Football star sues Miami restaurant chain over deal. A murder case is one reason why

Former University of Miami football star Jonathan Vilma, pictured here in a promotional video for the design work done on his Pincho Factory restaurant. He is suing the restaurant chain over a business dispute.
Former University of Miami football star Jonathan Vilma, pictured here in a promotional video for the design work done on his Pincho Factory restaurant. He is suing the restaurant chain over a business dispute. - YouTube

Former University of Miami football and NFL star player Jonathan Vilma made a splash in South Florida’s business community, announcing he was partnering with a hip new restaurant chain to open five locations selling delicious sizzling Latin kabobs known as pinchos.

Two years later, only one of his Pincho Factory restaurants is actually serving hungry customers in Miami’s Brickell district. Construction is stalled on a second. Plans for three others are in limbo. Now, Vilma is suing the chain, claiming they engaged in shady business practices to doom his venture.

Oh, and he says they neglected to tell him that one of the company’s partners was suspected of bankrolling his father — who was wanted for murder and on the run overseas until his capture this week.

“Had Vilma known of the alleged criminal conduct of one of the key individuals [in the business], especially conduct relating to murder, he would not have associated himself with [Pincho Factory],” according to the lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade circuit court this month.

In the lawsuit, Vilma asks for damages for “substantial loss of time and money” he’s suffered dealing with the company in trying to find suitable locations for the franchises; the company later terminated its franchise agreements for all but the Brickell location.

A Pincho Factory lawyer shot back, saying the the claim about the fugitive father was nothing more than a “salacious subplot” included in the lawsuit to tarnish the chain, which didn’t know about the criminal investigation until it appeared in the Miami Herald earlier this year.

“We learned of it when Mr. Vilma learned of it,” said lawyer Alejandro Brito, adding that Vilma is an absentee owner who he said has flopped with previous restaurant ventures. “The story is really about Mr. Vilma’s development failures.”

The court battle adds another twist for a company whose meteoric success made it the darling of South Florida’s restaurant scene.

A burger at the Pincho Factory in Miami. CHARLES TRAINOR JR.

The chain is known for its grilled street food and hamburgers served in a sleek fast-casual setting. Three Miami-raised cousins, Nedal and Nizar Ahmad and Otto Othman, opened the first location in 2010 with $77,000 in savings and family recipes. It quickly has blossomed into a fast-growing Miami-based chain with 10 locations, more than 150 employees and millions of dollars in revenue.

In April, the company announced it had secured funding to open 10 more franchises in the Washington area, the first of which is to open by the end of 2018.

It also recruited Vilma, the former star UM linebacker who went on to enjoy a successful NFL career with the New Orleans Saints. Now a restaurateur, he also works as an ESPN college-football analyst.

Vilma has not been afraid to go to civil court in the past. In 2013, he filed a defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over how he characterized Vilma’s role in a controversy involving payments for injuring players. The suit was eventually dismissed.

In 2016, as Pincho Factory was fast expanding, the company announced that Vilma had signed a deal to open five franchise locations in Aventura, Miami Beach, Midtown, Fort Lauderdale and Brickell. The company announced he was “a longtime fan of the Pincho Factory brand.”

Little did Vilma know that at the time, Miami-Dade homicide detectives and prosecutors were investigating Yaddiel Marin, one of the original partners and investors in Pincho Factory.

Marin, 32, is the son of Manuel Marin, who ran several Presidente Supermarket locations until he fled the country for Spain in June 2011. Authorities say Manuel Marin masterminded and took part in the murder of his wife’s secret lover, Camilo Salazar, whose body was discovered in a rural area near the Everglades in June 2011. Salazar had been severely beaten, his throat slit, his genitals torched.

The State Attorney’s Office in April charged Manuel Marin, along with three others, including two former South Florida mixed-martial arts fighters. Prosecutors are seeking to extradite Manuel Marin — Spanish authorities arrested him late on Tuesday in Madrid, local media reported.

Manuel Marin
Manuel Marin Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office

Prosecutors have said in court that they believe Yaddiel Marin bankrolled his father, paying $10,000 a month to support his dad’s younger children. In March, prosecutors say he arranged to have his younger siblings and their mother visit Manuel Marin at a resort in Cuba.

Vilma felt blindsided by the allegations when he read about them in the Miami Herald, his lawyers wrote in the lawsuit.

“[The Pincho Factory] chose to hide the alleged criminal connections from VIlma, and instead used Vilma’s celebrity status for ... advertising and marketing purposes,” according to the lawsuit by lawyers Joel Magolnick and Omar Ali-Shamaa.

The Pincho Factory has insisted that Yaddiel Marin’s role in the company is minimal. “Yaddiel Marin was an early investor but has no day-to-day involvement in our business,” Pincho Factory’s CEO, Nedal Ahmad, wrote to the Miami Herald in May.

Brito, the company’s lawyer, said the company also was in the dark.

“We were entirely unaware of this situation with Mr. Marin and his father,” Brito said.

Vilma’s lawsuit does not allege that the supposed failure to reveal the criminal allegations breached any part of the contract. For now, the courtroom battle will focus on Vilma’s business beef with Pincho Factory.

Part of the lawsuit will focus on the Brickell Pincho Factory, which operated at a loss in its first year, normal for any restaurant. Vilma’s suit alleges that the company “conducted an improper inspection of the Brickell restaurant in order to fabricate” claims it wasn’t operating up to standards.

But Brito, the attorney, said the restaurant was rife with problems — the quality of the pinchos wasn’t good and cleanliness was an issue.

Said Brito: “He is either unwilling or incapable of operating the store to our brand’s standards.”

Miami Herald staff writer Carlos Frias contributed to this report.