Celebrated chef Shannon Bard and her husband are facing at least a dozen lawsuits from vendors who say the couple left a trail of unpaid bills when they closed Zapoteca, their popular Portland restaurant, in June.

The restaurant was among the most highly regarded in Portland and Bard was well known even beyond Maine, with appearances on cooking competition shows on the Food Network and a cookbook published two years ago. The restaurant operated on Fore Street for six years, but the couple said they decided to close it and concentrate on a restaurant and cooking school in their hometown of Kennebunk so they could spend more time with their children, who are in high school and college.

They made no mention of the lawsuits filed in Cumberland County courts that suggest increasing financial pressures on the restaurant starting last fall.

The suits paint a picture of Bard that is starkly at odds with her national reputation as an acclaimed restaurateur who has cooked at the world-famous James Beard House in New York.

In November, Independent Restaurant Supply of Portland, which sells silverware, furniture and kitchen equipment to restaurants, filed suit against the Bards, claiming it was owed $6,000 by Bard Enterprises, the parent company of Zapoteca.

In the suit, the company said Zapoteca had ordered supplies from the company through 2013 and after that made only occasional payments, “which ended in June 2015 along with any communication regarding their outstanding balance.”

Dan Bornstein, the manager of the supply company, said he doesn’t know the current status of the suit and declined to comment.

Shannon Bard did not return multiple messages left for her over two weeks at Toroso, her restaurant in Kennebunk. Several other numbers listed for her or Tom Bard had either been disconnected or went unanswered. The phone numbers that were still working gave no option to leave voicemail messages.

Responding to a message left at Toroso, Tom Bard, who operates Bard Enterprises, spoke briefly to the Portland Press Herald, playing down the couple’s financial difficulties.

“We’re working with everybody” to settle the bills, he said. “Closing down a restaurant is never an easy thing to do.”

Bard said Zapoteca was “a good, strong, profitable restaurant,” and suggested that some of the financial problems they have experienced stemmed from Mixteca, the restaurant the two operated in New Hampshire.

“Everything kind of got pushed up from there,” he said before ending the phone interview.

“We’re basically working through it and that’s all I’ve got to say about it,” Bard said.

Tom Bard plays down the couple’s financial issues, saying they’re working to settle debts. Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski

A NATIONAL REPUTATION

The lawsuits are at odds with Shannon Bard’s reputation as a restaurateur in Portland and even national restaurant circles. The consistently well-reviewed Zapoteca, with its creative Mexican dishes, was considered a relative rarity in a city with a growing restaurant scene, but still known primarily for its seafood.

Bard also rose to popular fame through television cooking appearances. In 2014, Bard took home the top prize – and a $25,000 check – from the Food Network show “Kitchen Inferno.” The year before, she also gained exposure, but no title, when she faced off with Food Network star chef Bobby Flay in his TV series “Beat Bobby Flay.”

She also cooked at the James Beard House in New York in 2014, considered a top honor by the nation’s leading foundation focused on restaurants and cuisine. The foundation lauded Zapoteca as “an unlikely oasis of vibrant Mexican flavor in the hardy wilds of Maine.”

Chefs are invited to cook – “perform,” in the James Beard Foundation’s words – based on their national or regional reputation and their knowledge and use of seasonal and/or local ingredients, among other factors. At her dinner, Bard prepared, among other dishes, a lobster, scallop and mussel chilpachole with a Maine oyster broth reduction and adobo glazed duck breast with cranberry-nut mole.

Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming for the Beard Foundation, said Bard’s menu was “quite elegant.”

Bard’s dishes were “replete with regional Mexican dishes, but seen through a seasonal lens that highlighted the Maine bounty,” she said. “It represented an opportunity to showcase a restaurant and chef and an exciting cuisine that we felt would be of interest to our guests.”

Bard’s cookbook, “The Gourmet Mexican Kitchen,” came out the next year, but there were signs at the time Bards were concerned about finances.

