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Garofalo Comeback Is Off Menu

Former Huntington mayor, guilty of abusing his office, was a partner in a restaurant venture that's now crumbled.

August 26, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Bella Luna restaurant in Huntington Beach was supposed to be in full swing by now, offering up thick steaks and generous portions of Italian food with a signature linguini and clam sauce.

The food was to have been so good that diners wouldn't notice or care that one of the owners was a felon who had pleaded guilty to abuse of power when he was the town's mayor.

This was to be Dave Garofalo's comeback act. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Garofalo and his investors owe more than $30,000 in back rent. There's an eviction notice on the front of the Main Street building. And the doors have never opened for business.

"It's not Bella Luna anymore," said Ron Quick, a landscape contractor who said he invested $25,000 in the restaurant. "It became bella loony."

The idea for the restaurant was born last spring as Garofalo was dusting himself off a year after pleading guilty to a felony and 15 misdemeanors for voting on matters benefiting companies that bought advertising from his publishing business. He pulled together a small group of investors and envisioned life as a restaurateur.

The plan was to raise $100,000 and renovate a former Main Street business into a cool, beach-close eatery. The street, a virtual front door to the Huntington Beach Pier, is dotted with cafes and taverns. During the warm months, it swarms with pedestrians.

Two Bella Luna investors -- Tony Zazula, the manager of a nearby Starbucks, and Quick -- are trying to keep the dream alive by finishing construction and opening a Hawaiian-themed steak and fish restaurant.

They plan to name the place No Ka 'Oi (the Very Best). They've also brought in a new partner -- their landlord, Dennis Boggelin. If things go right, the restaurant will open in late October or early November.

The remaining Bella Luna partner, Joe Carchio, owner of Jersey Joe's deli in Huntington Beach, invested the time to select a menu and find a chef, but had no money in the partnership, he said.

"We're going ahead with the deal," Quick said. "The place is not in a rentable state right now."

He says Garofalo "kind of stalked off into the sunset" when the restaurant deal started to sour. Garofalo did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Zazula said he didn't want to name names or point fingers. But of the partners, he said, he invested the most, more than $30,000.

"Either we had to invest more or walk away from it, and of course there was friction between some people, but I'm not going to sit here and say who was responsible," Zazula said. "It was badly underfinanced."

There were problems with construction, cost overruns and a $7,000-a-month rent payment.

There just wasn't enough money to go around, Carchio said.

In addition, the partners said, even though Garofalo took a leadership role, he lacked restaurant experience.

Garofalo put in $15,000, including $10,000 from his children, Quick said. But he ran the partnership in such a way that it was more like "the blind leading the blind," Quick said.

But the other partners had figured that in Garofalo, they had a personality, someone who could bring in customers. Before his political downfall, Garofalo was president of the local chamber of commerce and a board member for a start-up bank. He headed numerous civic groups in town before he won a City Council seat as a pro-business candidate.

He was reelected In 1998, but within two years, he became the subject of ethics complaints, triggering investigations by the Orange County district attorney's office and the state Fair Political Practices Commission, with criminal charges to follow.

Quick and Carchio have restaurant experience. Carchio owned a restaurant in the city's northeast, and Quick had opened chain restaurants in the 1970s and was part owner of two other restaurants in Huntington Beach.

First-time failures are not unusual in the restaurant business, said John Dunlap, president of the California Restaurant Assn. As a rule of thumb, for every five restaurants that open, only one remains open after five years.

The Bella Luna partners say their best course is to sidestep problems and go forward with a new plan. For Garofalo, the comeback is on hold.

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