Restaurants' lawsuit over St. Pete chef heating up
By Kate Bradshaw | Tribune StaffST. PETERSBURG Three Birds Tavern and Beak's Old Florida have little in common.
Published: January 17, 2013
Published: January 17, 2013
One restaurant stands alone in an old Fourth Street bungalow, while the other is tucked along the burgeoning Grand Central corridor.
Their menus have little in common, their décors even less.
One link the two establishments do share, avian monikers aside, is Chef Domenica Macchia, who left Three Birds in October and went to work for Beak's.
Now, Three Birds is suing her and her new employer.
Machhia is known just as much for the tattoos that cover her arms and her unusual approach to comfort foods — "chicken-fried" bacon among them — as she is for an apparent tendency to jump ship.
Other kitchens she's worked in include Bella Brava, the now-defunct Redwoods, MJ's Martini Jazz and Tapas Lounge and Diner 437. Each stint was short, and each drew attention.
She said she sees nothing wrong with leaving Three Birds and working somewhere else.
"This is the most transient business, the restaurant industry," Macchia said.
When she signed her initial employment agreement with Three Birds in 2011, Macchia had been out of work for 10 months, struggling financially, and would have signed practically anything, she said.
"I don't know what I signed," she said.
The lawsuit, which Three Birds owners John and Robin King filed Jan. 9, claims Macchia violated her employment agreement's noncompete clause, which barred her from working at another Pinellas County restaurant that would compete with Three Birds until March 2014.
Neither the Kings nor their attorney could be reached for comment.
Beak's owner, Dan Soronen, took over the restaurant in October and wanted to give the kitschy bar and grill broader appeal.
So he reached out to Macchia, who worked as his chef in 2009 at Shackleton's Folly, which has since closed.
The Kings' lawsuit accuses Soronen of luring Macchia away from Three Birds — even though, the suit alleges, he knew she'd signed an agreement barring her from working for a competitor.
Sorenen, who said he didn't know Macchia had signed a noncompete agreement when he hired her, said his restaurant doesn't really compete with Three Birds anyway.
"It's a completely different style and feel," he said.
It wasn't an enticing offer that drove her from Three Birds, Macchia said. It was a double ear infection. Despite a doctor's recommendation to avoid working with food for nearly a week, she said, Robin King told her to get sick on her day off.
Macchia said she tried to go back to work, but John King accused her of being "on the pot" and told her to leave.
The lawsuit claims Macchia put in her two weeks' notice, showed up once and, after failing "to perform a number of administrative duties," never went back.
"They still have my knives," Macchia said. "They still have my last paycheck."
Having one restaurant sue another is unusual in St. Petersburg, where the culture among chefs and owners tends to be friendly.
"This is actually very uncommon," said Scott Long, the general manager at 400 Beach. "Within the community, we're all in this together."
Lawsuits over noncompete agreements, though, are common enough to warrant a state law, which says they're enforceable in the case of a threat to "legitimate business interests."
Such agreements can be found in unlikely places, such as hair salons, said Jason Bent, an assistant professor of law at Stetson University College of Law. Employees with knowledge of trade secrets or the ability to siphon clients away after leaving are often asked to sign agreements promising not to compete with their former employers after they leave, he said.
"Litigation over noncompetes is not rare," he said. "Having said that, they often will settle."
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