Lawsuit News

Dallas contractor in Nusr-Et Steakhouse lawsuit has lengthy litigious history

Dallas contractor in Nusr-Et Steakhouse lawsuit has litigious history

Nusr-Et Salt Bae
The restaurant is all booked up for the weekend. Photo by Stephania Campos

An internationally known steakhouse will open in Dallas, despite a pair of lawsuits between the restaurant and the Dallas contractor who oversaw its construction.

Nusr-Et Steakhouse, a glitzy new restaurant from famously colorful Turkish restaurateur Nusret "Salt Bae" Gökçe, will finally open in Uptown at 1900 N. Pearl St. on March 4.

Gökçe is an amusing figure with a strong social media game and is no stranger to lawsuits; he's been sued by employees at his New York and Miami restaurants for mishandling tips and overtime payments.

But in Dallas, he's met his litigious match in Jim Benge, a contractor who specializes in restaurant construction and who's been involved in at least two dozen lawsuits, including one with his own brother Jay, whom Benge hired, then fired.

According to Eater, Nusr-Et and Benge have dueling lawsuits alleging that Nusr-Et failed to pay bills, with an employee allegedly involved in diverting funds to BengeTexas.

Nusr-Et is not the first. Other Dallas restaurants embroiled in Benge lawsuits in the past few years include Mellow Mushroom, Haymaker, Stocks & Bondy, and TNT/Tacos & Tequila.

Those who've worked with Benge say he has a pattern of hiring subcontractors, then not paying them after the job is done.

Most subcontractors are independent laborers and don't have the means to sue or the years to invest in chasing the money down. But one — Hertz Electric LLC and HTJ Global Electric LLC — hired a lawyer, Nathanial Martinez of Palter Sims Martinez PLLC, who won a judgment against Benge and his then-company Benge General Contracting LLC in 2019.

Benge hired Hertz in 2015 to do electrical and painting work on several projects including Quill Lounge and Matchbox Pizza, but then did not pay Hertz for the work. Benge subsequently filed a lawsuit against Hertz alleging defective workmanship as a reason not to pay; Hertz countersued for non-payment.

A Dallas County jury found Benge guilty of breach of contract and fraud, and awarded Hertz damages and attorney fees.

Martinez says the case had been reset for trial more than nine times. "My clients were beginning to wonder if they would ever get to a jury," he says.

Unfortunately, after Hertz won, Benge filed for bankruptcy in the Northern District of Texas, then formed a new entity called BengeTexas. So Hertz filed a new lawsuit alleging BengeTexas is a shell company used by Benge to transfer business and assets from his old company, Benge General Contracting, to avoid paying Hertz. That suit is pending.

Lawsuits are not unusual in the Wild Wild West contractor world, where large sums of money are involved and clients are vulnerable. Texas has no licensing process for contractors, and there's little oversight.

Dallas restaurateur Jim Baron of Blue Mesa Grill fame hired Benge to do work at TNT Tacos and Tequila in the Quadrangle. He says he was given a low estimate up front, with charges added after the job was done.

"I never saw a change order, not one," Baron says. "At the end, he came to me with a bill for $70,000 and it was all of the materials like drywall that the subcontractors should have provided but weren't calculated into the original estimate. He put a lien on the property. This is how it goes with everybody."

It ended in arbitration and a lawsuit that Baron lost.

On the flip side, clients sometimes pick the cheapest, most unrealistic contractor bid only to turn around and take legal action when the work comes up short.

But it's uncommon to see contractors suing subcontractors and family members.

Greatest hits
In July 2016, ISC Building Materials, a drywall company, filed a suit against Benge General Contracting and Jim Benge for $6,710.44 worth of construction materials for the 2014 construction of Stocks & Bondy at the Dallas Farmers Market.

In September 2016, there was a suit and countersuit between Benge General Contracting and Platform Manufacturing Group, hired by Benge to do steel fabrication and installation at North Dallas restaurant Public 972. Benge's suit seeking $100,553 claimed that Platform failed to do the job so Benge hired a replacement.

Platform said the site was not prepared and that Benge did not obtain proper permission to remove trees that were not on the drawings. Platform was paid only $43,500 out of its $144,053 fee, and sought the remaining $100,553.

In October 2016, Quality Mill Work By Brownco LLC filed a suit against Jim Benge and Benge General Contracting for default on a payment of $43,420.21 for cabinet work done in a showroom for home builder Ashton Woods.

