Why Sacramento South’s soul food restaurant is closing: Divorce

South co-owner N’Gina Guyton shocked Sacramento food lovers when she announced that her soul food restaurant Southside Park would close at the end of the month.

Among the surprised: Ian Kavookjian, co-owner of South and ex-husband of Guyton, who wants to keep the restaurant open.

“I was shocked, because I heard it second hand,” Kavookjian said. “South is doing well, and people are loving it, and there’s no reason to shut it down.”

He went to court to keep the restaurant open, and he won – at least on paper. Kavookjian won an emergency order barring Guyton from shutting down South, although she has no plans to run the business beyond this week.

He also expects even more from his ex-wife and business partner. Kavookjian wants the rights to restaurant recipes built on his family heritage.

Guyton has adapted many Southern star dishes from family recipes originating in Mississippi and Louisiana. This includes the restaurant’s fried chicken, arguably the best in Sacramento, and a passion project advertised in the restaurant’s website URL, weheartfriedchicken.com.

Kavookjian is white and Guyton is black. For her, the idea of ​​losing ownership of these Southern recipes is impossible to swallow.

“I’ve never been so angry in my entire life,” Guyton said. “It’s literally…an analogy to slavery. You want me to stay open and work for you, so you can get paid. You want to take something that belongs to me, that is part of my family, my culture and my heritage, and sell it so you can collect a paycheck.

Don’t expect South to stay open after Thursday, despite the judge’s orders. All employees have given their two weeks’ notice. Guyton plans to step down on June 30.

Kavookjian can find new employees and oversee the restaurant before South’s lease expires on July 31. The owner also offered a one-month extension until August 31.

“If Ian wants to come in and run this restaurant, he can. But I’m done. I have to be,” Guyton said.

Kavookjian, however, hasn’t worked at South for years due to medical reasons. He began asking Guyton to buy out its 50% stake in the summer of 2021, last seeking $1.3 million in February.

As patrons tearfully bid farewell to South’s fried catfish and hush puppies, he tries to keep the restaurant alive through the local justice system.

“Opening a small business and running it in California, especially in the food and service industry, is extremely difficult,” Kavookjian said. “We hit a home run with South. It doesn’t need to close.

The roots of the south

Hailing from New Orleans and New Jersey, respectively, Guyton and Kavookjian carved out independent careers in the Sacramento-area restaurant scene before meeting at Il Forno Classico in Gold River and getting married in 2005.

They opened a catering business called Private Events by Eight in 2009, then the short-lived Eight American Bistro in Granite Bay in 2012. That was enough to create a passionate expectation around South, which opened in 2014 in a building centennial that once housed a Chinese grocery store.

Guyton and Kavookjian’s restaurant stood out on Sacramento’s modern dining scene even before the fried chicken craze hit the United States. Thrillist called South’s burger the best in town in 2017. The restaurant made The Sacramento Bee’s first-ever Top 50 Restaurants list of 2021.

Kavookjian was the face of the house in those early years – “the mayor”, according to Guyton. She preferred to stay out of the spotlight, tending to administrative duties. Responsibilities changed over the years and the two eventually wore many hats, cooking and managing as needed.

Kavookjian began spending less time at South after developing a severe case of gastrointestinal diverticulitis in 2017, and stopped working there altogether shortly after her split from Guyton in September 2019, she said. .

Guyton also stepped back in early 2020 to start a farm in North Sacramento, which is now being sold to fund the legal fight. She returned to work at South five days a week earlier this year.

The two had their divorce mostly finalized in July 2021, but had yet to separate their business partnership, which Kavookjian’s attorney Kurt Hendrickson said could not be properly assessed at the time due to the pandemic. .

Guyton and Kavookjian went back and forth on a rough buyout amount — he wanted something in the range of $500,000 to $1 million, she offered closer to $100,000 — before Kavookjian solicited the business from California Business Valuations in September. The Los Angeles-based company estimated South’s capitalized earnings value, its anticipated earnings based on current earnings and expected future performance, at $2.7 million.

Kavookjian then demanded half that sum — about $1.3 million in return for his 50% stake — in February. In a letter from his attorney, he threatened to dissolve their company Eight American Bistro Inc. through the Sacramento Superior Court’s involuntary dissolution proceeding unless she paid him that amount.

Guyton responded in April saying she would agree to break up the company and shut down South. But while Kavookjian was willing to take a big buyout to get away from the restaurant, he didn’t want to see it shut down completely.

Kavookjian offered to buy Guyton’s 50% share in the restaurant – taking sole ownership of the name, liquor license and proceeds from South – if Guyton signed a non-compete/non-solicitation cause. which would prohibit him from opening a similar restaurant nearby.

Guyton rejected that offer, and the two sides began planning mediation last July. Then Guyton announced South’s impending closure in a social media video on June 3.

Long lines at restaurant in Sacramento

Customers formed hour-long queues outside the south during the restaurant’s final days. The last time it was this busy was in June 2020, when people sought to support black-owned restaurants amid the George Floyd protests.

That community appreciation is a big part of what once made Kavookjian and Guyton of South talk of the restaurant that could stay open for an entire century, he said.

“It’s got vibe, it’s got energy, it’s got food,” Kavookjian said. “The company has these recipes that Sacramento loves, and it’s been proven time and time again. I don’t want to see this ending.

Guyton doesn’t necessarily want to stop serving these dishes either. But she’d rather do it than see Kavookjian – or anyone else – take it.

“I think of my family’s handwritten cookbooks and cookbook cards and learning those recipes, learning my mom’s fried chicken from my mom, learning about okra from my grandma. -mother by her,” Guyton said. “It’s a legacy, it’s a tradition, it’s my family’s story. And you’re willing to take it from me so you can sell it to the highest bidder? So someone else can just go Colonel Sanders my family? For money? …It’s excruciating.

For Kavookjian, these recipes are the intellectual property associated with the restaurant he helped build.

“We incorporated to protect these (recipes) and keep them with the company. And they will stay with the company. That’s how it works,” Kavookjian said.

This legal battle over recipes will prevent Guyton from serving South’s dishes at his upcoming new restaurant, Miss N’Gina. The solo project in the “center of Midtown,” according to an Indiegogo page that raised more than $10,000 on Monday, is set to open this summer.

South’s menu was rooted in what customers associated with Deep South soul food. Miss N’Gina will challenge these preconceived notions of Southern cuisine, drawing dishes from all over the Gulf Coast, as well as cuisines from Arizona, northern Mexico and Native Americans.

Guyton and chef Willie Torres, a holdover from the South, will mine cookbooks for 100-year-old recipes and adapt them to modern Sacramento palates.

“In the South, our gaze was narrow. We really focused on food from Mississippi to Louisiana, strictly family recipes (with) a bit of tweaking,” Guyton said. “With Miss N’Gina, we really want to expand the Southern food lexicon.”

Meanwhile, Kavookjian will try to keep the South open without Guyton or any of the recent staff members, although he doesn’t seem too concerned about replacing staff.

“One of the things I’ve learned in 25 years of working in restaurants is that often no matter how integral you feel you are to the team and it can’t work without you, the reality is you quit, move on to another job and the restaurant stays open and it’s running,” Kavookjian said.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as breaking general news and investigative projects. A native of Sacramento, he previously covered affairs for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.

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