My Neighbor Félix Lawsuit Could Shut Down Alma Fonda Fina | Westword
Navigation

My Neighbor Félix Lawsuit Aims to Shut Down Alma Fonda Fina

One of these things is not like the other...
Chef Johnny Curiel (right) debuted Alma Fonda Fina in December 2023.
Chef Johnny Curiel (right) debuted Alma Fonda Fina in December 2023. Shawn Campbell
Share this:
"We are extremely disappointed that My Neighbor Félix has filed a lawsuit to try and shut down Alma Fonda Fina," reads a statement posted on Alma's Instagram story on March 20. 

And we're disappointed, too.

Chef Johnny Curiel and his wife, Kasie Curiel, opened Alma Fonda Fina in the former Truffle Table space, at 2556 15th Street, on December 8. The intimate eatery's fine-dining take on Mexican fare quickly proved to be a refreshing addition to the neighborhood, and the chef's counter has become one of our favorite seats in town.

Both Curiels formerly worked for My Neighbor Félix, which is a more casual Mexican concept with a party atmosphere and several sprawling locations — the first of which opened just a few blocks away, at 1801 Central Street, in September 2020. It's operated by Lotus Concepts, which also owns ViewHouse and the new Wonderyard in the Ballpark neighborhood.

As first reported by BusinessDen, My Neighbor Félix sued Kasie Curiel, its former executive general manager, and Alma Fonda Fina on March 11, requesting a temporary restraining order. If approved, it would essentially shut down the small restaurant, which employs "approximately sixteen people, not including [Kasie]," according to a response filed by Kasie.

At the crux of the dispute is a non-compete that Kasie signed in 2020 not to work, manage, own or operate a competing business within a five-mile radius of a Lotus Concepts restaurant for two years after leaving the company. “Defendants were free to open a competing business so long as they complied with the non-compete provisions, waited another eighteen months, or simply opened a different type of dining restaurant,” the lawsuit claims.
click to enlarge mole sauce on a plate
A mole dish from Alma Fonda Fina.
Shawn Campbell
But when comparing Alma Fonda Fina to My Neighbor Félix, it's clear that one of these things is not like the other. There are definite differences.

A visit to Alma is an elevated dining experience with thoughtful decor in a small space where the food is bursting with flavor and rich backstories from Johnny's heritage, upbringing and travels. It's certainly much more fine dining than "casual."

My Neighbor Félix is known as a place to meet with friends for margaritas (sometimes too many margaritas), decked out with neon signs and fake plant walls.

From a diner's perspective, comparing the two is like pitting Olive Garden against a small trattoria. Yes, they both have some relation to the same cuisine, but the same type of restaurant, they are not.

The idea that a 36-seat restaurant could steal a significant amount of business from a spot that can fit over 200 guests at a time is hard to swallow — especially when the My Neighbor Félix patio in LoHi is regularly packed with diners (and there's often a wait list).

According to one My Neighbor Félix filing, "This case ultimately hinges on whether Alma Fonda Fina — a self described 'contemporary Mexican fare' restaurant intended to be 'a humble neighborhood spot for friends and family to gather' — either (1) is a full service casual Mexican restaurant; or (2) has a menu that primarily features craft Mexican cocktails, locally sourced ingredients, and derives forty percent (40%) or more of its gross sales from the sale of alcohol."

In her response, Kasie notes that "Alma does not derive forty percent (40%) or more of its gross sales from the sale of alcohol."
click to enlarge awning over an entrance on a brick building
My Neighbor Félix has been operating in LoHi since 2020.
My Neighbor Felix
Kasie also filed a request to "respectfully move to disqualify Springer & Steinberg P.C. from representing Plaintiffs My Neighbor Felix II Corp. and My Neighbor Felix IV Corp. (collectively, 'My Neighbor Felix') in this matter" has been filed by Alma's lawyers, Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti LLP.

That's because Springer & Steinberg P.C. is the same law firm that "represented Kasie Curiel in connection with her divorce proceedings in Denver District Court," according to the document. That divorce was finalized before she and Johnny were married last year.

"While Springer & Steinberg still represented her, Curiel resigned from her position with My Neighbor Felix and started a new restaurant of her own. Now, Springer & Steinberg has turned around and sued Curiel on behalf of
My Neighbor Felix, asking this Court to enforce a noncompete in My Neighbor Félix’s favor and award injunctive relief that, if granted, would shut down Curiel’s new restaurant and decimate her financially. ... Furthermore, the evidence suggests that My Neighbor Felix first learned about Curiel’s new restaurant through information that Curiel provided Springer & Steinberg for purposes of legal representation. Because this situation presents a clear violation of the ethical obligations imposed by Colorado Rule of Professional Conduct 1.9, and to preserve the integrity of these proceedings, the Court should grant this motion and disqualify Springer & Steinberg from representing Plaintiffs."

"Lotus Concepts Management is disappointed that recent legal issues are being aired through the media," says Lotus in a statement sent in response to questions about the latest filing. "Kasie was aware of the restrictions of her non-compete when she signed it and this is a simple issue of her not abiding by her contract. Lotus Concepts continues to keep and is committed to keeping the well-being of their 1500+ employees top of mind, along with the well-being of the company so that it can continue to provide employment and growth opportunities for all of its employees across Denver and surrounding areas."

Lotus had asked that a temporary restraining order be issued at a March 22 hearing. But instead, My Neighbor Félix said that its current law firm plans to withdraw from the case and a new attorney will represent the company going forward, according to an update from Alma Fonda Fina. "We will provide additional updates as the case progresses," the Curiels add. "We remain open for business and greatly appreciate the community's tremendous support."

This story was updated late on March 22 to include information on the outcome of the hearing that day.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. Your membership allows us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls. You can support us by joining as a member for as little as $1.