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A painful PR lesson from D.C.’s Tadich Grill

A mentor once counseled Gerard Centioli to regard press relations as a give-and-take endeavor. You can’t expect reporters to get the full story if you refuse to answer their questions, no matter how charged the inquiries might be.

It’s a lesson driven home every time the veteran restaurateur looks at a P&L for the Tadich Grill in Washington, D.C., a copy of the 170-year-old landmark in San Francisco. Icon, the company Centioli operates in collaboration with restaurant legend Rich Melman, opened the D.C. branch on Oct. 1, 2015—three weeks before The Washington Post ran a publicist’s nightmare of a story.

In 800 words, the column tied the new place to racial prejudice, the heartless disowning of a child, contempt for a pioneering football hero, and a young widow shattered by the experience. The link was Icon’s partner in the venture: the Buich family, owner of the original Tadich Grill.

The account, penned by a popular writer named Lonnae O’Neal, might as well have been written in red ink. The restaurant tanked after a slam-bang opening, and has been losing money ever since, according to a lawsuit filed by Icon against that partner late last year.

What the column didn’t expressly report was a story as plain to Centioli as the headline: Icon had entered into a nightmare of a partnership, and then aggravated the problem by refusing to be forthcoming with the media.

The Buich clan appeared to be exactly the sort of operators Icon had envisioned when the company was launched by in 1999 by Melman, Centioli and a third alumnus of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, longtime attorney Michael Fox. The business plan was to approach iconic restaurants with an offer to selectively duplicate the concepts on a limited basis in other cities.

Its pilot venture was a deal to replicate Joe’s Stone Crab, the $37 million-a-year landmark seafood house in Miami. There are now Joe’s restaurants operating in Chicago, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., all generating more than $21 million in annual sales. With Tadich Grill, Icon would be working with one of the nation’s oldest concepts. It met with the Buich family and initially agreed to manage the San Francisco original. Then negotiations began for a separate deal to open and co-own an updated Tadich in Washington, D.C.

Not once was it mentioned, according to Centioli, that there was another member of the family who’d been banished for personal reasons. Terri Buich said she had been disowned because she’d fallen in love with a still-married African-American 15 years her senior, Oakland Raiders Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw. She had decided to follow him to Washington, D.C., where Upshaw would become a star again as head of the National Football League Players Association.

That was in 1983. Although Terri and Gene Upshaw subsequently wed and started a family, the Buiches reportedly refused to do much as take her calls for 32 years. She recounted to the Post how she’d brought one of her sons to San Francisco to meet his grandmother on the Buich side, only to be turned away.

The family also didn’t reach out to Terri when Upshaw died at a relatively young age from pancreatic cancer, and not one close relative had attended the funeral.

And it was all conveyed in extensive detail in the Post piece, which contained no input from the rest of the Buich family, nor anything from Icon. The company had rebuffed inquiries from the Post, believing there was no foundation for the line of questioning. According to Centioli, it accepted the Buiches’ assurances that there was no dirt to unearth.

“A partnership is like a marriage. The saying goes, ‘When you marry someone, you marry the whole family,’” he says today. “We did not know there was an estranged member of the family, nor the reasons for the estrangement. I never saw them having baggage.”

Then the column appeared. “It hurt us immediately,” Centioli says.

“With these icons, our deal is always, ‘You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.’ Some have, some haven’t,” he continues. “What we shouldn’t have realized was there was good reason in this instance to talk.”

When Icon finally did talk to O’Neal for a follow-up piece, Centioli said her original column had not hurt the business of the D.C. restaurant, which was enjoying a “significant flow of guests.” The assertion would be contradicted in time.

Stories on the situation subsequently appeared in USA Today and The San Francisco Chronicle, and the controversy quickly spilled over into social media. The criticisms were so fierce on Yelp that the service posted an alert that it would take down any slams that pivoted on the scandal rather than an actual experience within Tadich Grill.

A local following never materialized, and losses persisted, Centioli asserts. “We’ve been fighting the good fight for two years, but the odds are really against us.”

Michael Buich, Terri’s brother and co-owner of the Tadich in D.C., disputes Icon’s contention that bad publicity is the sum of the restaurant’s problems. In a statement, he described the company’s management of the restaurant as “sub-par.”

Centioli says he freely talks about the situation today with the press because he’s learned how shortsighted a no-comment policy can be. “I also feel I owe the media an apology,” he says, since the company hadn’t been truthful.

Not that Centioli himself has been spared considerable penance. “Professionally, to be part of an ownership group that’s deemed racist is deplorable. It’s a rebuke to a lifetime of pursuing social justice,” he says.

Icon ran the original Tadich in San Francisco under a separate management contract, which the Buich family terminated in September, accusing Icon of “poor practices.” Meanwhile, Icon continues to run and co-own the D.C. property. “Things are still very tense,” Centioli says.

“We terminated Icon to safeguard our business, our employees, their families and the values and traditions that Tadich Grill hasand will continue to providethe citizens and visitors of the San Francisco Bay Area for generations to come,” Michael Buich said in his statement.

A month later, Icon filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court, seeking $2.5 million in damages for breach of contract and concealment.

“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.,” wrote Buich.

Meanwhile, Icon continues to push forward. Its holdings now include a Krispy Kreme franchise and a 69-year-old retro burger concept called Pick-Quick.

“The only thing that has really evolved is our definition of an icon,” says Centioli. “Instead of just developing a distinctive name, it’s also about developing a reputation that’s beyond reproach.”

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