Mahogany's at the Banks hits refresh button with high-profile consultant, menu makeover

New leadership includes former Maisonette owner

CINCINNATI - The troubled Mahogany’s restaurant at The Banks is hitting the refresh button with a new menu, staffing changes and renovations guided by one of Cincinnati’s oldest names in fine dining.

Michael Comisar, former co-owner and manager of the upscale Maisonette restaurant, joined Mahogany’s as general manager in July.

Mahogany’s founder, Liz Rogers, remains the owner and still works at the riverfront soul food restaurant, but Comisar is overseeing changes to make Mahogany’s more upscale and expand its menu to include lighter fare and healthier options.

The 35-employee business will close for a few days in August for renovations inside and out, said Ashley Stohs, front of house and bar manager.

“We’re just trying to go for a little more upscale and creating a better experience for our guests,” said Stohs, who joined Mahogany’s in June. She is the former general manager of the Grotto Wine Bar in Mt Adams.

Stohs wasn’t sure what led to Comisar’s hiring. WCPO left messages for Rogers and Comisar, but hasn’t heard from either.

“The place is doing very well,” Stohs said. “We just had the Jazz Fest and that went very well. So, we’re having a good summer.”

Mahogany’s opened at the Banks riverfront development in October 2012. But it had a rough second year, as it fell behind on rent, city loan payments, sales taxes and workers compensation premiums. The restaurant was threatened with eviction in February but settled with its landlord, NIC Riverbank One, in April.

Rogers sought outside counsel from local business leaders, including Ed Rigaud, a retired Procter & Gamble Co. executive and former president and CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

“We were going to help her find investors and technical consultants,” Rigaud said. “We determined we didn’t know the restaurant business well enough.”

Before backing away from the project in May, Rigaud said he worked with Sean Rugless, president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce, to negotiate a delay in the restaurant’s eviction. They talked about inviting restaurant-industry veterans like Jeff Ruby to advise Rogers on possible business changes.

“I don’t think Liz was interested in others having ownership,” Rigaud said. “She had a real tough winter and she was confident that once the baseball season started she was going to be able to get back on her feet.”

Comisar is a well-known Cincinnati name because of the French restaurant the family operated on Sixth Street downtown until 2005. It had a 41-year streak of five-star awards from the Mobil Travel Guide and was a city landmark, known for its formal presentation and meticulous service.

After leaving Maisonette, Comisar ran the Metropolitan Club in Covington until 2010. He has operated a restaurant consulting business since then.

Rogers operated a Hamilton restaurant before she moved to the Banks. She received $684,000 in startup financing from the city of Cincinnati, including a $300,000 loan that was $28,732 past due as of June 30.

Rogers has accused “a single source inside City Hall” of conducting a smear campaign against her, claiming others are behind on city loans but aren’t called out in the media.

A city report issued last week confirmed that about 4 percent of the city’s small-business loan portfolio is past due. The report lists 59 loans totaling $24.9 million in which borrowers are just over $1 million behind on payments. The list includes 27 loans with past due balances and 12 with higher past-due amounts than Rogers.

Although she could not be reached for this story, Rogers delivered a signal that she is unbowed by the events of the last year. While tending bar outside during the Macy's Music Festival last weekend, one observer said Rogers wore a t-shirt with a Mahogany's logo on the front and this sentence on the back: "Liz is gonna be alright."

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