Ripp Rap 

Havana '59 founder Michael Ripp went from pioneering restaurateur to fugitive. Now he prepares to fight tax-related embezzlement charges.

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The menu at Havana '59 in Shockoe Bottom famously invokes Fidel Castro's 1959 Communist revolution: "At the beginning there was discontent and the people wanted …" That's the introduction to appetizers.

The restaurant, a local landmark, is known for its smoky, open-air atmosphere and Cuban-inspired cuisine, which consistently garners positive reviews from local food critics. It's also known for its creator, Michael Ripp, the hard-partying son of a well-known restaurant family.

But Ripp took the theme too far with his own wealth redistribution plan, according to city officials, who allege that he owes the city roughly $231,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties.

"He was stealing from the commonwealth, stealing from the citizens," says Sangeeta Darji, an assistant commonwealth's attorney for Richmond.

A trial in Richmond Circuit Court, scheduled for the end of May, will cap off a strangely protracted timeline. A grand jury indicted Ripp in January, but he didn't turn himself in until March 2. For nearly two months, Richmond Circuit Court considered Ripp a "fugitive," according to the court Web site.

Ripp declines to comment. His wife, attorney Angela Whitley, says via e-mail that she would like to discuss "my husband, his amazing creative talents, his love for the city and his current charges for failing to timely pay sales and meals tax." But, she adds, Ripp's attorney has advised her not to comment further.

Ripp's whereabouts during the two months before he turned himself in officially remain unknown, but at least one source has placed him in New Zealand with his ex-wife and son. He is now out on $90,000 bond, and the court has approved his request to take a business trip to New York later this month.

The city is charging him with felony embezzlement for failing to hand over meals' tax money. Of the 11 percent in meals and sales taxes added to customers bills, just over half goes to the city for infrastructure projects such as roads and schools. City Council increased the amount in 2003 to help pay for the planned performing arts center downtown.

Although Ripp collected the tax, the city says he didn't pass it along to tax collectors. Darji says that amounts to embezzlement, a far more serious crime than typical tax delinquency.

Despite the embezzling charges against Ripp, his supporters say that, over the course of his career, he's done more to help Richmond than most.

"He was one of the first ones down here [in Shockoe Bottom] to put a quality restaurant in, and it was a really nice operation," says developer David White, co-owner and managing partner of real estate firm Historic Housing, which is located in Shockoe Bottom. "I think he's a man of real vision."

Erika Gay, a project manager for downtown marketing outfit Venture Richmond, agrees. "Anyone who knows Michael … knows that he was an extremely successful businessman, and in order to do that you must be an extremely hardworking person and expend a great amount of blood, sweat and tears — which he did," Gay says. "So I just feel really bad for the guy."

Ripp opened Havana '59 in 1994, launching City Bar and Chophouse around the corner and O'Brienstein's — now Rosie Connolly's — next door. His businesses, all of which he's since sold, are widely credited with revitalizing the area. Just two weeks ago Style restaurant critics included Havana '59 in their list of Richmond's Best 50 Restaurants, and named Can Can Brasserie, owned by Michael's brother Chris, Style's Restaurant of the Year.

"Vivacious basically encapsulates everything that is Mike Ripp," says Dan Roberts, a former Havana '59 employee who works as a bartender at Buddy's Place in the Fan. "He is bursting at the seams with charisma."

Ripp declared bankruptcy in 1996. He was $1.95 million in debt, including more than $600,000 in unpaid federal, state and local taxes.

"Anybody in Richmond who has worked in a restaurant has a Mike Ripp story," former City Bar employee Sean Lowder says.

Often that story involves bouncing paychecks.

"We had to go to the Sue's [Franklin Super Market, the convenience store] around the corner from Havana '59 because no bank would take his checks," Lowder says.

But Roberts, the former Havana '59 employee, says he didn't worry about his paycheck bouncing: "I rarely had to deal with cash. He was always totally cool to me."

Ripp sold the business to Sue Lee in 2006. They initially worked together, but Lee says that Ripp has no official involvement with the restaurant and makes money helping his brother Chris and father, Richard Ripp, who owns, among other restaurant holdings, several of the most profitable Arby's franchises in the country.

Matt Flowers, another former City Bar employee, recalls working with Michael Ripp. "It was just a little spastic working for him — he'd just get pretty crazy. It was always kind of like a party going on," Flowers says. "You would go in and wouldn't know if you were gonna get into a wrestling match and break a bunch of stuff, or have the calmest day. It was a very spastic working environment."

At least one employee thought Ripp's energy went too far. In 2001, police arrested Ripp on charges of assaulting City Bar waitress Courtney Anne Cole. In her criminal complaint, Cole writes that on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, after serving Ripp and his wife drinks during closing hours: "Mr. Ripp proceeded to twist my fingers and hand until I said 'mercy' hoping he would let me go. Then he proceeded to bite me."

The suit was dismissed on appeal. S

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