by Nancy Stiles
Arcelia's Mexicana (1928 South 12th Street) is closed. The decision was announced on October 21 via Facebook, and comes in the midst of a legal fight between Marta Ramirez and Anna Tripp, both daughters of the Arcelia who opened the original Soulard mainstay back in 1990.
Ramirez tells Gut Check that the decision to close Arcelia's was only made in the last few days, but it was not because of the lawsuit.
"It was holding on for dear life because of a lack of volume and customers," Ramirez says. "It was nothing with the lawsuit."
After Arcelia Sanchez died unexpectedly in a car accident in 2003 at the age of 72, her son David Farias took over Arcelia's Restaurant. He filed for bankruptcy in 2009; the restaurant was closed by 2011. Tripp's suit (in which Farias is a plaintiff) says he closed Arcelia's "due to widespread economic recession."
"He had his chance. He had it when it was thriving, when it was on the very, very, very top," Ramirez says of Farias, who is eleven years her senior. "I can't control what happened [then]."
Instead, Ramirez and her siblings decided that they still wanted to carry on their mother's legacy -- using her decades-old recipes, still written in Spanish -- and start a new restaurant, Arcelia's Mexicana. This process was expedited considerably when they found out the woman Farias had sold the old Arcelia's building to was planning on opening a restaurant under the exact same name. (Read our coverage of that here.)
Tripp (who declined to comment for this story through her attorney) and her husband Stephen were to be main investors in the new restaurant, which was owned and operated solely by Ramirez through Arcelia's Original LLC. According to court documents, Tripp "advanced funds and made purchases for Arcelia's Original in the amount of approximately $40,046.62" for licenses, permits, "metal wire racks, an oak wood shelf, one metal and glass étagère, one butcher block knife set, two electric adding machines, one office chair and various personal photographs." Both parties agreed that the investment would be paid back in full from the proceeds of the restaurant.
Arcelia's Mexicana in opened in October 2012, but Tripp was out of the business by November. According to Ramirez, the Tripps were demanding their money back after the restaurant had been open only a matter of months. Ramirez had her lawyer draw up a promissory note that outlined a payment plan to at least start paying back the Tripps' investment and "ease her [Anna's] mind." The promissory note was returned, unsigned by Tripp, with the words "not acceptable" written at the top, according to documents submitted with the lawsuit.
Ramirez says she focused on running her business and was not speaking to her sister (although Tripp's children would sometimes work at Arcelia's) until Tripp filed the lawsuit against her on May 31. Not only did it demand the repayment of the investment, but due to the fact that Ramirez's "conduct as set forth herein was willful, wanton, and malicious," it also requested the Tripps be awarded punitive damages "in an amount of no less than $150,000." The suit also calls for $25,000 in actual damages for Farias and $150,000 in punitive damages for him as well (though it's unclear what his role in the business was at this point).
In August 2013 Ramirez filed a countersuit, denying Tripp and Farias' allegations and throwing out some of her own -- that Tripp "failed to manage staff while at the restaurant, and instead started arguments with and belittled Defendant Marta in front of staff," "negligently paying the same bills more than once," "made cash payments to employees including David without consulting with Marta" and "making cash payments to family members who did not provide a service to the restaurant." Ramirez is seeking $30,000 in consequential damages that occurred because of Tripp's alleged mismanagement.
Ramirez was adamant when Gut Check first spoke to her about the lawsuits in August that Arcelia's could still be a success.
"This lawsuit is not a priority. My business is my priority," she said. "In order for me to be able to make good with Anna, I have to be able to have a successful business."
When we checked back in with her yesterday, however, Ramirez says that her personal funds have been drained by legal and attorneys' fees, which she says could have acted as a cushion for the foundering restaurant.
Arcelia's is closed, but the legal battle wages on, with a court date scheduled for November 18.
"They're after the name [now] -- I don't know what else they could want," Ramirez tells us.
She stresses that she is not filing for bankruptcy, and although she admits she's "completely lost" right now, her plan is to open Arcelia's back up in a new location with lower overhead.
Ramirez says she considers Tripp, who is fourteen years her senior, a second mother, which made all of this that much more difficult. Other siblings have taken sides or stayed out of it completely, which Ramirez says she understands.
"I thought that this would die down -- it was just a sister fight, and we'll be back together soon. And it didn't happen," she says. "David was still around after Anna left, and I think because she was so angry towards me, he had a hard time understanding why we were so together all the time and so divided now."
The Tripps and Farias declined comment several times over the past few months through their lawyer.
"Hopefully blood really is thicker than water," Ramirez told us the night Arcelia's closed, "and hopefully we can just be a family again."
Continue on to read full copies of the suit and countersuit.