Fayette County

Lexington restaurant won New York Times’ raves. A labor probe, lawsuit, criminal charge followed.

The inside of the former National Provisions restaurant.
The inside of the former National Provisions restaurant.

A theft charge over unpaid wages has been filed against the owner of a failed Lexington restaurant at the center of a lawsuit over a lease dispute and overdue rent that is preventing another eatery from opening in the same space.

While they operate a recently opened burger restaurant, Krim Boughalem and his wife, Andrea Sims, are embroiled in two legal battles tied to National Provisions, a restaurant they closed nearly nine months ago.

The couple was sued last fall by the National Provisions property owners for violating the lease by closing the restaurant and not paying rent when it was due, according to circuit court documents. The two sides disagree over the amount — $0 or $35,000 — of rent owed, court documents show.

The Fayette County attorney is pursuing a felony theft charge against Boughalem for a $589 payroll check that bounced, according to district court documents.

The $589 is owed to former National Provisions bartender Amber Ruyter, who wants to be paid since the couple could afford to open Real Hamburger & Bar at 310 West Short Street in mid-May.

Ruyter and a handful of former National Provision employees have collectively questioned why Boughalem and Sims haven’t paid back wages and other debts, including $1,000 for custom restaurant furnishings owed a woodworker, according to court documents.

“We paid everybody,” Boughalem said, referring to former employees. “The labor department did an investigation, and it closed over a month ago. We paid everybody the week after we closed.”

The restaurateurs’ financial issues began in 2013 shortly after National Provisions, once praised in the New York Times Travel Section in 2015, opened at National and Walton avenues, and persisted until it closed in September 2016, according to court documents. Boughalem blamed the closing on a former employee’s theft; roughly $5,000 was reported stolen. Hunter L. Damron pleaded guilty in March.

Walker Properties, which owns the building, said it was not notified of the restaurant’s closing. The company wants the restaurant’s equipment out so it can lease the property.

The couple said in a counterclaim against Walker Properties that they paid all rent due and did not default on the lease because they had not vacated the property even though the restaurant was closed.

“A lot of people don’t pay their rent on time, it’s accepted by the landlord and it’s cured,” said Joe Childers, the couple’s attorney. He said the couple operated the restaurant successfully for several years. The counterclaim contends the couple closed the restaurant while pursuing an agreement to sublet it to another restaurant operator.

Meanwhile, the Labor Cabinet ruled in April on complaints initially filed by 11 former employees who said they were bilked out of their pay as the restaurant closed.

Three were paid while the cabinet worked on the case, and the cabinet ruled in favor of another four former employees, including Lauren Wood, who was paid after a $597 check from Boughalem and Sims initially bounced, Labor Cabinet records show. To those four, Boughalem and Sims were ordered to pay $2,023, according to Labor Cabinet communications director Jared Hensley and cabinet records.

Ruyter received $364 after filing a complaint with the Labor Cabinet, but says she is still owed $589. A National Provisions check bounced in September, and she hasn’t received a new one, according to her criminal complaint. (Boughalem is due in court Tuesday.)

The Labor Cabinet didn’t act on some of the complaints because some employees failed to provide “a listing of daily breakdown of dates and hours worked” and “copies of actual bank-marked bounced checks and or bank statements reflecting your paychecks having been deposited but returned for insufficient funds.”

Some of the employees had warned the cabinet that the couple’s poor personnel, pay and timekeeping records and practices prevented them from being able to provide the information, according to the complaints.

“It was standard practice for us all to keep handwritten sign in-sign out sheets pinned to a cork board in the office with push pins, as a stand-in for an actual time card program,” wrote Jonathan Laurel, the front-of-house manager whose claim was rejected. “Mr. Boughalem and Mrs. Sims have conveniently claimed that they have misplaced these records.”

In recent interviews, Boughalem and Sims have said that there was not a formal listing of employees, and notes were used to schedule employees. Sims also said it wasn’t out of the ordinary for them to not know who worked at National Provisions. But Childers said a listing of employees was maintained by an outside payroll company.

“The managers and employees were responsible for reporting the hours, and my clients took their word for truthful reporting,” said Childers, who added that the Labor Cabinet closed the investigation with no charges against his clients.

Former chef Cameron Irvin claimed in his complaint that the company owed him $1,416 for 118 hours of work and he was going to lose his home if he wasn’t paid, his Labor Cabinet complaint said.

Former line cook Pierce Birdsong said he was owed $800. Birdsong said that during the last month that National Provisions was open, it frequently ran out of groceries to cook with, so he had to buy them.

“It became routine to have checks bounce,” said Birdsong, whose Labor Cabinet claim was dismissed. “Employees were regularly told to wait to cash checks in order to make sure the money was there.”

Others who said they worked for National Provisions have turned to social media recently with complaints that they haven’t been paid.

Former baker Matthew Lyons-Evans said he worked for National Provisions on two occasions between 2013 and 2016. He said he’s owed $500 from work he did in the two months before the restaurant closed.

Sims said she and her husband are willing to pay others who have documentation showing that they worked at National Provisions.

Also unresolved is any money the couple owes on rent for the restaurant. Boughalem is responsible for paying rent until the property is re-leased, according to lease terms and Walker Property’s attorney Richard Getty. “This is an issue in the lawsuit and is contested by my clients,” Childers said.

A local restaurant owner was interested in leasing the space, but the deal fell through. In their counterclaim, the couple contend that Walker Properties breached the lease by blocking a deal to sublet the business to someone else.

An affidavit from the potential purchaser says he explored taking over the lease in the fall of 2016, but “never reached a definitive agreement” to do so.

Boughalem and Walker Properties disagree about property, including rotting food, left at the National Provisions building and who owns certain fixtures, according to court documents. The case was back in Fayette Circuit Court over those issues last week. A sign has been posted on the former site of National Provisions touting an online auction for kitchen equipment that Boughalem had bought. Earlier this year, Boughalem defaulted on a loan that Community Ventures had provided him.

“The Walkers have been more than accommodating under the circumstances, but unfortunately there’s been an incredible amount of delay and difficulty, and our experience with them has been no better than they’ve had with their former employees,” Getty said. “We hope to have the matter resolved in the very near future, favorable to the landlord, so we can put this matter behind us and move ahead with trying to find a new restaurant to lease the space.”

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to include information from a counterclaim filed by Boughalem and Sims and comments from their attorney. It also includes additional details on the Labor Cabinet investigation into complaints filed by former employees.

Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso