PART 2: Untangling the Secrets & Lies Of Grill Italia in Amarillo
NOTE from Editor: This is a continuation of a two-part series in-depth look into the enigma of Grill Italia and the events that unfolded behind the scenes. You may read the first part HERE.
There is something to be said about a life spent on the infinite golden prairie that is Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle..
Out here on the prairie, the wind carries away all things. Out here on the prairie, you can be seen from miles away. Out here on the prairie, illusions cannot be maintained.
And an 'illusion' is what seems to be how Grill Italia is best described. When a charming stranger who introduced himself as Pepi Osmani came to Amarillo from New York City with his promise of a visionary Italian restaurant, nobody could have anticipated the incendiary collapse that would take place over the coming months.
"My life has been nothing but chaos since I took that job," said Amanda Berry, who was the Front Of House manager for Grill Italia in its last days.
Beautiful, with a calm assertiveness that has served her well in her years in the service industry, Berry does not falter as she draws from recent memory. Contacted in early July by Osmani for an interview on the same day, the restaurateur proclaimed her resume as impressive and hired her on the spot.
"He told me right away that he had been shut down four times, that this would be his fifth time to reopen. He blamed it on the health department." she said as she brushed a strand of soft lavender hair out of her eyes.
"Then he told me he had a lawsuit against the health department, which he won. And so the health department could never go in there," Berry smirks slightly as she continues. "Now....you and I both know that's not possible."
All throughout the dizzying, ephemeral lifespan of Grill Italia, there are few questions that can be answered. But perhaps the one that looms darkest is the overarching one: Who is he?
Who is Pepi Osmani? Why did he come to a mid-sized city in the Texas Panhandle? Why the chaos? Why return again, again, and again?
Who is he?
"Rex is a real person. He sounds like he's not, but he is," assured Jeremy Heffington. "I was introduced to him as Rex. Where Pepi came in? I don't know."
Before Garrison, before Longo and Baldi, before Berry....there was Heffington, the very first chef for Grill Italia. It was Heffington who was there from the start. He and another chef who labored through the first three weeks Grill Italia opened for business.
"Me and another chef came up with the entire menu. The other chef wants nothing to do with this nightmare, but me? I'm ready to talk."
Heffington tells of how Pepi, then known as Rex, had pulled his resume off Indeed, then obtained his personal phone number, and began to contact him, insisting that Heffington come to Grill Italia for drinks and to talk.
"I tried to avoid Pepi for a little while," he admitted. "I worked right by the place. In the beginning, it didn't look like they were set up to really do anything."
But when things went downhill at Heffington's job, he gave in and went to the old BL Bistro to see Osmani.
Under The Table
With exotic dark features, infectious energy, and an unmistakable charisma--it's easy to believe what the native Albanian has shared about himself. That he was a seasoned and successful restaurant owner from New York City. He had seen it all, done it all, and was ready to succeed again in the Texas Panhandle.
Heffington: When I met him for the first time and sat down to talk to him, it all looks flashy on paper. He had pictures of him, saying he's a Michelin accredited chef. He talked to me for 15 minutes. I agree to $700 a week. I only ever saw $100 from him for three weeks of work.
TJ Garrison was the first to take to social media in a fiery campaign against Grill Italia. In an interview given in March, Garrison cast heavy doubt on Pepi's restaurant experience.
Garrison: He said he moved here from New York ran some high end restaurants...but he acts like he has never ran a business before. Doesn’t know how to price menu items, thinks people will just work for free, they tried to get most of us who worked to be paid cash under the table--until we refused and said we wanted actual tax forms. There is definitely something shady.
Amanda Berry echoed an uncannily similar statement in her interview given five months later in August.
Berry: He wanted to pay everyone under the table. Every single person. So there is absolutely no proof that any of us have worked there. Because we didn't fill out any W-2s. I mean, you've got a restaurant running with people working...And you don't have a record of any single person working for you? There is not one single person who filled out a W-2.
Responsibility and commitment are arguably the key to nurturing a successful business. These two core qualities begin at the most basic level: paying the bills.
