Frank Capri received witness protection and used his new identity to wreak havoc on developers who wanted Toby Keith restaurants. Then, he did it again.
Patrick Breen, Arizona Republic
PHOENIX – Rascal Flatts makes music. But in the past two years, the band found itself unwittingly making money for a former mobster.
The group recently pulled the plug on a chain of planned restaurants branded with its name and its chart-topping country hits.
What Rascal Flatts got after signing a licensing deal was failed projects from California to Florida apparently orchestrated by a Phoenix businessman who has made a living driving restaurants into ruin.
Frank Capri isn’t about music. He’s a former Mafia soldier in New York’s notorious Lucchese crime family. After being busted for running a heroin pipeline in the 1990s, he turned government witness and got a new identity in the Federal Witness Protection Program.
The story of how the band from Ohio got involved with a Mafia turncoat in Arizona begins in 2012.
It involves a lawsuit over trade secrets, a blown licensing deal, a hopeful restaurant developer, a paper empire of Nevada corporations and a pair of front men. More precisely, a front man and a woman.
Rascal Flatts would not discuss Capri. In January, the band’s spokeswoman said Rascal Flatts is no longer in business with the company developing the restaurants or with Capri.
Rascal Flatts’ connection to the restaurants only went as far as its name. It had sold licensing rights for its name and had no ownership stake.
Chances are good the band had no idea Capri was involved.
A shadowy mastermind
Capri’s name does not appear on corporate documents tied to the Rascal Flatts restaurants. He isn’t listed on business licenses, liquor applications or building permits filed in cities across the country.
An investigation by The Arizona Republic found key aspects of the Rascal Flatts projects were controlled by Capri. Behind the scenes, Capri oversaw hiring, firing, employee payments, permits, construction schedules and collection of development fees.
Capri is best known for the epic failure of another country-themed restaurant chain: Toby Keith I Love This Bar and Grill.
Capri’s company Boomtown Entertainment LLC built 20 Toby Keith restaurants beginning in 2009 and announced plans to build 20 more that never opened. By 2015, all but one had closed amid allegations of fraud and theft.
Developers of malls accused Capri of taking millions meant for construction and walking away from the projects.
Capri declined multiple interview requests. In a 2017 letter to The Republic, he said stories about his past were false and defamatory. He said the Toby Keith closures were nothing “other than the product of a business failure.”
From Toby Keith to Rascal Flatts
In 2012, though, Boomtown Entertainment was living up to its name.
Philip Lama, then Boomtown’s chief financial officer, was the first to propose a Rascal Flatts restaurant.
Capri sued him for it.
“He took my concept,” Lama recently said from his home in Colorado. “How the hell did he get (Rascal Flatts) to do it? What the hell were they doing? I don’t know.”
Lama worked for Capri during the early days of the Toby Keith restaurants. He quit in 2011 and a year later announced plans to build the first of 11 Rascal Flatts American Bar and Grill restaurants in downtown Phoenix.
In a federal lawsuit, Capri accused Lama of stealing trade secrets to secure a licensing agreement with Rascal Flatts. He said Lama violated a signed confidentiality agreement by copying the business model Boomtown had designed for Toby Keith restaurants.
As proof, Capri pointed to a story in The Republic quoting Rascal Flatts’ lead singer Gary LeVox, who compared the planned restaurants with Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill.
Lama claimed in court he had uncovered evidence Capri had used “fake” Wells Fargo Bank letters to make it appear that Boomtown had millions of dollars in reserves. Wells Fargo officials told the judge the letters were not genuine.
When the judge refused to grant Capri an injunction preventing Lama’s project from moving forward, Capri filed a second lawsuit against Lama, this one in state court, for defamation.
About a year after the lawsuits were filed, Capri’s lawyer asked to withdraw from both cases because he had not been paid. The lawsuits were quickly dismissed.
Lama prevailed in court, but Rascal Flatts pulled out of the licensing agreement.
Lama was working at the time with another Phoenix restaurant developer named Chris Burka. Whatever friendship they might have shared is long gone.
“He was my partner and I got rid of him,” Lama said. “He never signed a contract because he couldn’t deliver. He claimed to be a finance guy with all of this experience … I didn’t see it.”
Burka responded he worked “briefly” with Lama, whom he described as having “lots of issues.” Burka said Lama wanted him to put up funds for a separate restaurant deal he couldn’t otherwise get financed.
‘That’s where Tawny came in’
After Lama and Burka parted ways without making a deal, Burka said Rascal Flatts’ business manager approached him.
Burka said it took time, but he secured naming rights from the band and put together a proposal. He said he took it to Tawny Costa.
“I really wanted it to be a business,” he said. “My interest was to have a couple (of restaurants) and open them up and operate them. That’s where Tawny came in.”
Costa was Burka’s partner in a Tempe bar called Blasted Barley. She also operated restaurants in San Diego and Boston. Burka called her “a nice person, young, an up-and-comer operator.”
But Costa had a relationship Burka said he didn’t know about.
She was Capri’s girlfriend and the mother of his two children. She took over management of the last remaining Toby Keith restaurant in Foxborough, Massachusetts, last year. And she has been accused in court of helping Capri defraud creditors.
Costa told The Republic last year that she didn’t have an ongoing relationship with Capri even as she served as his intermediary and messenger. She said she had no knowledge of his Mafia past.
Burka said they went forward with a series of business deals to build Rascal Flatts. They created a company called RF Restaurants in Las Vegas. The company filed paperwork, including building applications, to open as many as 19 Rascal Flatts restaurants.
Costa said she had no interest or ownership in the projects.
“I had no involvement, contact, or contractual obligation to any developer in any RF project nor am I responsible for any of the obligations of the owners of said company,” she said in a March email.
Burka said Costa routinely described herself as an owner. He said they went forward with construction of the first Rascal Flatts in Stamford, Connecticut, and had plans to follow with more. Burka minimized his own role in the company, saying he was supposed to get a percentage of profits in exchange for the concept and naming rights.
Restaurant dreams end in lawsuits
Stamford was the company’s first and last Rascal Flatts restaurant. It stayed open about a year before closing in August 2018 amid allegations that RF Restaurants failed to pay more than $1.1 million in rent.
Lawsuits followed the shutdown of RF Restaurants in Gainesville, Florida; Pittsburgh and Hollywood. Developers and contractors made allegations strikingly similar to ones made about the Toby Keith restaurants.
They said RF Restaurants took money meant to pay for construction of Rascal Flatts restaurants and walked away from the projects.
Contractors hired to work on the project said they had little, if anything, to do with Costa and Burka. They said Capri was pulling the strings on the projects, and they produced texts and recorded phone calls to back up their claims.
Burka said he had no idea Capri was involved, and he didn’t start putting it together until after projects started collapsing and developers called. He said he cut off all communications with Costa last year.
Burka said instead of restaurants, he got lawsuits that he is obligated to defend.
“I worked for years to put this together,” he said. “It is a great concept, and I think the band is unbelievable. They deserve much better than this … It’s a shame.”
Follow Robert Anglen on Twitter: @robertanglen
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