Nino Rabbaa, owner of Sonoma County's Flipside restaurant chain, getting out of business
The owner of what was once a fast-growing Sonoma County restaurant chain says he’s lost his appetite for opening new eateries and is now looking to sell his two remaining Santa Rosa locations.
Nino Rabbaa, the Paris-born entrepreneur turned restaurateur, says the New York-based investment firm that took a controlling interest in his Flipside Hospitality & Entertainment business in 2013 has scaled back its investment in the company.
As a consequence, Rabbaa said, he will not be moving forward with either the brewery in Rohnert Park that has been in development since 2012 or a creperie in downtown Santa Rosa he had hoped to open in the former location of his first Sonoma County restaurant, Rendezvous Bistro.
“I am basically walking away from this industry,” Rabbaa said. “I am moving forward in a different direction.”
He said it was premature to disclose his future plans. But Rabbaa stressed that his two operating restaurants, Flipside Bar & Burger on Third Street and Flipside Burgers and Wings on Calistoga Road, will remain open until he can arrange a new ownership structure, which he said he is committed to doing.
“I’ll spend all my money and all my kids’ money until I find a solution,” Rabbaa said.
Alex Gaudelet, the founder of New York-based Invest Hospitality, declined to describe the size of his investment in Flipside Hospitality & Entertainment or the reason he put the brakes on the venture.
“We had a pretty aggressive plan for growing the company and, for now, those plans are being reconsidered,” said Gaudelet, whose firm has investments in high-end restaurants worldwide, including Torc in Napa. He said he remains committed to the existing Santa Rosa restaurants and that he and Rabbaa, who have known each other since they were 12 in Paris, remain on good terms.
The changes represent a significant reversal for Rabbaa, whose entrepreneurial drive fed an ambitious plan to turn a single Santa Rosa bistro into a Sonoma County-based restaurant empire.
Even in the face of setbacks, like opening his first restaurant in 2009 in the throat of recession, Rabbaa championed Sonoma County as ripe for better restaurants and exuded self-confidence.
Earlier this month, as he showed a potential buyer around his now-shuttered Rendezvous Bistro, he brushed aside questions about money troubles by pointing to his BMW i8, a futuristic $160,000 hybrid sports car.
Last week, however, he acknowledged that paying leases on two prime retail properties that haven’t been generating any income for years is unsustainable.
Rabbaa, 39, moved to Santa Rosa in 2005 after marrying Megan Werth, who grew up here. He opened Rendezvous with his father-in-law, Jay Werth, in 2009, after spending what he said was more than half a million dollars on upgrades, including a large patio overlooking Old Courthouse Square.
He next opened the small, short-lived lounge Space XXV on the west side of the square.
Soon after, he began planning to open three significant restaurants in quick succession.
Flipside Bar & Burger opened on Third Street in 2012 after a lengthy renovation opened up the building’s walls, creating a unique and popular open-air dining experience.
Around that same time, Rabbaa set his sights on a high-end steakhouse in the St. Francis Shopping Center on Calistoga Road. Flipside Steakhouse and Sports Bar opened in 2014, later to be rebranded as Flipside Burgers and Wings.
Also in 2012, Rabbaa took over the concession stand at Spring Lake Park.
But an ambitious plan for a microbrewery and restaurant in Rohnert Park called Flip Brewhouse has become an expensive undertaking that still needs significant additional investment to get off the ground. Seeking to capitalize on Sonoma County’s reputation as a destination for craft beer aficionados, Rabbaa signed a lease in 2012 for the former Latitude Island Grill property on Roberts Lake Road. Invest Hospitality came on board the following year.
Rabbaa’s Facebook page shows a photo of him in the cabin of a private jet with Larry Campana, a former head of business development for Invest Hospitality, in late 2012.
To date, more than $1 million has been spent on the brewhouse concept, including purchasing all the brewing equipment, Rabbaa said. The city’s planning commission approved the project, but no building applications have been filed, according to city officials.
In 2014, Rabbaa closed Rendezvous Bistro, saying the concept had run its course. He talked about reopening the restaurant as a convenient creperie called Flip-a-Crepe, but now he says that “will never see the light of day.”
When Invest Hospitality was in control, Rabbaa remained CEO but said he stepped back from day-to-day operations. Two months ago, he came back as chief operating officer, and he said his goal is to find new owners for the existing restaurants and leases.
“I’m open for any discussion with anyone,” he said.
Rabbaa advertised the two Flipside locations in Santa Rosa two months ago for $1 million.
If no buyer is found, Rabbaa said, he could decide to continue operating the restaurants, reopen Rendezvous or find an arrangement that could see him as part of a brewery venture.
But he said his current goal is to stabilize the company, retire from the restaurant business over time and in a way that keeps the existing restaurants open and lets him spend more time with his family.
“I really want to make sure in this transition that we cross that bridge safely,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.