Country History X: The Mafia & the Toby Keith & Rascal Flatts Restaurants

Welcome to Episode #3 of Country History X, which looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time.

This is the story of how a member of the Mafia turned government informant used the United States Witness Protection Program as a shield to allegedly bilk MILLIONS of dollars from hundreds of people and entities through the failed Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts restaurant franchises.

Editor’s notes:

Country History X primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Anchor. All current episodes will also be available everywhere else soon.

This episode may seem like a bit of a departure to some since it deals with more current-day performers and subjects, but Country History X will not discriminate against newer stories if they’re worth telling. This particular episode is also being released early since just like Episode #1 about the George Jones Drug Tapes, it will likely deserve an update as the story continues to unfold.

A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.

Episode #1: The George Jones Drug Tapes
Episode #2: John Prine & The Perfect Country & Western Song
Episode #3: Charlie Rich BURNS John Denver

Transcript

Many of the most intriguing stories from the American experience happen to involve the Mafia and organized crime. Few other subject matters steal our attention as strongly. But when it comes to instances of country music interfacing with the Mafia, the examples are very, very slim. The mob and country music are just on two very polar opposite sides of the cultural spectrum.

But there is one instance, actually its a couple of instances where major mainstream modern-day country music franchises got swept up in the business of a mafioso type, and along with local property owners, vendors, and others, ended up getting fleeced to the tune of millions of dollars total. This is the story of the mobster, and the Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts restaurant franchises.

– – – – – – –

It was an ambitious project, but one that had a solid proof of concept behind it, and a big payoff if everything went well. As a way to bolster their music brand and expand consumer reach, pop country music trio Rascal Flatts unveiled plans for a restaurant franchise bearing their name that would begin with a sprawling flagship property in Phoenix, and then expand to numerous communities throughout the United States over time. And these locations wouldn’t just be restaurants, but music venues as well. The Phoenix property alone would be a grand, 14,000 square foot facility that would include a live entertainment area with a state-of-the-art sound stage, elevated bar, and eating areas both indoors and outdoors.

After opening the flagship location, restaurant franchises in Washington, D.C., Columbus, OH, Pittsburgh, PA, Raleigh, NC, Minneapolis, MN and Long Island, NY would be commissioned, with plans for additional locations in Charlotte, Tampa, Boston and Madison, WI, and in Canada to come in subsequent years. A newly-formed company called the Rascal Flatts Restaurant Group would oversee the new business venture, along with Rascal Flatts themselves lending their names and ideas to the concept as it moved forward. 19 restaurants in total were part of the initial plan.

Launching a restaurant franchise symbolized just how successful the singing trio had become. Having minted 12 #1 singles and seven multi-platinum records over their first dozen years as a band, they were flying high at the time. First formed in 1999 in a nightclub in Nashville’s Printer’s Alley district, the band is comprised of second cousins Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus from Columbus, Ohio, and guitarist Joe Don Rooney from Oklahoma who filled in one night behind the two relatives, and soon they were performing as a trio. Their rather inoffensive, soft, vocal-driven style of country pop was perfect for radio, and soon they were signed to Lyrics Street Records, appropriately owned by The Disney Corporation.

The Rascal Flatts Restaurant Group was originally announced in August of 2012, but it wasn’t until four years later in August of 2016 before any solid plans began to surface for an actual location. The first restaurant wasn’t the sprawling 14,000 square foot megaplex promised in Phoenix, AZ, but a small, 3000 square foot sit down restaurant in the Stamford Town Center Mall in Connecticut adjacent to the food court, with a bar and small stage in one corner. In August of 2017, the location finally opened—five years after the restaurant chain was first announced. According to reviews, the new restaurant came with impressive decor and decent food. Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts said about the location at the time, quote, “It’s just an American bar and restaurant. The menu is influenced by the three of us and some of our favorites that our families made over the years.” Unquote.

When the Connecticut location opened, other properties were also in the pipeline, with contracts signed on retail spaces at the Flats East Bank development in Cleveland, and locations in Gainesville and Orlando in Florida, with three more Florida locations in the works in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Tampa. Though the promised flagship Phoenix location still remained a myth, the Rascal Flatts restaurant franchise appeared to finally be getting off the ground.

But trouble was brewing behind-the-scenes, and it was the same trouble that another high profile country music restaurant entrepreneur—one Toby Keith—had encountered as well. As the namesake of the, quote “I Love This Bar & Grill” franchise, it was Toby Keith’s model that had gone into the planning and implementation of the Rascal Flatts restaurant franchise, and in more ways than one as we would come to find out later.

