Illegal Food Owners Set The Record Straight on Sudden Closure

'Why did Illegal Food close? Quite simply put it was not a financially viable operation.'

‘Why did Illegal Food close? Quite simply put it was not a financially viable operation.’

Illegal Food Monday unexpectedly shuttered its Virginia-Highland doors after only two-and-a-half years in business.

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Disappointment and confusion from fans of the restaurant’s burgers and okonomiyaki fries poured in across social media.

While a reason for the closure was immediately disclosed, one of the restaurant’s employees Steven Lingenfelter, who on his personal Facebook page is listed as the establishment’s owner, claimed high rents were a contributing factor.

Didier Stahl and Kevin Cronin Thursday emailed What Now Atlanta to set the record straight.

“We are the owners of Illegal Food,” Stahl and Cronin said. “Steven [Lingenfelter] and Laurie were employees of ours and were not owners in any way, shape or form.”

According to Stahl and Cronin, Illegal Food’s landlord Elissa Pichulik had nothing to do with the closure. Instead, “quite simply put it was not a financially viable operation.”

Here’s the rest of their statement:

  1. The Pichuliks were one of the main reasons for Illegal Food having a space to begin with. Without them we would have never resurfaced after our exit from Joystick. They were real champions of our concept and even turned down offers from other very reputable and successful Atlanta restauranteurs to give us newcomers our shot.
  2. The Pichuliks NEVER tripled the rent on us, in fact when the rent increased (it definitely didn’t triple), as agreed and stated in the lease agreement, and we could not afford it the Pichuliks worked with us to continue operating while paying FAR LESS than the stated rent, (even less than the first year) They even got personally involved to understand if there was anything else they could offer to help us create a profitable business. They were 100% committed to us succeeding. They are really amazing landlords and any business would be lucky to have them as their partner. They have in fact taken a significant financial loss on Illegal Food and are still very supportive of me and my partner as we try to wind down the Illegal Food operation.
  3. Why did Illegal Food close? Quite simply put it was not a financially viable operation. In the 2+ years it operated it never made money or broke even. In fact even the joystick days were money losers. It was simply a money loser from day 1. My partner, myself and the Pichuliks have amassed combined debts of close to 200K+. We simply had no choice but to close the doors.
  4. Was it a shock to Laurie and Steven? It shouldn’t have been. We had been talking about shutting it down for over a year.

No word on what will open in Illegal Food’s place.

Caleb J. Spivak

Caleb J. Spivak

Caleb J. Spivak

Caleb J. Spivak

13 Responses

  1. Out of accuracy, I’m not the sole Pichulik landlord. We’re known as “The Pichuliks” in the business community. I work with my sister and aunt. I worked by my father’s side until his recent death. He really wanted to HELP Virginia-Highlands become a better place. We all wanted Illegal Foods to be a success and add to the community.

      1. Post death of a beloved family member, I wanted to speak of the legacy he left behind and built. Especially since the first article incorrectly trashed us as the reason behind the restaurant’s closure. Of course we want to maintain this legacy and help it grow! Our philosophy is his philosophy. We believe in Virginia Highlands and remember when it was Atlanta’s premier food scene. We would love to see it become that again.

        Per the article, we wanted Illegal to work. It just didn’t. See above article.

        1. Hi Mike,

          If you could let me know what part you took as me drawing conclusions I can explain the basis of my Inference.
          But in the mean time I can say I know all parties involved and am attempting to give a little perspective. The reason for my use of “Maybe and perhaps” is because I nor anyone else does or will know the inner workings or the reality of the exact situation.

      2. Ellen, it sounds like you have unrealistic expectations of how businesses operate. Per the article, they clearly worked with owners to keep the restaurant open, even sacrificing their own profit to do so, but if a business is not even breaking even, how long is one supposed to keep it on life support?

        We all have to pay the bills, so continuing to support a failing business is not something most of us can afford to.

