- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.- At the Knife & Fork Inn, a family feud was always cooking. It just never got in the way of the lobster thermidor.

A new one might, though: In a bitter split, the lone scion of the family that’s operated the inn since 1927 is suing to stop his father from selling out to a rival. The son contends his father promised several times through the years that he would inherit the business.

Left to the courts to decide, the family and its customers stand to lose the most in the end.

Founded in 1912 as a private men’s club, the distinctive four-story building became a speakeasy during Prohibition — federal agents once used axes to bust up the bar during a raid — and later a tony restaurant.

With its clubby English tudor interior, high-priced seafood and imposing Flemish facade, the Knife & Fork offered fine dining through years when there was precious little of it to be found in Atlantic City, catering to well-heeled locals and the likes of Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster.

Growing up around it, Andrew Latz, 52, learned as much about feuds as he did about table settings.

As a boy, he wore a blue blazer with a Knife & Fork crest and dressed for Halloween as a cook, wearing chef whites and a chef’s hat and carrying a pot with a stirring spoon in it.

He remembers looking down at the entrance from the fourth-floor residence where his grandparents, Milton and Evelyn Latz, lived.

“It doesn’t mean much to you now, but someday, when you see all these people coming in, it’ll mean the world to you,” his grandmother told him once. “This is your life.”

He served for 14 years as its manager, all the while believing it would someday be his.

In charge, at the time, were owners Mack Latz — Andrew’s father — and Mack’s younger brother Jim, whose relations with each other were so bad, they took turns running the restaurant because they couldn’t work together.

Famously cranky, Mack Latz — who had the Knife & Fork logo tattooed on the back of his hand — was known to chew out customers or eject them if they annoyed him.

Once, when a woman complained that her lobster was too tough, he told her: “Lady, I don’t make the [expletive] lobster. God does.”

“I was always the good guy,” said Jim Latz, 83, who now lives in Miami Beach, Fla., and has since reconciled with his brother. “People would come in and say, ‘Oh, is Mack working tonight? Then we’re not coming in.’”

The rift led to Mack’s decision to buy out his brother. In 1995, Mack Latz fired his son for taking a vacation in the dead of winter — the restaurant’s slow season. A year later, the restaurant closed.

The two got back in business in 1999, with the father agreeing to lease the Knife & Fork to his son and his wife. Relying on that, Andrew Latz took out a second mortgage on his house and pumped $160,000 into renovations.

But Mack Latz told his son last spring he wanted to sell, and that if Andrew wanted the Knife & Fork, he would have to come up with $650,000. Andrew Latz says he marshaled enough backing to buy — but his father refused to sell.

Then came the bombshell: Last September, on the day Andrew Latz’s wife gave birth to their firstborn son, a lawyer called to tell Andrew that Mack Latz was negotiating to sell the Knife & Fork to the Dougherty family, owners of Dock’s Oyster House, a rival seafood house.

Now, the father-son split has gone where no Latz feud ever did: to court.

In Latz v. Latz, Andrew Latz is seeking to block the sale.

He says the corporate charter of the Knife & Fork Inn Inc. was suspended 10 years ago for failing to file annual reports for two consecutive years, thereby making it a dissolved corporation with no power to sell, only to wrap up its affairs.

“I’m from a litigious family, but I never thought it would get this litigious,” said Andrew Latz.

Mack Latz, 86, contends his son quit paying rent last June and did not make quarterly tax payments he agreed to under the lease.

Andrew Latz had a right of first refusal in the sale, but he didn’t exercise it, said Nancy Axilrod, Mack Latz’s attorney. Now, he wants his father to back out, she said.

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