When Jude Dennis Marovic bought Vero, a wine bar at 1483 Second Avenue on the Upper East Side, in June 2018, part of the deal was assuming its lease for the next six years. The landlord, an LLC called Alliance 77, agreed. And things seemed to be going okay for about a year, until August 2019. That was when Alliance 77 and Sky Management — a sizable real-estate company that appears to own Alliance — wanted to redevelop the site, which would require tearing down the building. The request to Vero became a buyout offer, and Alliance suggested that if Vero stayed, the nuisance and noise associated with construction were going to make it intolerable anyway. They couldn’t come to an agreement, and the landlord moved to throw the restaurant out in September, giving it 180 days’ notice.
It’s not entirely clear, talking to both parties, whether that was on the level. Vero says it had a lease, and that’s that. Alliance counters that the lease included a demolition clause saying that if the building were to come down, the tenant would have to leave. (Each side has presented Curbed with what it claims is the valid lease; the clause appears in one and is missing from the other.)
And then, according to a lawsuit filed on March 9 in Manhattan Federal Court, the threats began.
Not long after Vero refused the offer, someone from Sky Management told Marovic that “he would be sorry, because [they] have ‘connections,’” according to the lawsuit. Marovic was told he would “regret” his decision to stay, and that Sky Management would “come after” him and his managers, court papers claim. One employee was so scared that she quit. Several days later, a man whose identity isn’t known showed up at Vero and allegedly told host Marko Matic: “You better give up this place, or you will end up in the back of a garbage truck.”
It sounds like something out of a Scorsese movie, or a New York City that you might think was left in the 1970s. “I was very afraid,” Matic admits to Curbed. “I was scared, because he told me he has powerful friends that would make my life miserable.” The man, he says, insisted that Vero had no choice but to go. “I told him that it’s America. We have legal rights. We have judges and courts, and if you want to kill me, kill me — I don’t care. But we’re going to stay here.” The restaurant remained open.
As the 180 days ticked down to none last spring, the pandemic hit, challenging every restaurant in New York and this one in particular. Vero closed in March, with expectations that it would be back in a few weeks. It didn’t open again until June, when Governor Andrew Cuomo green-lit outdoor dining.
On top of these difficulties, Sky Management allegedly engaged in still more mob-style bullying. As the neighbors started moving out, the real-estate company allegedly posted signs that warned of “‘rat poison’ and ‘danger’ and ‘asbestos’ all over the windows” on their empty storefronts. (Vero’s lawsuit maintains that these were fake, intended to intimidate and dissuade restaurant-goers.) Around the same time, Vero’s air-conditioning broke down. When Matic hired an HVAC tech to come in, the repair technician told him, “Marko, this was done manually. Somebody came and cut the pipes.” Still, Vero kept its doors open through the summer, serving outdoor diners.
This past fall, Alliance 77 took its eviction attempt to court. The landlord claimed in a lawsuit that Vero’s lease had expired at the end of March 2020. Around that time, Sky Management’s principal, Benjamin Ohebshalom, allegedly told Vero: “Even if we lose every case we bring in court, we have attorneys on retainer who will make you spend untold amounts of money just on legal fees,” the restaurant’s lawsuit claims.
Meanwhile, Vero’s streetery — built at significant cost to the restaurateurs — was demolished early one morning this winter. (The restaurant says it was Alliance’s doing.) The restaurant rebuilt it and saw it destroyed again. So the restaurant built a third structure, which is still in place for now. The lawsuit alleges that Ohebshalom “came to Vero on several occasions and personally removed or destroyed trees on several occasions.” Surveillance cameras last fall did indeed record someone tossing the restaurant’s outdoor planters and street partitions into a heap. Matic said he’s filed several complaints with the NYPD, and the department agency confirms that there’s an investigation in progress.
The landlords, as you’d expect, have a straightforward explanation: They say the restaurant is no longer supposed to be there, and is freeloading. “Vero refused to vacate,” they said in a statement to Curbed, “and has not paid rent or use and occupancy for the time it has spent in occupancy.” They also claim that Vero illegally connected an electrical line, and that the outdoor-dining structures weren’t permitted, spurring two Department of Buildings violations. Vik Pawar, Vero’s attorney, says that his client stopped paying rent only because Sky stopped accepting it: Beginning last spring, Sky Management began to reject Vero’s checks because of the planned demolition. Pawar also said, “The landlord is responsible for the electrical lines and my client had permit[s] for the outdoor structure. Their ignorance doesn’t justify engaging in illegal acts.”
This all brings up one obvious question: Why not move? Matic explained they’d put “everything” into the restaurant and loved the location. They fear that they’d lose whatever business momentum they’ve managed to retain. And, yes, some of their intransigence sounds like defiance. “I came from a war country,” Matic, who grew up in Kosovo and came to the U.S. in 1993, says. “I said, ‘I’m going to stay here and just fight and look for justice.’ … I’m not going to be scared and fear for my life every day.”