April 16, 2018 | last updated April 17, 2018 11:09 am

Promising Shrewsbury Street site awaits outcome of laundering case

Edd Cote
John Piccolo, president of the Shrewsbury Street Area Merchants Association and owner of Piccolo's Restaurant.

11 years, four restaurants

2007
Niche Hospitality opens Mezcal Tequila Cantina at 166 Shrewsbury St.

2013
Niche Hospitality and President Michael Covino purchase the space for $450,000.

2014
Mezcal moves to Major Taylor Boulevard. The Fix Burger Bar takes its place on Shrewsbury Street.

July 2016
The Fix moves to the Northworks building on Grove Street.

September 2016
Kevin Perry purchases the Shrewsbury Street property for $500,000.

October 2016
Kevin Perry and wife Stacey Gala open specialty sandwich restaurant The Usual in the location.

March 2017
A grand jury indicts Kevin Perry alleging drug distribution & money laundering.

May 2017
The Usual closes.

June 2017
Gala and business partner Joseph Herman reopen the restaurant as The Chameleon, calling for a rotating seasonal menu.

October 2017
Perry pleads guilty, agrees to 14-16 year sentence. Sentencing date is set for April 24, 2018. The Chameleon closes abruptly.

February 2018
Gala, Herman and Christopher Slavinskas are charged for opening Chameleon using drug proceeds.

March 2018
Slavinskas pleads guilty to taking $330,000 of Perry's drug money.

April 2018
U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman authorizes the U.S. Department of Justice to sell 166 Shrewsbury St., which Perry surrendered as part of his plea deal.

On a street bustling with businesspeople and foodies, one brightly colored building with a lime green awning has been vacant since October.

The restaurant space at 166 Shrewsbury St. in Worcester had for nine years been the innovation space for perhaps the city's most high-profile hospitality group – along a stretch known as Restaurant Row – birthing two successful restaurants.

Now, the space is devoid of any human life, and it will remain that way until the government sells the building.

"I try to look at the bright side – at least it has a little curb appeal," said John Piccolo, president of the Shrewsbury Street Area Merchants Association and owner of Piccolo's Italian Restaurant, across the street from the vacant space.

A restaurant breeding ground

Eleven years ago – before the space became synonymous with drug crimes – 166 Shrewsbury St. was a startup location for Niche Hospitality Group.

"We had some fun memories there," said President & CEO Mike Covino.

Niche – the owner and operator of Worcester restaurants like Bocado Tapas Wine Bar, Railers Sports Tavern and The Citizen Wine Bar – first started with its Mezcal Tequila Cantina in the space on Shrewsbury Street.

After the Mexican restaurant became too busy for the small space, it expanded to Major Taylor Boulevard, and Niche launched The Fix Burger Bar.

After the Fix moved to the Northworks building on Grove Street, Covino considered turning 166 Shrewsbury St. into a test kitchen for new cuisines.

But Covino received an offer to sell the building at an 11-percent increase over what his company purchased the building for just three years prior.

"We were busy with a bunch of projects we had going on, so we decided to sell," Covino said. "Unfortunately, it turned out that his money wasn't legal."

Drug money

Covino appeared alongside Stacey Gala before the Worcester Licensing Commission in August 2016, as Niche agreed to work as a consultant with Gala and her husband – Kevin Perry – on their restaurant: specialty sandwich shop The Usual.

Perry had used his personal funds to buy 166 Shrewsbury St., along with the Blackstone Tap on Water Street and seven other Central Mass. properties.

Mezcal was the first of two Niche Hospitality Group restaurants to start at 166 Shrewsbury St. and later move elsewhere in Worcester.

"If I had the money he was spending, I'd probably be on an island somewhere, not running a restaurant," Piccolo said.

Less than six months after The Usual opened, Perry was indicted on 14 charges, including nine counts of money laundering, three counts of aggravated cash structuring, one count of making a false statement on a loan application and one count of distribution of fentanyl. The federal government alleges Perry used proceeds from illegal drug sales to open The Usual and operate the Blackstone Tap, and then used both restaurants to launder his drug money.

Because Gala was the applicant for The Usual's liquor license, the restaurant was able to avoid Perry's drug history. In 2005, he was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute ecstasy. He was sentenced to time in prison.

"In reviewing Ms. Gala's application, the city's license commission followed the same process it follows for all liquor license applications, including conducting the necessary background checks," said city spokesman Mike Vigneaux.

The Usual stayed open about two months after Perry was indicted.

Drug money, part 2

One month later, Gala and business partner Joseph Herman reopened the space as The Chameleon, saying the new restaurant would offer a rotating seasonal menu starting with barbecue.

Gala's career as a restaurant owner was short lived, as The Chameleon closed abruptly in November, six weeks after Perry agreed to plead guilty to the charges against him in exchange for a 14- to 16-year prison sentence. The plea deal included Perry forfeiting his properties to the federal government.

Gala and Herman have since been charged with using more than $200,000 in drug proceeds hidden from law enforcement in a Northborough storage locker to open The Chameleon.

Gala is charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering and a criminal forfeiture allegation, and Herman is charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, making false statements to investigators, witness tampering and a criminal forfeiture allegation. Both have pleaded not guilty.

A fourth individual, Christopher Slavinskas, was charged in March with lying to investigators about concealing at least $330,000 of the drug proceeds and personally spending a portion of it. Slavinskas pleaded guilty, forcing two Worcester restaurants he had the license for – Broth and The Hangover Pub in the Canal District – to close.

The Fix Burger Bar moved from 166 Shrewsbury St. to Grove Street in 2016. The site became The Usual that October.

Its highest and best use

For restaurant owners on the street, it's a shame one of the street's most historically busiest restaurants is now a black mark on the city's thriving restaurant scene, said Piccolo. The instability does the area no good.

"I'd like to see something in there," Piccolo said.

Earlier this month, a federal judge gave go ahead to the U.S. Department of Justice to sell 166 Shrewsbury St., leaving open the possibility of the property returning to the restaurant scene.

Sharyn Williams, vice president for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said in an email the space shouldn't be vacant much longer.

"Anytime there is a commercial vacancy anywhere in the city, we hope that it will be filled soon," Williams said. "We feel strongly that this prime location on what has been dubbed Restaurant Row will not remain vacant for long."

Today, the restaurant appears as if the doors could be unlocked and kitchen fired up immediately. Napkins and silverware still lays atop dinner tables and most chairs seem to still be in place.

Despite a limited parking, the space represents incredible untapped potential.

"The highest and best use for it is a restaurant," Covino said.

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