Berry: The day after I started--a Wednesday--there's a kid working there who comes in and says, 'has Pepi called you?' I said no, what's going on? Well, the power is out. So you might as well go on home.
The next day we go in, everything's back on and he said that someone had cut his line. He blamed it on ATT.
She goes on to detail the multiple incidents involving unpaid bills and disconnected utilities that took place in rapid-fire sequence in the short two weeks of her employment. A glaring theme is the blame Osmani shifts onto external forces rather than his acknowledging his own failure to make payments.
Little did Berry know, the fluid deflection of fault would soon prove to be Osmani's calling card.
One week after her start date, Osmani told Berry he needed to go to Walmart for food and she drove the two there in her car.
Berry: He needed some stuff from Walmart. So I drove him to Walmart. He loads up his basket. Oh I mean overflowing with wine bottles. He also bought beer at Walmart as well. You cannot do that. You have to go through TABC compliant channels.
Berry and several other employees confirm that Osmani had routinely purchased wine from the clearance shelves of Walmart for less than $20 and resold them at prices of $60-$70. But far more serious than an unethical profit margin is the instance of a restaurant purchasing alcohol through non-TABC established channels.
However, Osmani was likely left with no other option to do so, because he had been effectively blackballed by every distributor in the area due to debts and bounced checks.
Heffington: Every supplier we were talking to--one was telling us 'we cannot deliver' till he pays $2,400 to this company, then he owes $1,000 to a local vegetable company, several thousand to Cisco. He was running tabs all over town, not paying one distributor then going to another. Open up one f***ng bullsh*t account. Get us enough to go for two weeks. He wasn't paying anything to anybody.
One representative for a distributor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the first check written by Osmani had bounced. They informed him that they would make no further deliveries until he could make good. They never heard back. Soon after, an employee of the distributor relayed that the restaurant had begun to purchase alcohol from Walmart and other non-TABC compliant outlets.
Berry's independently given first-hand account of Osmani's illegal alcohol purchases would confirm the statements given by the representative and Heffington.
Shortly after her start date, Berry was informed that he would be leaving the country in two weeks to attend to a family matter.
He boarded his flight to Albania early in the day of July 14. Shortly after his plane took to the skies, Berry received a phone call from the chef. The Comptroller was at Grill Italia in pursuit of unpaid taxes--and they were unhappy. Berry rushed to the restaurant and meekly informed the Comptroller that although she was the Front-of-House manager, she had not even worked there a full two weeks.
When the Comptroller asked where the restaurant's cash was, Berry had to inform her that Osmani kept no cash in the building.
Berry: He doesn't keep any cash in the restaurant. I said, most of the money coming in is through credit cards. If anyone pays with cash, we've got to provide our own bank--most restaurants do that. But there was no cash on hand. We always had to wait till the end of the week for our tips, when we got them on our paycheck.
Berry explained this to the Comptroller, who responded: "Well, isn't that convenient for him?"
Staff were able to make contact with Osmani, who was in the midst of his flight overseas. After a heated back and forth over the phone with the Comptroller, he was told that they would return in a week to shut Grill Italia down, changing the locks and seizing the assets.
Heffington: He was paying us personal checks. He only ever cut me a check for $100. It was like 'Oh I'll get you next week' or ''I'll get you a check when I get back in town, and then he disappeared for a week. His stories never made sense.
Screenshots from Osmani himself provided to Berry and another employee show that a freeze of $35,000 had been put on his account by the comptroller.
As it would soon turn out, Grill Italia's doors would not be locked by the Comptroller, but the landlord, who had had enough.
Berry: When I talked to the landlady, she said that the last time she closed him down and changed the locks because he hadn't been paying, he left the country and went to Mexico for four or five days with his wife. So she's done. She refuses to let him back in.
As it turned out, the landlady had dealt with him many more times than just when he had fled to Cancun.
Heffington: Three days into it, I meet the lady who actually owned the building. It's 2:30 in the afternoon, we're setting up to devise a menu....landlord shows up wondering why she's not getting paid rent. She comes in and makes us leave. Rex disappears, he promises he's coming back.