In the first decade of the 2000’s, there was no country music artist that was more commercially successful than Toby Keith, both as an entertainer, and a businessman. Keith put 20 #1 singles on the charts during an eight year run, and had another seven #2’s during the same period. Toby Keith was mainstream country music in the aughts. He also was one of country music’s most savvy entrepreneurs. He took his winnings from his monster singles, and invested them in a label he jointly started in 2005 with second generation record executive Scott Borchetta.

After signing Taylor Swift, the Big Machine Label Group would go on to become one of the most successful startup record labels of all time, with multiple major stars and imprints. Keith spun off his own label called Show Dog from Big Machine in 2006—later known as Show Dog Universal when it partnered with Universal Music. But Toby Keith also kept a stake in the Big Machine business. That meant that along with his own sales, every time Taylor Swift sold a record—and later Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, and other Big Machine artists—Toby Keith received a little portion as well.

Then Toby Keith started licensing and franchising a line of restaurants called Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill. His name was like gold to his target demographic, and could be seen everywhere, even if within the country industry itself, some distanced themselves from Toby since his major rise had come from telling would-be terrorists where he wanted to ensconce his boot, along with the generally polarizing nature of Toby Keith’s prickly personality.

The first Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill locations opened in Keith’s home state of Oklahoma in 2005, with locations in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and later in Thackerville near the Texas border. Shortly thereafter, a location opened in Las Vegas, NV as well. The name for the restaurants was derived from the song “I Love This Bar” from Toby Keith’s 2003 record Shock’n Y’all. Featuring live music and bars shaped like guitars, many of the franchises became fixtures of the local community, and gave opportunities to local songwriters and performers on the restaurant’s stage.

Soon there were locations all across the country, with high-profile restaurants near Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and at the Destiny USA shopping complex in Syracuse, NY. There were also locations in Ohio, Virginia, California, Minnesota, Florida, Texas, and multiple locations in Arizona among other markets. Aside from a few separately-owned franchisees, the majority of locations were operated out of Phoenix by a company called Boomtown Entertainment.

But starting in 2014, trouble began brewing with the restaurants. Announcing a quote unquote “tactical restructuring,” stuff started to get very strange with multiple I Love This Bar & Grill locations. And soon, they started to close down, often with no notice to employees, and often under spurious circumstances.

The Tucson, Arizona location closed unexpectedly on March 7th, 2014 after being evicted from their property for breach of contract, and another location in Folsom, California closed on December 30th, 2014. The Newport News, Virginia location closed on January 1st, 2015 after being evicted from the property and reportedly owing $554,000 in rent and fees. The Houston, TX location closed on January 3rd, 2015 for unpaid rent, and reportedly owing nearly $150,000 in unpaid services. The Savannah, Georgia location scheduled to open in August of 2014 never did, and the franchise was served an eviction notice for the space in the Savannah Mall on April 7th, 2015.

The Oxnard, California location closed on May 3rd, 2015 after being open less than a year, and owning $605,000 in back rent. The Syracuse, New York location closed abruptly on May 17th, 2015 reportedly because of unpaid rent. The Orange Beach, Alabama location was closed on June 3rd, 2015 after being evicted from the property. Are you starting to get the picture, and the pattern? Locations in Woodbridge, Virginia, and St. Louis Park, Minnesota also closed in May and June of 2015. Soon all of the Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill franchises operated by the Phoenix-based Boomtown Entertainment were closed, with food vendors, landlords, and employees all left in the lurch, and many owed large sums of money. 20 franchises in all were shuttered, even though as many were closing, new Toby Keith restaurants in other cities were promised to be opened, though never were.

During the death spiral of closing franchises, Boomtown Entertainment shuttered itself in 2015 with millions of dollars in unpaid rent, taxes, and vendor fees still on the books. An Arizona businessman named Frank Capri was the responsible party in the Boomtown Entertainment debacle. By late 2017—just as the first Rascal Flatts restaurant franchise was opening its doors in the Stamford Town Center Mall in Connecticut— Frank Capri was said to owe over $65 million dollars in judgments against him in various courts around the United States tied to the Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill franchises.

