Former manager takes over to revive Zen restaurant

Zen is about to be reincarnated.

Zen Sushi Bar & Asian Grill, once wrought with bad karma, will reopen next week as just "Zen" and under new ownership by one of its former managers.

Sam Phillips, who was an officer of Zen Sushi, and Naples investor Brandon DeJesus bought the Fifth Avenue South restaurant out of bankruptcy court in October.

Sam Phillips, co-owner of Zen Restaurant in Naples, plans to reopen the restaurant, formerly called Zen Sushi Bar & Asian Grill, next week.

Photo by Tracy Boulian, Daily News

Sam Phillips, co-owner of Zen Restaurant in Naples, plans to reopen the restaurant, formerly called Zen Sushi Bar & Asian Grill, next week.

Zen will be accepting reservations starting Dec. 22.

Phillips said he's thrilled about giving the Naples restaurant a fresh start.

"I am absolutely excited about it," he said. "I've been involved since the beginning and now I have an opportunity to reopen this thing."

*NSYNC pop singer JC Chasez, who had owned Zen Sushi in a 50-50 partnership with Naples resident Robert Daly, put the restaurant in bankruptcy in June. The restaurant, which had been open a year, closed later that month.

Chasez had sued Zen Sushi in March for full ownership rights, claiming a deadlock between owners.

Phillips and DeJesus paid $172,000 to the three major creditors, mostly for rent and taxes. They paid $31,000 to purchase the restaurant.

The new owners kept the name Zen because it still fits the restaurant concept, which Phillips created. They also didn't want to give the impression that it was another establishment making an attempt at success in a spot that has high turnover.

"I thought it was more of a risk of people saying, 'Oh, there's another place again,' " Phillips said.

The menu still will offer sushi but will focus more on steaks and seafood. Phillips' brother, Luke, a sushi chef, will be in charge of the sushi bar.

Phillips, 28, started his working life at age 10 making coleslaw at The Dock at Crayton Cove where his father, Alfie Phillips, worked for nearly 20 years.

For the past six years Alfie has been semiretired and is a managing partner at a shrimp and oyster bar in North Carolina.

He moved back to Naples to help manage Zen. He said he didn't think twice about leaving.

"It was an easy decision to have the opportunity to work with my two sons," he said.

Sam Phillips said he tried to escape the hospitality industry because he grew up in it, but has realized in recent years that he has a passion for the business.

To purchase Zen, Phillips sold his East Naples condo and dug into his savings. DeJesus, a friend, is a partner in Naples Brokers Realty in Bonita Springs and has been involved with several Naples restaurants, including Shula's Steakhouse and Harold's Place. Phillips is the majority owner.

The former owners, Chasez and Daly, no longer are involved with Zen, Phillips said.

Phillips met Chasez, who owns a home in Orlando, seven years ago when he was working in the music business after graduating from Full Sail media production school in Orlando. The two quickly became close friends.

He introduced Chasez and Daly and together they invested in Zen Sushi. Daly was responsible for day-to-day operations.

According to bankruptcy court testimony from Roy Chasez, JC's father, JC was getting calls six months after the restaurant's opening asking for more money after he already had invested $800,000.

Roy Chasez, who holds power of attorney for his son, visited Naples last December to find out what was going on.

"Things went bad when Josh signed the business over to his father," Phillips said, adding that Roy Chasez and Daly didn't see eye to eye. "There were things that were said that just didn't happen."

Phillips and Chasez no longer speak. Chasez last contacted him to congratulate Phillips on the birth of his daughter, who is now 9 months old.

Phillips and Daly still are friends. They each own financial and estate planning businesses, which Phillips does on the side.

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