The building was put on the market with special pricing promised to anyone who would put it under contract soon.
Conversations with Osmani revealed that he had known about a potential shut-down by the Comptroller well before he had hired Berry and the other staff members. But there was yet another addition to his legal woes that had been added to his dish of troubles.
On July 11, Herring Bank filed a suit against Grill Italia, LLC and its representative, Rexhep Osmani in the Potter County Court at Law #2. A writ of sequestration (an order directing a sheriff or constable to seize property until a judgment has been made) had been granted and records show that Osmani was served on August 25.
TJ Garrison, in his interview given in February, stated that his paychecks could not be drawn from an account Osmani had with Herring Bank because it had been frozen. Berry, too, recounted that her final paycheck following the Comptroller's visit bounced at Happy State Bank and was informed that a freeze had been put on that account-a detail confirmed by Osmani to Townsquare Media.
In order to last as long as it did, Grill Italia had to have been sustained by at least some substantial influxes of money. If one were to go by the accounts of his former employees, each time Osmani departed he would return with just enough money to buy himself time and favor.
So where did it come from?
Garrison: I really don't know. Money has to be coming from somewhere. Austin Ensley (a chef who briefly worked at Grill Italia following Garrison's departure) says he knows Pepi's cousin in New York. Says it's old Italian money. I don't know if he is referring to the mob or what, he tried scaring me with that.
Ensley was unavailable for comment.
Berry: Pepi is like a tornado. Talking to him is a headache, his texts are all over the place. It's the same thing over and over. I feel as if it's that he doesn't ever want you to know the truth.
Heffington: It became pretty apparent that he wasn't who he said he was. He was driving a brand new Cadillac. He was living in Nashville, he moved out here towards Bishop Hills. None of that was true.
Berry: He didn't have a car. I drove him everywhere. He lived in the apartments behind Tyler's BBQ. Ashton Place, I think? But he got evicted from there, too.
Heffington: As far as who he is for when he was in New York, all we could ever find were criminal charges. Everything he said he did in a restaurant was accredited to his father. All we could find about Rex was that he was coked up, running around, beating up doormen at clubs and causing problems.
Berry: He told me and Freddie that he grew up in New York City. Like he was born in Albania, but he grew up here. And then he'll tell us "Well, I'm just an immigrant." He has such a strong accent, like there's no way you grew up in New York.
Indeed, record searches show Osmani in New York City as far back as 2010, where vital records show his marriage to one Lisa S. Vega on June 30, 2010. But no trace of him could be found beyond that.
Heffington: This is one of the biggest cons I've fell for, and I fell for it twice. One day in the kitchen, the other chef breaks down. And I'm like 'oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?' And at that point of time we started thinking this was all a fraud for laundering money through here. Something. It had to be a front, nothing was real.
Heffington's last remark is a chilling endorsement of a statement made by Guilio Baldi, a young chef from Italy who was insistent that he had been lured to Grill Italia on false pretenses and expected to work illegally for the restaurant. When asked why he thought Pepi Osmani and Alfio Longo were there in Amarillo, Baldi's scathing reply was:
That asshole son of a syphilitic slut finds people through Alfio to bring to America and work illegally.
It is unclear if Baldi's statement was meant as insult or insight, as the young chef did not elaborate.
Berry, too, finds herself haunted by the question that has absolutely no answer: why Osmani chose Amarillo.
Berry: I don't get it. Why? Why? Why does he keep coming back? Everything he touches turns to dust. People see him for who he is. I didn't expect him to come back from Albania this last time. I was shocked. So WHY? It's the same damn thing all over again. Why?
Heffington admits that he has spent the last year trying to forget what happened to him inside the old BL Bistro and is haunted by the illusion he called Rex.
Heffington: The pictures of him that he showed us with a Michelin star chef--that's his father. Not a chef. Rex wasn't anything. He barely graduated high school. He's just a con man.
With all this told by the various people who have crossed paths with Rexhep "Pepi" Osmani, the one ethical thing to do would be to present him with the collected statements for him to comment on.
But as it stands, Rexhep Osmani is no longer there.