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West Side restaurateur Besim Kukaj was sentenced this month to 57 months in prison for fraudulently seeking at least $6.14 million and receiving at least $1.5 million from the federal government’s COVID-19 relief loans, announced Damian Williams, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Kukaj was also charged with intimidation and threats to a creditor with his co-defendant, Abduraman “Diamond” Iseni.

Cara Mia
Cara Mia, part of the BKUK Group portfolio, was at various locations on 9th Avenue. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Restaurants run in Hell’s Kitchen in recent years by Kukaj through BKUK Group include Maria Pia at 319 W51st Street, Cara Mia at 693 Ninth Avenue (and other locations), Gallo Nero at 402 W44th Street, Intermezzo at 632 9th Avenue (and other locations) and Limon Jungle at 803 9th Avenue. Information from the court did not make clear which restaurants he had made fraudulent applications for. BKUK claimed on their website that they have “17 years of restaurant experience” and run 10 establishments in New York.

In July 2022, Crain’s reported that in the past eight years, Kukaj had been part of a dozen wage violation settlements in which he had been ordered to pay more than $4.2 million to former dishwashers, cooks, delivery workers and bartenders at his restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and Greenwich Village. Last summer, more than 20 former employees sued him, claiming he had not paid a cent of the $2.4 million a judge ordered him to pay in December 2021.

Cara Mia Smoke Shop
Cara Mia shuttered during the pandemic — and in July 2022 was converted into a smoke shop. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Back in November 2022, Kukaj admitted conspiring with others to try to secure more than $3.5 million dollars in government-backed loans intended for businesses devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Kukaj told banks that his restaurants operated with dozens of employees, when in fact he employed far fewer people. These brazen lies tricked banks into sending him approximately $1.5 million in loans. Even after his arrest, Kukaj continued to submit false loan applications,” said Williams in a statement.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided financial assistance to millions of Americans suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic, including forgivable loans through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program (EIDL). Kukaj, together with other conspirators, submitted fraudulent loan applications to various banks for the PPP and EIDL programs, using corporate entities and restaurants that were either closed or had significantly reduced revenue.

In July 2020, W42ST reported that businesses in Hell’s Kitchen had been awarded $572 million in PPP funds. At the time, local businesses reported retaining 31,742 jobs through the PPP process. The average cost was $18,049 per job retained. PPP fund records show that BKUK Corporation received $250,000 for a business at 654 9th Avenue (a former location of Cara Mia that had been vacated before the pandemic).

Kukaj was arrested in October 2020 and indicted for bank fraud conspiracy in December 2020. However, he continued to file false loan applications, violating the terms of his bail. The fraudulent applications were inflated with fictitious employees and payrolls, and he falsely claimed that he was not under indictment.

Intermezzo was briefly at the corner of W44th Street and 9th Avenue (now replaced by La Pulperia). File pic in August 2020. Photo: Phil O’Brien

In addition to the prison sentence, Kukaj, a 43-year-old from Fort Lee, New Jersey, was ordered to pay a forfeiture of $1,500,000 and restitution of $1,500,000 to the US Small Business Administration.

“He did this out of pure greed, sending some of this money to a Florida real estate developer and using it to buy luxury items from Cartier and Hugo Boss,” Williams said. “And he didn’t stop there. He directed his co-conspirator to physically threaten a victim to whom he owed money. For his brazen crimes, Kukaj will serve meaningful time in prison.”

Join the Conversation


    1. How disgusting of you to say something like that. He didn’t kill anyone so why would he need to rot in jail.

  1. I’d like to read some follow-up on when his cheated employees will be getting their settlement, and if and when the forfeiture/restitution money is actually paid. Our system of justice doesn’t insure that settlements are paid out, and litigants are left for years trying to collect while the guilty party retains his ill-gotten goods. It’s shameful!

    1. We have the worst collection process possible where repeat offenders like a con man named Elliot in his late 70’s scam people and then hide his assets knowing the court can do nothing.

  2. Wow. I ate at those restaurants all the time. I heard rumors back in the day but didn’t know the extent of his crimes.

  3. They were always “ chintzy” with their bread, and would “ pad the bill” , with an xtra drink, or 5 if they thought you wouldn’t notice . Once they added a whole appetizer to the bill, that we didn’t order. I always double check any bill . You wouldn’t believe how many restaurants do this . People just glance at the amount, and rarely check. It’s a good habit to get into . Ok lovely W42ST people . Cheers 🍻 🥂

  4. I am so sorry to hear that. Intermezzo in Chelsea was my favorite lunch place and back in the day was a good place for dinner. It is unfortunate that they needed to resort to this in recent years.

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