EARLY THIS YEAR, the Quartet restaurant was hailed by the city's food press as a further sign Portland's economic storms were calming.
The posh eatery opened up shop in a prized bit of waterfront real estate—a building that hadn't been occupied since the short-lived and opulent Lucier flamed out four years prior.
Back then, recession-embattled diners couldn't justify the high-end prices. Would the new "contemporary American" restaurant avoid the same fate?
"The butterflies are not there," restaurateur Frank Taylor told the Oregonian before Quartet's opening. But perhaps Taylor's stomach should have housed a Monarch or two.
Almost as soon as its Valentine's Day launch, Quartet began falling behind in payments to suppliers, according to a lawsuit filed by prominent Portland business leader Roy Jay earlier this month.
The restaurant is said to be "hemorrhaging" money, leaving its investors on the hook for what was once pitched as a lucrative opportunity. What's more, current and former employees of Taylor's tell tales of paychecks bouncing, and of tips withheld so the company can pay its bills.
"Actually, it's worse here than it is over there," said a woman who answered the phone recently at Portland Prime, a downtown steakhouse also run by Taylor. "We're all sweating bullets."
Jay, who has publicly mulled over past runs for mayor, filed the lawsuit on August 20 in Multnomah County Circuit Court. The businessman also has ties to public money via a role operating the city's SmartPark garages.
Jay says Taylor and a business partner out of Arizona, Paul Keeler, approached him last November with a proposition: For a $60,000 investment, they said Jay could have a piece of a restaurant that would net at least $1 million profit in a year's time, the suit says. Jay claims he eventually invested $70,000, and signed his name to a sublease, "exposing himself to personal liability."
But two months into operation, the restaurant was already on a "cash basis" with its suppliers, Jay says he's learned.
"In other words, vendors would no longer accept the LLC's checks or credit," the suit says. "Given the foregoing, the LLC is in imminent danger of insolvency."
The exact state of Quartet's finances are "murky" says Alec Laidlaw, the attorney who filed the suit. "The situation is just as dire as is listed in the complaint," Laidlaw says. "It's just really hard to get an accurate picture."
The upshot: Jay wants his $70,000 back, plus half a million dollars in non-economic damages—amid concerns for his reputation. He tells the Mercury he wouldn’t be surprised if his fellow investors file similar lawsuits.
“It is unfortunate, but neccessary based upon what we know, observed, and have been told,” Jay said in an email.
Taylor and Keeler did not return repeated calls for comment.
People who've worked for the pair, contacted by the Mercury, are happy to confirm some of Jay's claims. According to the employee at Portland Prime, it's not uncommon for paychecks to bounce, and the staff's credit card tips are withheld for weeks.
"They keep our tips in order to keep the lights on," she said, declining to give her name. "You get them in a month or so."
A man who worked as a server at Quartet earlier this year tells the Mercury many of the same stories.
"There was a poor cook—he made no money there and had to feed his family," said the former employee, who asked not to be named. "He cashed his check and it bounced, of course. He was yelled at for cashing his paycheck."
Too-low prices aren't responsible for the alleged financial problems. Diners are hard-pressed to find an entrée for less than $30 at Quartet, and the restaurant sells steak dishes for as much as $95 a plate.
Quartet has seen some high-profile action in its short life. In May, Stevie Wonder played a small fundraiser in the glass-walled dining room—on his 63rd birthday, no less. A month later, Baruti Artharee, a policy advisor to Mayor Charlie Hales, spurred heated controversy (and an internal investigation) after he made suggestive comments about a county commissioner at the restaurant.