In January 2017, Cowtown Excavation & Concrete, LLC filed a suit against Benge General Contracting, LLC for defaulting on a payment of $25,945.50 for construction on Haymaker at 1516 Greenville Ave., along with Haymaker owner Dallas Mars Partners.

In April 2017, Quill Lounge filed a suit against Benge General Contracting LLC and James Benge individually for breach of contract. "Benge performed services, albeit defective services, on the Quill job," the lawsuit said.

The suit said that Benge Contracting hired multiple subcontractors but failed to pay many of them, causing multiple liens to be filed on the Quill Lounge property. Quill refused to pay, so Benge Contracting also filed a lien on the property.

They entered a settlement in which Benge was supposed to take care of the subcontractors, but left out one, LoneStar Electric Supply, whom Quill was forced to pay $9,970.15 in exchange for a lien release.

The lawsuit also says that Quill found issues with the work done including lighting, electric wiring, and painting.

In July 2017, Lil John’s Fireplaces filed a suit against Benge General Contracting for failing to pay for various fireplace and/or gutter services on Mellow Mushroom, the pizzeria at 2326 N. Henderson Ave. and for breaching a subcontract agreement, with an unpaid balance of $7,902.98.

In January 2018, Dallas Mechanical Group filed a suit against Benge General Contracting for $12,872.18 for labor and materials in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. In the midst of that suit, Benge General Contracting tried to file a notice of bankruptcy, which the court initially would not allow. (Benge filed for bankruptcy again in February 2020 and is now operating under the new name BengeTexas.)

In January 2018, Benge General Contracting filed a messy suit against Benge's own brother Jay Benge, who had worked for Benge as a project manager for less than a year. The suit charged Jay Benge with "appropriating certain Benge assets and possibly distributing information" that could be used to harm Benge. It accused Jay of showing up and causing disturbances at the office, including almost hitting an employee with a truck. In November 2020, all parties agreed to drop the case.

In February 2018, Branch Ironworks filed a suit against Benge General Contracting for structural steel work on Mellow Mushroom, for breaching a subcontract agreement with an unpaid balance of $7,902.98, for labor and materials. They settled in March 2019.

In April 2018, Creative Flooring Solutions filed a lawsuit against Benge General Contracting for tile flooring work on Mellow Mushroom for breach of contract for an unpaid balance of $14,804.84.

Some of the lawsuits make for compelling reading, such as the June 2019 temporary restraining order against Cash Hebel, a former employee who was a Project Manager for BengeTexas on the construction of Cigars International in The Colony, then went to work for Cigars International directly after he was terminated.

Benge assumed that Hebel was just incompetent and terminated his employment at the conclusion of the project. It is now apparent that Hebel intentionally provided 'free' extras to Cigars International because he had already agreed to use the confidential information he received to cut Benge out of the next Cigars International jobsite in Fort Worth and act as the construction supervisor directly for Cigars International.

That lawsuit is especially notable since Nusr-Et's countersuit against BengeTexas claims that Benge was engaged in similar activities, IE diverting payments to a former Nusr-Et employee and project manager, instead of paying the subcontractors.

Benge boat
When contacted about the lawsuits he's amassed, Benge insisted on meeting in person, and wanted the meeting to take place aboard a 56-foot-long sailboat he has built himself. It's his passion project as well as the subject of two profiles documenting his quest.

He had the boat stored inside a warehouse off Buckner Road. Boarding it was like a Survivor challenge, with a climb up a precariously narrow set of stairs with no railing, before crossing over a vertigo-fraught patch of dead air two stories high to scramble onto the gunwale.

Everything aboard was fabricated from the best materials: intricate inlaid wood, mirror-finish stainless steel, hot and cold running water, and a gimbal mount for the stove to keep it level if the boat hits a wave. It was hard not to think about the various subcontractors who'd gone unpaid.

Benge was focused on the case he'd lost to Hertz Electric, and had a three-ring binder with photos he claimed showed poor workmanship. But there was no way to tell where the photos — out-of-focus closeup shots of various wirings — were from. "They could take the boat away from me," he said, referring to Hertz.

But he brushed off the lawsuits, saying that it goes with the turf.

"I'm a contractor, it happens, and we do a lot of mom-and-pops who promise they'll pay next month, so then you've gotta file a lien, although I don't like it," he said.

Nonetheless, on January 15, BengeTexas filed a lien against Nusr-Et seeking payment for $574,830.34. A hearing is set for March 29.

Meanwhile Nusr-Et is taking reservations; opening weekend is already fully booked.