Viva Tacoland has seen better days. We don’t just mean the original place’s heyday, before the famously chaotic Ramiro “Ram” Ayala was shot and killed in 2005 after he said “fuck you” to a pair of armed robbers demanding cash from his register.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at the place – which is at the heart of a standoff between development-minded interests and residents who call the venture crass gentrification – but the latest incarnation of the midtown staple appears to be troubled.
At least, that’s if you take it from co-owners David Adelman and Ricardo Chavira — of Desperate Housewives
fame — whose company Tacoland Studios LLC is suing James Christopher Erck for severely mismanaging Viva Tacoland. If they’re right, this would be the latest in a pattern of debt and contract suits against the serial restaurateur and bar operator.
According to Tacoland Studios’ June 22 complaint, Erck and his Rogue Taco Ltd. agreed to lease the property where the original Taco Land once overlooked the Riverwalk. Tacoland Studios wouldn’t collect rent until Erck was open for business, which everyone agreed would happen by October 2013. Tacoland Studios ponied up $50,000 and trademark rights to the name in exchange for 10 percent ownership in Rogue Taco, royalties on the name and a cut of sales.
But Viva Tacoland didn’t open until May 2014, seven months late. To an extent, Erck can’t be faulted. He, Chavira and Adelman had to seek permission from the city’s Historic Design and Review Commission to go ahead with proposed renovations to the property. That process took longer than expected, in part because one commissioner wanted to see for his own eyes that graffiti near the building’s mural was scrubbed before giving the OK to start construction.
On its own, the late open seems a minor quibble. More worrying are the allegations that Erck repeatedly defaulted on payments, and paid little heed to calls for transparency. Rogue Taco stopped paying rent on time in 2016, and wouldn’t provide sales or finance reports to Tacoland Studios, according to the suit. By June 2017, Rogue Taco had caught up on its debt, but was once again in default — the fourth time that year — by that October.
So, come November, Tacoland Studios informed Erck that it would terminate the lease, which apparently kicked him into gear. From then until just last month, the lawsuit reads, “Rogue Taco made many attempts to pay Plaintiff amounts it asserted Plaintiff was due, without any competent documentation that such amounts were correctly calculated.” In February, Tacoland Studios sent the notice of termination.
Among the named defendants are Erck himself, along with four companies he’s registered: Rogue Taco Management LLC, and Rogue Taco Holdings LLC — both of which were involuntarily dissolved by the Texas Secretary of State, unbeknownst to Tacoland Studios — and Qwercky Ltd.
(That’s the Qwercky Ltd. that tried to register the trademark phrase “I Can’t Remember the Alamo” for sale on tees, panties and other Viva Tacoland merchandise in 2012. In an appeal that warranted coverage in the New York Times, the Texas General Land Office successfully shot down the attempt by asserting their common-law trademark rights on the phrase “The Alamo.” Texas argued that the proposal “disparages the deceased combatants of the Battle of the Alamo by communicating that their sacrifice was not worthy of memory or esteem.”)
It’s been almost five years since Tacoland Studios signed the premises over to Erck, and they haven’t received a penny back on the $50,000 investment. Now they’re seeking $1 million.
Erck did not respond to interview requests by press time.
Chavira’s publicist declined to comment on this story and attempts to reach Adelman and his attorneys were unsuccessful.
This is the latest in a number of suits against Erck in the past few years. In 2017, Bank of America took Erck to court in Bexar and Harris counties for owing more than $68,000 on a loan for his since-closed Panzanella Pizza restaurant. That same year, Texas Capital Bank hit him for a $30,000 debt owed on a loan for his downtown Swig Martini Bar, which was open for two decades before the landlord changed the locks on Erck, citing delinquent rent payments. The food supply giant Sysco also filed a claim this January, complaining that Rogue Taco had not paid for over $4,500 worth of food and kitchen gear.
A 2012 suit against Erck and his parents’ trust argues that he conspired to keep a pharmaceutical company from paying off more than $1.5 million in loans owed to the trust. The plaintiff’s attorney declined to speak on the record, citing further litigation to come, but a district court judge ruled in 2017 that the trust was to pay $6,000 plus interest in damages for repeatedly refusing to accept attempted debt payments.
Viva Tacoland and Juniper Tar are among Erck’s remaining operations after he closed FLiP Burgers, The Icehouse and The WoRM Tequila & Mezcal Bar.
His recent track record is a far cry from his successful 1996 turnaround of the Finesilver Building, which won an award from the American Institute of Architects and housed artists such as San Antonio’s perhaps most prolific, the late Chuck Ramirez.
Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.