A key partner has revealed why it suddenly ended a commercial arrangement with celebrity chef Karen Martini’s restaurant Hero after she and manager Michael Gebran kicked off an ugly war of words earlier this week.
ACMI (formerly the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) at Federation Square claims a “breach of contract” ended the agreement with HospitalityM, the operator of Hero and its associated events management business, immediately shutting down the acclaimed Melbourne eatery.
HospitalityM had been the brainchild of Martini and Mr Gebran, who oversaw most of its operation, including Hero.
Both have lashed out publicly after ACMI, Australia’s peak screen culture museum, broke the news.
Mr Gebran took to Instagram late Monday to lash out at the decision, stating HospitalityM was considering legal action against the museum.
He added that ACMI informed the restaurant’s staff about the closure before he or Martini could make the announcement themselves.
The relationship had soured beyond repair since first pairing up with the venue in 2020 – coming to an ugly head on Monday.
“Everything that we were promised at that time in terms of visitation and numbers hasn’t come to fruition,” Mr Gebran said.
Mr Gebran claimed ACMI made the unilateral decision to shut Hero’s doors “without any notice” and communicated this to the staff before the restaurant’s management had a chance to respond.
“Right now, we’re in shock. They sent out a press release to the media advising that this was an amicable exit. We aren’t sure how amicable it is because – we’re currently seeking legal advice,” he said.
ACMI declined to comment on Martini and Mr Gebran’s allegations earlier this week but it has broken its silence.
It claimed HospitalityM failed to meet its legal and financial obligations and raised significant debt – ultimately breaching its contract.
There is no suggestion that Martini or Gebran were personally party to the agreement, nor is there any suggestion of wrongdoing on their part nor that they have not complied with any laws or legal obligations.
“This followed ongoing attempts to negotiate with HospitalityM over the past few months,” a statement said.
“Since Hero opened in November 2020, ACMI has provided ongoing support for HospitalityM − including payment concessions and multiple contract renegotiations − to help Hero in the face of ongoing challenges to the hospitality sector across the city.
“Unfortunately, HospitalityM has been unable to meet its legal and financial obligations under the agreement and has accrued significant unpaid debt. It would be inappropriate for ACMI to disclose the amounts owing by a commercial operator.”
News.com.au has contacted HospitalityM regarding ACMI’s new claims.
Martini told The Age’s Good Foodshe’d been left high and dry and given just five hours to close and vacate on Monday.
She labelled ACMI’s treatment “disgraceful”.
“I had no time to tell my suppliers, my customers, my staff. Many of our staff found out we were closing on social media,” Martini told Good Food.
“How is it that a civic institution could treat a private operator so uncivilly?”
Martini stated that her company had been in negotiations with ACMI for two years regarding the commercial terms of Hero’s lease.
She added Covid-19 had impacted trade, and foot traffic had been less than what was expressed in the original tender.
“We had been having ongoing discussions with ACMI trying to renegotiate our lease due to what was happening in the museum, and they chose to escalate this on Monday,” she told Good Food.
“We needed more operating flexibility than we had in the contract.”
Hero reportedly had seven years remaining on its lease.
ACMI says it will have a new food and drink offering soon.
Karen Martini has been a prominent figure in Melbourne’s hospitality scene for two decades, with Hero being her first CBD venue.
She gained widespread recognition as a TV chef on Channel 7’s Better Homes and Gardens.
In 2022, Hero ACMI made Nigella Lawson’s 13 favourite eateries in Australia.
“Karen Martini’s cooking is just pitch-perfect,” she said of the experience.