Italian restaurant Noah’s Ark in Des Moines faces litigation
For 75 years, Iowans have flocked to Noah’s ark Old-school Italian pasta and pizza restaurant, but its future is uncertain due to a family dispute in which one side operates the restaurant and the other owns the real estate.
On May 6, the two sides met before Polk County Judge David Nelmark for a three-hour hearing to determine next steps. At issue: whether a temporary emergency injunction would be put in place to prevent Anntoinette Erickson, representing the Noah L. and Sara Ann Lacona Revocable Trust, from terminating the lease between the trust and Noah’s Management LLC, which operates the business. According to Friday’s testimony, the trustees intend to terminate the lease due to insufficient rent payments.
For now, Noah’s Ark will continue to operate as usual, but the dispute, dating back to 2020, remains unresolved. Noah’s Management LLC has been ordered to submit a preliminary cash bond of $117,652.11 to the clerk of court by May 9. The amount will be withheld before a future bond hearing, where the family can continue to work out the details of the dispute. however, Nelmark urged the attorneys to consider having settlement discussions outside of court.
The restaurant’s current manager, James Lacona II, Noah Lacona’s grandson, told the hearing that terminating the lease would “permanently close (Noah’s Ark)”.
A family business and a family conflict
Created by Noah Lacona Noah’s Ark Restaurant at 2400 Ingersoll Ave., opening the home-style Italian restaurant on New Year’s Eve 1946 as a lunch counter. He hoped to show Des Moines what pizza really was, and customers quickly caught on.
The building was extended in 1953 and a bakery was added. Early advertisements in the Des Moines Register touted meals cooked by Noah Lacona’s wife, Sara Ann Lacona, herself. The couple became known not only for their homemade pastas and pizzas, but also as owners of a family-run establishment and a cornerstone of the Italian-American experience in Des Moines.
The nearly windowless dining room, traditionally decorated except for a large mural of the biblical Noah surrounded by animals, is regularly bustling with loyal customers who have stopped here for generations.
Noah and Sara Ann Lacona retired from the business circa 2009, passing management to their son, James (Jim) Lacona Sr. and his wife Nora Beth Lacona. Noah Lacona died in 2017 and Sara Ann Lacona died a year later and their son ran the restaurant until his death in 2019.
At that time, his widow Nora Beth Lacona and their son James Lacona II took over operations of the restaurant, managed by Noah’s Management LLC.
Litigation and mediation date back to 2020
First reported by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, the space dispute dates back to March 2020 when the trust attempted to terminate Noah’s Ark lease. Noah’s Management LLC went to court to block the move, arguing that the trust had failed to pay property taxes or for building improvements, including a new roof, new heating and air conditioning system and several new devices that needed to be replaced.
According to testimony Friday, Citi State Bank, which acts as co-trustee of the trust, was aware of an offer from a third party, Woodsonia Acquisitions, to purchase and redevelop the property. Representatives for Noah’s Management LLC said the company had the necessary funds and had attempted to purchase the property from the trust, but no agreement had been reached.
Representatives of Noah’s Management LLC argued on Friday that although the company had not paid rent to the trust since September 2019, James Lacona II held the rent (4% of the restaurant’s gross revenue paid monthly) in an account. sequestration by the instruction of a judge who oversaw a mediation session between the parties in 2020.
James Lacona II testified that he withdrew funds from the escrow account only to make emergency repairs to the restaurant. He said under the terms of the 2020 mediation and two Noah’s Ark leases from 2009 and 2010, the trust is responsible for all repairs to the property.
If, Lacona II said, the trust were to make the necessary repairs — including replacing the leaking roof, fixing a sewer drain and repairing sections of the parking lot — the amount owed by the trust would be over $500,000 in five years, far greater than the amount of rent that Noah’s Management failed to pay to the trust.
Although trust officials were unable to clarify the amount of rent owed to the trust by the restaurant, they said documentation of Noah’s Ark’s gross revenue was necessary to calculate rent, and that the documentation had not been provided to the defense at the time of the hearing.
The two sides argued over the details of the initial leases and the terms of the mediation, without reaching a conclusion by the end of the session. Judge Nelmark said he was open to discussing additional testimony at an as-yet-unscheduled bond hearing before ruling on the request for an emergency temporary injunction.