to stand on formalities, he says, "We expect Pasta House to find a new DBE ... If they don't do that, it is a violation of the lease, and they would be in default."

Mischeaux, meanwhile, has finally obtained an independent lawyer and plans to sue Pasta House. His partnership with Tucci was a farce, he says bitterly: "He needed a Negro, someone who could stand up under scrutiny ... and he knew that I would do anything he told me to."

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