But undeterred, the leasing of properties for further Rascal Flatts restaurant locations moved forward. In fact in the instance of the planned location at the Flats East Bank development in Cleveland, the Rascal Flatts restaurant was scheduled to go where previously a Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill location had been promised. But neither of the franchises ever opened. In fact no other Rascal Flatts locations ever opened aside from the first one, including the proposed Phoenix megaplex, while the original Rascal Flatts restaurant in Connecticut closed down in July of 2018—less than a year after it has opened. Initially, nobody saw any similarities between Toby Keith’s failing restaurant business, and the issues with the Rascal Flatts restaurants. Why would they? Aside from being named after country stars, the two enterprises seemed to be completely separate entities.

This is where things take a dark turn. An investigative reporter named Robert Anglen working for the Phoenix-based newspaper The Arizona Republic started digging into the history of Boomtown Entertainment and its main proprietor Frank Capri. He was able to obtain phone recordings, text messages, documents, and interviews corroborating that Capri was the main guy that oversaw hiring, firing, employee payments, permits, construction schedules, collections of fees, and other business not just tied the Toby Keith-themed restaurants, but that he was the main guy behind the Rascal Flatts Restaurant Group as well, though he often did this work through the proxy of his girlfriend, Tawny Costa. That is the reason nobody tied the Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts restaurant franchises together. But even more disturbing is what reporter Robert Anglen was ultimately able to unearth about who was really behind the Frank Capri alias, or identity.

Frank Gioia Jr., was (or is) a third-generation mobster who worked as a soldier in New York’s notorious Lucchese crime family—one of the five famous crime families of New York City. Nicknamed the “Spaghetti Man,” the portly mobster became a made guy in the Lucchese family in October of 1991, following in the footsteps of his father, Frank Gioia Sr. It only took eight months into Gioia Jr.’s career for him to run afoul of the law, first getting pinched on a gun charge in June of 1992. In 1993, he was in trouble again for running a heroin trafficking ring between Manhattan and Boston. But it was a plot he hatched with multiple other Lucchese family members to murder an underboss to avoid a power shift in the family that resulted in him being sentenced to seven years in prison.

In 1994, while serving his sentence, Frank Gioia Jr. flipped, choosing to turn state’s witness and cooperate with the Feds after hearing about a plot by fellow mob members to murder his father. Frank Gioia Sr. also flipped in 1994 as part of the deal. Along with foiling his father’s murder plot, Frank Gioia Jr. started singing like a bird about all manner of Mafia-related business. According to Mafia experts, Frank Gioia Jr. is arguably the most important Mafia turncoat in history, with his work with law enforcement resulting in over 70 convictions of major mob figures, and the resolution of several unsolved murders at the time.

For Frank Gioia’s cooperation, the Federal government put him in the Witness Protection Program, and supplied him with a new name, a new Social Security number, and a 1967 birth date. In or around 1999, Frank Gioia Jr. became Frank Capri, and emerged as an Arizona businessman and real estate developer, fully cleaned from his crime family past, and ready to use the names of both Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts to allegedly bilk millions of dollars from local property owners, developers, and contractors.

How did Frank Gioia Jr. make money from this scheme? A lawsuit against the Rascal Flatts Restaurant Group in 2018 illustrates one way revenue was derived from the failed franchises. The plaintiff in the lawsuit was the owner of a retail space at the Hollywood and Highland complex in Los Angeles where the famous Dolby Theater is located. According to the lawsuit, a lease was signed for a 7,960 square foot space, and the owner agreed to give the Rascal Flatts Restaurant Group $1 million to build the space out into a restaurant, giving the company a $102,000 advance that was never used on improving the location. Pocketing such development advances may have been at the heart of Frank Capri’s restaurant scheme, along with pocketing profits from locations that did open without paying rent or vendors.

Whether it was property owners, contractors, food providers, or even employees, individuals saw the names “Toby Keith” and “Rascal Flatts” licensed by Frank Capri’s companies, and immediately believed the business to be legitimate. It is also believed that Frank Capri, or Frank Gioia Jr., was involved in other restaurant schemes during this same time period.

As for Toby Keith and I Love This Bar & Grill, the country star has never publicly acknowledged the issues with the franchises whatsoever. However, there are still multiple locations of the restaurant open in Oklahoma and Texas. These locations are not owned by Frank Capri’s former Boomtown Entertainment, but instead are part of the Hal Smith Restaurant Group, which by all accounts is a completely reputable business, and locals seem to love the establishments.

