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Imitation is not the greatest form of flattery for La Vela Dining & Bar owner Antonio Mauro, as the veteran restauranteur battles customer confusion and encroachment from a nearby competitor with a near-identical name.
“It could ruin my business,” said Mauro, who has operated the popular Neapolitan eatery on 11th Avenue between W42nd and W43rd Street since 2015. A strikingly similar-sounding restaurant, called La Vela Pasta, has appeared on 9th Avenue, with little online information to accompany it other than GrubHub and DoorDash pages — leading to an onslaught of customer confusion, missed reservations, and complaints over takeout ordered from the wrong location.
“It’s been happening for a couple of months now,” said Mauro. “I started having a lot of complaints to our food delivery platform — people calling regarding food not delivered to them, being overcharged by the other restaurant, customers coming in to claim reservations that we didn’t know we had and people leaving after we dropped the menu because they were expecting a totally different type of restaurant.” The other La Vela appears to offer Americanized Italian dishes and New York-style pizza that “we just don’t do,” said Mauro.
Mauro takes pride in the restaurant’s commitment to authentic Italian cuisine, pointing out that La Vela Dining & Bar is a member of the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce “We get inspected once a year from Italy and we strictly import our products from Italy,” he explained. Mauro is frustrated that some customers seeking traditional Neapolitan cuisine have found themselves with the other La Vela’s vastly different offerings and have turned disappointedly to him, assuming that the two are linked. “Even the lettering on their logo is pretty close to mine,” said Mauro. “It’s not clear that we’re not part of them, because they don’t even have a website. It feels like they use my reputation for some goods.”
An additional concern is not just the potential for customer mixups, but in city fines and citations, said Mauro. “It’s very possible that if this guy gets a fine — let’s say from a fire department inspection — because of what I’ve been through in the past, that fine could get delivered to me.”
Mauro initially turned to DoorDash for help in delineating the two eateries, but “I spent an hour on the phone, they put me on hold for 20 minutes, and then they hung up the phone on me,” he said. W42ST reached out to both DoorDash and GrubHub to inquire whether there are any policies in place to prevent restaurants from piggy-backing on the brand of another. We have not yet heard back from GrubHub, and a representative from DoorDash replied that they would investigate the matter. GrubHub has previously been clocked for allowing restaurants with fraudulent address registrations to operate unregulated on the platform, where they were found to have listed dozens of illegal “ghost kitchens” (NBC 4 New York).
W42ST visited the 9th Avenue La Vela — here labeled as “M & Pizza” with no outward “La Vela” branding — an employee confirmed that the restaurant is a pizza and pasta takeout spot and was unsure why the owner had chosen the name “La Vela” for its online platforms. In addition to La Vela Dining & Bar, which is registered with the New York State Department as La Vela Ristorante Inc, there are two other active registrations using the words “La Vela” — one, an artisan self-care retail business known as La Vela Factory, the other an unidentified business registered to Kings County, Brooklyn. W42ST reached out to the NYS DOS regarding the unidentified business and has yet to hear back. Mauro also says he hasn’t been able to get in touch with the operators.
The copycat chaos was the latest frustration for the restaurateur after a challenging pandemic period where, despite applying for multiple grants and federal aid, “we were not awarded money,” said Mauro, adding that he was thankful for the generosity of the restaurant’s landlord at Riverbank West. “They understood the situation and they tried to help me back up,” he said, “but we still struggle because the area has changed a lot” since the pandemic. “We’re still trying to get out of the struggle and get the place back to where it was back in 2019,” he added. “It’s not easy — and now we have this news? I’m dealing with complaints every week.”
Mauro hopes the matter can be resolved soon so that he and his team can go back to concentrating on all of the hard work they’ve already put into La Vela Dining & Bar. Said Mauro of the imitation La Vela: “I’m not here to judge people, but you need to be careful when you try to promote your business. Don’t use somebody else’s sweat and love and passion for the business to make you great too.”
UPDATE: A representative from DoorDash responded to W42ST with the following statement: “As part of our commitment to providing a safe and high-quality service for merchants, Dashers, and customers, we continually monitor the platform to detect and prevent fraudulent behavior. We are actively investigating this issue and have reached out to both merchants to understand the situation. La Vela Pasta was immediately deactivated, and we’ve been in touch with La Vela Dining and Bar.” The La Vela Pasta DoorDash page has been removed.