FOXBORO — Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, the Route 1 nightspot and dance hall that abruptly closed its doors last week blaming “unreasonable rents” at its Patriot Place location, had earned a reputation as a rowdy watering hole since opening in 2010.
With a capacity of 400, an expansive guitar-shaped bar and a mechanical bull, the 19,000-square-foot country-themed restaurant gained the dubious distinction in 2016 of having more patrons cited for drunk driving violations than any other pouring establishment in the Bay State.
But the restaurant’s backstory is proving far stranger. According to published reports, the Foxboro location was the last of 20 Toby Keith’s franchises owned by a former organized crime figure and confessed murderer who foisted a real estate leasing scam on dozens of mall developers across the country.
The mobster-turned-Phoenix real estate mogul, identified as Frank Capri in a three-part series published by the Arizona Republic, reportedly established the chain that bore the country star’s name under a licensing agreement.
The investigative report said Capri took advantage of commercial developers seeking to secure high-profile anchors for new mall locations. In exchange for long-term rental agreements, those developers routinely paid sizeable sums, at times in the millions, as tenant incentives — ostensibly for site improvements.
But authorities and ex-business associates across the country say Capri pocketed the money, deliberately letting the restaurants fail while retaining the upfront payments. His company, Boomtown Entertainment, faces 48 lawsuits and roughly $65 million in court judgments in 31 different cities alleging fraud, contractual breaches, unpaid rents and/or unpaid taxes.
It remains unclear why Toby Keith’s at Patriot Place remained in business when other locations closed. Like the others, the Foxboro franchise operated as a Boomtown subsidiary — CRGE (Capri Restaurant Group Enterprises) Foxborough, LLC — which is listed as owner on the establishment’s liquor license.
The other 19 restaurants, sited mostly in mall locations around the country, all failed between 2014 and 2015. Additionally, paperwork had been filed to establish CRGEs for 19 other locations — none of which ever opened, the Arizona newspaper reported.
(Boomtown Entertainment was not the only firm operating Toby Keith’s restaurants; four additional restaurants licensed to carry the Toby Keith name but unaffiliated with Capri — one in Las Vegas and three in Oklahoma — remain in operation.)
The Foxboro restaurant closing was precipitated several weeks ago by a new development when Boomtown’s former vice-president and counsel, Gregory McClure, also accused of aiding in the fraud, was charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona with money laundering and embezzlement of company funds.
On Jan. 15, McClure agreed to plead guilty, according to a recent report in the Boston Globe, and is reportedly slated for sentencing next month.
Citing a management source at Toby Keith’s in Foxboro, the Globe also reported that the restaurant’s original rent at Patriot Place was $100,000 a month, was subsequently reduced when foot traffic declined at the Route 1 retail mall, but more recently had been raised again.
A statement issued last week by Patriot Place asserted the two parties had mutually agreed to terminate the existing lease.
That Capri’s ties to organized crime went unnoticed among prospective business partners was no accident.
Facing 30 years to life after being arrested in 1993 on federal drug charges linked to heroin trafficking between Boston and Manhattan, Capri (at that time known as Frank Gioia Jr.) agreed to turn state’s evidence.
According to the Arizona newspaper, his testimony against criminal associates resulted in a reported 70 convictions and enabled authorities to close several unsolved murders — including the shooting of a New York City police officer.
In return, Capri was admitted to the federal Witness Protection Program, the Arizona newspaper reported, served time in prison, and upon his release in 1999 resurfaced as a Phoenix real estate developer — an entirely new identity with no hint of his criminal past.
As a result, even those conducting due diligence before entering into business arrangements with Capri could not have uncovered information about his true background.
The same could be said of town officials in Foxboro.
Police Chief William Baker said he has had little direct communication with the restaurant’s on-site management, instead dealing primarily with Patriot Place management on matters involving police details or other security- or alcohol-related matters.
However, former chief Edward O’Leary, who this week declared his candidacy for a seat on the Board of Selectmen, said the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission would have been responsible for conducting a background investigation when the company applied for its first liquor license.
But with Capri’s new identity, it seems unlikely that an ABCC check would have turned up any red flags.
O’Leary also said that in the midst of the 2015 collapse of other Toby Keith’s locations, some in Foxboro were concerned that local site management would be directed to transfer all liquid assets to the corporate ownership, putting the local franchise in jeopardy.
Whether such transfers occurred, however, the Patriot Place location remained open until last week — even undertaking an extensive overhaul of the bar area several years ago.
Selectmen James DeVellis and chairman Chris Mitchell both said they were generally aware of the allegations raised in the Arizona Republic series, but never had reason to question business practices at the local restaurant.