A location in Foxborough, Massachusetts that had originally opened in 2011 and operated throughout the shuttering of the other Toby Keith restaurant franchises also closed abruptly on January 30th, 2019. It was an independently-owned location operated by a woman named Debbie Corvo, who was forced to close after being unable to come to a lease agreement with landlords. This location appeared to operate autonomous to the Frank Capri enterprises as well—that is until indictments came down tied to the restaurant franchises in January of 2020, and it was revealed that Debbie Corvo was in fact Frank Gioia Jr.’s mother.

On January 28th, 2020, the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that 52-year-old Frank Capri, and his 68-year-old mother Debbie Corvo, and an unnamed third party were all indicted by a federal grand jury on 16 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. For Frank Capri’s part, he claims there was no wrongdoing, and that the restaurants were simply a failed business venture. The Federal Witness Protection Program has refused to comment on the matter at all.

Rascal Flatts were forced to release a statement in January of 2019, finally distancing themselves from the restaurant franchises, and explaining the situation to their fans. The band said they never participated in the ownership of the franchises, and quote, “Because we know you have been looking forward to enjoying our themed restaurants, we wanted to let you know that this project is no longer happening. We ended the agreement and do not have a business relationship with the developer. They are not authorized to use our name in any way. We wanted to be transparent to our fans in case there was any confusion related to our involvement in the restaurants. Thank y’all so much for the continued support,” unquote.

Frank Capri was formally arrested on February 5th, 2020, and appeared in a Federal court on February 18th in a yellow jumpsuit. During the hearing, U.S. Magistrate Deborah Fine ruled on a defense motion to close the court to the public, and both the gallery and much of the court staff were removed from the proceedings. Was this due to the matter involving the Witness Protection Program? After all, along with all of the other victims and manipulations tied to Frank Capri’s restaurant franchises, he had used the Witness Protection Program of the United States like a shield.

Luckily though, investigative reporter Robert Anglen of The Arizona Republic who has uncovered much of Frank Capri’s schemes was able to successfully challenge the court’s ruling closing the proceedings, and get the hearings opened back up to the public, and most of the documents tied to the case unsealed. Currently, Frank Capri is still being held without bail. His mother Debbie Corvo took a plea deal, and has been released, as have two Toby Keith restaurant managers who were charged. Frank Capri’s girlfriend who allegedly played a pivotal role in the Rascal Flatts franchises still remains uncharged at the time of this podcast.

What started out as an idea to expand the scope and name recognition of two of country music’s most successful modern franchises ultimately ended up being a money pit and a public relations debacle. Though Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts seem to be just as much victims as anyone, questions linger on whether they could have been more proactive in removing their names from the projects, and warning the public about the actions of Frank Capri, Boomtown Entertainment, and the Rascal Flatts Restaurant Group, especially warning local employees who were left in the lurch. Since the Rascal Flatts Restaurant Group had been sued as far back as January of 2018—over a year before the band publicly addressed the situation—they had to have known there was trouble brewing behind-the-scenes.

As for the careers of Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts? They’ve sort of paralleled the disillusion of the the restaurant franchises bearing their name. As high flying as Toby Keith was in the aughts, he logged his last Top 10 hit in 2012, and quickly fell out of favor with radio entirely in subsequent years. His Show Dog Universal label—though still around—has lost more stars than its signed in recent years, and the only major artist remaining on the label is Toby Keith himself—a far cry from the success Big Machine Records has found. Toby Keith still remains a big concert draw though, and his fans are most certainly loyal. Meanwhile Rascal Flatts has fared slightly better, still releasing a radio hit every once in a while, but they announced a farewell tour in January of 2020, sensing that the end was near. The tour was subsequently postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As for other big mainstream country music performers who may have licensed out their names or opened restaurants themselves—especially the ones you see when you go down to Lower Broadway in Nashville where they seem to be on every corner—have there ever been any shady dealings there? Well, you’ll just have to wait and find out in the future, won’t you?


Sources

Most of the Frank Capri scheme was uncovered by investigative reporter Robert Anglen of the Arizona Republic.

Arizona Republic – “Ex-mobster behind collapse of Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts restaurant chains indicted on fraud charges.”

Arizona Republic – “Feds: Ex-mobster used Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts restaurants in nationwide fraud scheme.”

Saving Country Music – “Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith, The Mafia, and the Failed Restaurant Concept”

TMZ – Rascal Flatts Sued Over Money Grab in Restaurant Deal

Patch.com – Toby Keith’s Bar Blames Patriot Place for Closing

© 2021 Saving Country Music
2+