Bootleg Pizza is closing this weekend, marking a truncated run for the pop-up that became a food truck and then restaurant. The Mid-City space on Pico Boulevard will no longer carry the Bootleg name after this weekend’s service, but it’s not likely to be the last time anyone tries chef Kyle Lambert’s unique style of thick-crust pan pizza. “I plan on doing some pop-ups again,” said Lambert when reached by phone, “and hopefully in the near future to be in a new spot.”
By Lambert’s account, Bootleg Pizza had been doing well at its Pico Boulevard location, crafting a robust local following after first opening at the height of last winter’s deadly coronavirus surge. “We’re definitely not closing because of a lack of business,” says Lambert.
Instead, Lambert and others tell Eater that the very same business deal that brought Bootleg Pizza, the restaurant, to life is the one that is now sinking the space for good. After many months spent cooking in itinerant kitchens and in a food truck, Lambert was connected to Rob Vinokur of the Playhouse Group, and together the pair began to plan a Bootleg Pizza on Pico Boulevard. An early version of the deal between Lambert and Vinokur (also known as “Russian Rob”) was verbally agreed to but not formalized on paper, Lambert says, with the Playhouse Group assuming costs for the lease at 5504 W. Pico Boulevard as well as the build-out. That company would also handle billing, payroll, and other operational tentpoles, while Lambert would bring the recipes, the labor, and the Bootleg Pizza name.
“There was really no formal deal,” says Lambert. “It opened without one. We’d only discussed things, and then it just got rolling.”
Vinokur agrees, roughly, with the financial side of the early terms of the deal, though he disagrees with Lambert on other points — including the reason for Bootleg’s closure this Sunday, August 29. “He invested zero money,” says Vinokur by phone, “and he had zero to lose.”
“I put up my money for people to be able to start [their own restaurants],” says Vinokur, who was an early investor in Tacos 1986. “I do this because I enjoy the business and I want to help people.” As part of that process, Vinokur says, his company oversees much of the logistical aspects of the business and sets up procedures (from human resources to payroll to ordering) to follow. When it works, Vinokur says, the Playhouse Group is a collaborative partner for young operators moving into the next phase of their business; when it doesn’t work, things can turn sour quickly.
“It's an unfortunate situation,” says Vinokur, “Kyle, as nice of a guy as he is, is just not an [experienced] operator.” He adds: “We have to make sure that we follow the standards. It’s my license on the line, my everything.”
Lambert says that he feels the business was smoothly operating day-to-day and turning a profit as a result, though he found it difficult to communicate with the Playhouse Group team and to receive requested financial documents relating to the overall health of the business. He claims that lacking an early, formalized deal with Vinokur led the Playhouse Group to try to take over Bootleg Pizza entirely and to force him out, even going so far as to register multiple different limited liability companies using the Bootleg Pizza name and address, without notifying Lambert.
A search of California state records reveals multiple LLCs created in fall 2019 by Robert Vinokur, using names like Bootleg Pizza International, Mid-City Pizza, and Bootleg Pizza Holdings. The latter company also began a trademark process for the Bootleg Pizza name and logo, which Lambert says he was unaware of until recently. When asked about the status of the trademark for Bootleg Pizza, Vinokur tells Eater: “From [Playhouse Group’s] perspective, we own it jointly.”
After an attempt at a formalized deal fell through, Lambert says, followed by a failed buyout offer to remove Vinokur from the business, lawyers on both sides got involved.
“Since we can’t come to an agreement, the place is no longer going to operate,” Lambert says. “I’m disappointed. I didn’t want for it to ever come to this.” Vinokur says much the same: “It’s an unfortunate situation. I wish that it didn’t happen.”
As for Bootleg Pizza, Lambert says that he’ll be back up and running — hopefully with the Bootleg Pizza name and no further trademark disputes — soon. Vinokur, whose Playhouse Group also operates restaurants like Calle Tacos and Joe’s Pizzas across Los Angeles, isn’t sure yet what he’ll do with the lease on the Pico Boulevard building, but the collapse of Bootleg the restaurant hasn’t dimmed his desire to work with other upstart operators. “I’m still invested,” says Vinokur. “I truly believe there’s a lot of talented chefs out there that just don’t have the operational experience to get a brick-and-mortar [restaurant] off the ground.”
In a statement posted to Instagram after publication, Lambert puts the situation in a different light, saying simply: “I got fuckin’ bamboozled.”
In talks with Eater, Lambert says he’ll be much more cautious in the future when vetting business partners. When asked if he’s learned anything from the opening, and closing, of Bootleg, Lambert says simply: “Treat it like a serious business, because it turns out that it is. Don’t go too fast; there’s sharks out there.” The final day of service for Bootleg Pizza on Pico Boulevard is Sunday, August 29.