In 2013, the Bards began to look for a space to open a second restaurant in Portland, although Tom Bard complained that finding affordable space in the city was close to impossible and the restaurant did not expand in the city.

MULTIPLE LAWSUITS

Other creditors who have filed suit include a natural gas supplier, which says it is owed nearly $13,000, with court costs; Micucci’s, an Italian grocer in Portland, which said the restaurant owes it nearly $900, with additional costs for its attempts to collect the money; a restaurant supply company, which says its $6,000 bill hasn’t been paid; a food service company, which said it has an unpaid bill for slightly more than $10,000; and Republicash, a check cashing and payday loan company, which filed suit for $9,000 after it said the restaurant’s paychecks to employees bounced.

Many of the suits were filed this spring and summer, while others date even further back, including one in which a New Hampshire landlord claims to be owed more than $70,000 for a restaurant named Mixteca that Bard operated in Durham, New Hampshire, and closed in January. That debt is impinging on Tom and Shannon Bard’s private life, with a lien placed on the couple’s 227-year-old, $440,000 house near downtown Kennebunk.

Casco View Holdings III, the landlord of the building that housed the Portland restaurant, also filed suit against Zapoteca, claiming the restaurant failed to pay its rent in January. The rent was more than $6,600 a month, with taxes, trash collection fees, water bills and a late fee pushing the tab to over $10,000 a month.

Sergio Ramos, the former manager of Zapoteca, also has filed suit against the restaurant, saying the company hasn’t paid him in line with the terms of his $50,000-a-year contract, which also had a provision that would allow him to buy a piece of the business, with increasing amounts depending on how long he worked there. The lawyer handling the suit for the former manager said the dispute has been ordered into arbitration and he declined to discuss the details.

Several of the lawsuits against the Bards were resolved as default judgments because the Bards did not show up to contest them. Other suits were filed as recently as three weeks ago and hearings have not yet been held.

Some of the suits illustrate how the amount owed can grow when companies have to go to court to settle an unpaid bill.

For instance, Agera Energy, the restaurant’s natural gas supplier, filed suit after it claimed the Bards failed to pay a bill for $8,081. Interest added more than $1,700 to the tab, plus $3,000 for attorney’s fees, for a total of $12,803.72, more than 50 percent above the original bill. The lien filed by 6 Jenkins Court, the New Hampshire landlord of the restaurant there, is accruing interest at a rate of nearly 7 percent.

Kelly McDonald, the lawyer handling that suit for the New Hampshire company, declined to comment.

Trimark United, a food service and equipment supplier, said it is owed $10,007.90 by the Bards. That company’s suit also alleges that Tom Bard changed a section in the credit agreement between the company and Bard, crossing out information indicating that the couple owned their house in Kennebunk and instead, writing that the house was rented, possibly an attempt to shield it if the company sought to collect any unpaid bills by putting a lien on the house. Trimark United’s suit against the Bards indicates that the company is seeking half the value of the house, or $220,000, as a punitive measure.

JUGGLING SEVERAL ROLES

Steve Hewins, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, declined to discuss Zapoteca or the Bards’ situation, but said running a restaurant requires mastering a range of skills, not all of them compatible, that make it an especially difficult business to manage.

“Generally, the public would not really understand how complex running a restaurant is,” Hewins said.

He noted that restaurateurs need to be skilled at managing an inventory of perishable supplies that need to be handled, stored and prepared in a safe manner.

In addition, a restaurant needs to be inviting and ready to accommodate the needs and desires of a range of customers, from people who eat out almost nightly to those for whom it’s an occasional treat.

“You’re hosting a dinner party every night,” Hewins said. “You have to manage a wide spectrum of people who come in each night.”

The duties also include managing a staff, which is particularly difficult now due to labor shortages in the state, especially in the summer. Restaurants have to pass frequent inspections by health officials. And finally, Hewins said, a restaurateur has to be creative enough to cook food that people want to eat and able to adapt to changing public tastes while putting in very long hours.

“I have great respect for the people that operate restaurants because most of the owners are in the store” juggling all those roles, he said.