  2. It seems (Steven and Laurie) were the working partners the others (Dieter and Keven were the financial (silent) partners. They were not hands on with daily functioning operations but did have control over the financial decisions and operations including the lease negotiation and signing as well as on going negotiations. On the flip side Steven and Laurie were in site making purchasing decisions and running the day to day of the physical shop and taking care of customers, staff and food preparation. Many, almost all businesses are set up this way.
    We had looked at and were working on taking the space when the meatball owners were selling and it was always made clear that the rent would not remain what it had been ($3500ish) and that it would double to meet today’s rates after a short grace period. This rent included all extras.

    The Pichulik family has always been one of the biggest supporters of Atlanta and Decatur as well as small business and not only did nothing wrong by setting up a lease that called for today’s rates they worked with the financial partners to help them thru what is always a difficult time for a restaurant, the first and second year. It is also possible the working partners were not aware a break was being given if the just as the financial partners may not have understood why sales were not covering costs let alone being profitable. This too is common in partnerships as well as any type of relationship.

    The fact is most businesses are not profitable in the first year or two and add to that what we all know has been a marked decline in VH traffic as well as the lack of sustainability of that space in general……
    I have a feeling there was a communication breakdown between the working and the financial partners and frustrations grew as things did not take off the way they probably all thought it would and that things got ugly and the end result is very unfortunate for everyone involved. Unless you have your hands and your mind in all parts of your business it is going to be difficult to see things and the reality of the “other side”

    I did not remember reading the original FB post from Illegal sounding like the landlords were being blamed due to rent but I will again say as I have a million times before, the rents may be too high to cover and be profitable due to the decline in traffic in VH but the rents are in line with the cities going rates. And not everyone is lucky enough to have landlords that will or can lower your rent. Also, not every landlord can see that it may be the area and the times not the actual business just as not every tenant can see the fact that unless they move to an area that has not yet been developed rent will not be cheaper.

    Louis was an amazing man and the girls are their fathers daughters.

    If the financial partners went to them and said we don’t want to do this anymore we need to find someone to take over the lease it is not their fault if they (the financial partners) were not being forthcoming with the working partners of that were the case. My guess is even if they were talking about things not being viable they did not want shop to fold up until the lease was taken over because they would be liable for the lease on a dead space and a dead space is harder to transfer than an active space” So even if all partners were aware it wasn’t working the working parters did not seem to know time was up until it was up and someone new had taken over the lease.

    I have sat behind the desk and stood behind the grill at my restaurant for over 20 years and unless you do that you will always have a difficult time seeing things from the other side.

    1. Steven/Laurie – is that you? Or perhaps their spokesperson? Otherwise, you didn’t read the article at all, and managed to craft a completely different narrative than the actual owners’ statements written quite plainly above.

      1. Daphne,
        Are you referring to my post? If so, no, as stated I am someone who knows the parties involved and think this is a horrible situation for every single one of them. The partners who worked their asses off to make it work, the partners pouring money in to make it work and the landlords taking a hit to make it work. But, as you or anyone else can see from every single opening article that came out on Illegal Foods Steven and Laurie were always listed as owners and or co owners/partners. It was never disputed by the financial partners until this rebuttal to them (the working partners) saying they did not know they were closing down for good on Monday until they couldn’t get in to the building on Monday.

        Here are just a couple of it helps to clear up and show the shades of gray…

  3. “Family Business” Wow, lets chill out. We’re not talking about Andy [expletive] Griffith here. Steven is probably one of the most passionate and knowledgeable Chefs in this city but he is also a total misfit and wild animal. The fact that the “owners” allowed this charade to carry on as long as it did is their own [expletive] fault. The fact that this concept was never reigned in and that the city has lost one of the most sincere efforts on the scene is a travesty. Steven Lingenfelter is a giant tallent, but he is a wild [expletive] dog, and someone with a strong leash needs to pick him up asap. Steven, stop doing whippits at your expo table and dispose of your cache of “bathroom malador” and don’t [expletive] your next second chance.

  4. In addition to what has already been said,there is bound to be a shakeout in the restaurant industry in this city with so much new development and new openings. Yes the city population is growing as well but it takes time to establish an equilibrium and as a result, there is bound to be some more really great resto’s that don’t make it.

  5. Was watching Food Paradise and saw the story on Illegal Food, Googled the location, we were making plans to go and experience those fries only to find out the restaurant folded. Too bad. Maybe it will come back.

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