LAKEWOOD RANCH — Big dreams for the Viking Culinary Center came to a quiet, but sudden, halt Oct. 24, when the facility closed suddenly.
By the weekend, a hand-written note saying, “Closed temporarily due to an emergency,” appeared in the storefront’s windows. It has remained closed since.
The facility’s executive chef and facilities manager, Chris Covelli, who had hoped to bring national attention to the cooking center in the coming years, learned of the closure from his staff while he was teaching cooking classes in Italy.
“When I left (Oct. 18), I was told we were going to try to make it work no matter what,” said Covelli, who returns from Italy Nov. 5. “There were people interested in investing. There were rumors (about that).”
Covelli said local restaurateurs already have stepped in to help, offering to assist in hosting some classes and events that were scheduled and hiring chefs and staff members from Viking, but he said he did not know how many things had been rescheduled or if patrons had been contacted.
Viking’s closure may, in fact, be part of a bigger picture of financial distress. The business’ owner, Jim Butler, did not return calls for comment to confirm.
The business’ parent company, Extreme Remodelers of Sarasota, doing business as Paradise Homes, filed Oct. 25 for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Middle District of Florida. A Chapter 7 filing generally indicates a liquidation of assets, while a Chapter 11 filing indicates company reorganization.
Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, which owns Lakewood Ranch Main Street, said SMR moved to recover possession of the roughly 4,100-square-foot Viking unit, after Viking missed its September and October rent payments. Actions for eviction and breach of contract for more than $15,000, among others, were filed Oct. 19, and a trustee has been appointed the bankruptcy case.
“That puts everything on hold for a while,” Jensen said.
SMR attorney Dan Perka said the trustee has 90 days to sell off assets of the Viking Culinary School, as well as Paradise Homes’ other assets, or potentially have someone purchase the business. After that time, if no tenant assumes the lease for the Viking space, it would be returned to SMR to lease.
SMR also has put Paradise Homes’ work in The Lake Club on hold, after learning the company was in financial distress. The company has identified 24 Paradise clients who are in various stages of the home-building process, ranging from initial lot reservation to substantial completion.
“We are working with these Paradise clients to assist them during this difficult time, as they assess their options and transition to a different builder,” Jensen said. “We have already granted three requests for approval of new builders to complete construction of homes. We recognize that Paradise clients are dealing with a variety of financial issues. Ultimately, it will be the bankruptcy trustee that will determine the resolution of those issues.
“It is clear to SMR management that Mr. Butler and his representatives provided false and misleading information not only to customers but also to SMR,” Jensen said, noting Paradise had a track record of winning designs up until recent events. “We sincerely hope that the bankruptcy trustee and the State Attorney’s Office will be able to determine if criminal behavior occurred and to address it swiftly.”
Jensen said SMR is allowing owner-selected builders to complete work, even if the builder is not yet a Lakewood Ranch-approved builder. Additionally, Mark Caithness, owner of Caithness Construction, in Venice, has voluntarily offered to complete work on homes at the cost quoted by Paradise Homes, or as close to it as possible.
“We’re trying to do it for no profit,” Caithness said, noting he already is working on getting contract releases and changing over permits for six homes.
Viking affects patrons
Lakewood Ranch Golf & Country Club resident Lillian Bracken said she had been looking forward all month to an interactive dinner she’d scheduled at the school Oct. 27, to celebrate her eighth wedding anniversary with her husband and four friends, but learned of the closure while getting her hair done at Cutting Loose Salon that day, just hours before her dinner was scheduled to begin.
“To not even get an email or anything was frustrating,” Bracken said. “We were looking forward to supporting Viking here. It’s on Main Street. We’re always trying to (support) local shops. The community was really excited to have them here. (Viking) should have been a little more open about it.
“The two other couples that were going with us found out on Saturday through word of mouth,” she said.
The owner of Cutting Loose, however, knew a local restaurateur and helped orchestrate alternative dinner arrangements at Pomona, in Sarasota. The restaurant arranged for a kitchen-side table for six later that night.