Behind a big street-front window at 605 Centre St. in Jamaica Plain is a flurry of activity these days, a level of busyness the space has not seen for nearly two years.
Curious passersby glance inside as workers strip floors, install light fixtures, and haul in kitchen equipment. But more than “What’s going on here,’’ the question people are asking is, “What happened here?’’
What happened to Bon Savor, the popular French-South American bistro that occupied the space for six years until abruptly closing a few months ago? And what happened to Ibonne Zabala, 36, and Oleg Konovalov, 42, the always smiling couple who owned Bon Savor?
Some answers are easy to come by, others remain elusive. But the story that has emerged is a tale of what can happen when the challenges of running a business collide with the complicated rules of immigration visas. Even as Bon Savor’s old space is being prepped to open as the Grass Fed Burger Bar, www.bonsavor.com continues to live on the Internet without a hint of the restaurant’s demise.
Bon Savor’s slow death began in September 2009, when Zabala, Konovalov, and their baby son flew to Bogota to see her family. Those who know the couple say they had reviewed their paperwork to make sure everything was current, and they had every intention of returning. But when they attempted to fly back two weeks later, Zabala and Konovalov learned from the US Embassy in Bogota that their visas had been revoked because they had failed to maintain the requirements of the documents.
The US Department of State declined to comment about Zabala and Konovalov’s case. But an aide for US Representative Michael Capuano, whose office was contacted by Jamaica Plain activists on the couple’s behalf, confirmed that Zabala had an “E2 Investor’’ visa, or what some people casually call a “job creator’’ visa. Konovalov had an accompanying spousal visa (he is from Russia, and attended Harvard Business School), and their son, born in Boston, is a US citizen. Under the requirements of an E2 Investor visa, recipients are required to make a “substantial’’ business investment that they will control or operate and grow while living in the United States.
According to Margaret Holland Sparages, the Boston immigration lawyer who represented Zabala and Konovalov, Zabala’s E2 visa had just been renewed for a second five-year term when the couple flew to Colombia to have their son baptized and visit with her family.
“It’s a shame what happened, because we followed every step. How do you say? We dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s,’’ Konovalov said by telephone from the couple’s new home in Colombia, where they live with their now 3-year-old boy and another son, born 1 1/2 years ago. “And still this happened? We thought, ‘This is a mistake.’ So we took a month and gathered all our documents. We were rejected. We waited a year, regrouped, and tried again. And again we were rejected.
“Do you know that when we met with the US consular officer in that second try, he did not even look us in the eye. The meeting lasted two minutes. He barely glanced at our documents. He just said no. And when we asked if we could have a reason he said, ‘Sorry, no. Goodbye.’ ’’
Sparages says she was as surprised as Zabala and Konovalov, because the pair far surpassed the minimum requirements of the E2.
“The thing is, the initial investment is graded on a sliding scale,’’ Sparages says. “And I can say for certain that she met the legal requirements, because I know she invested 80 percent of the value of that business to get it going. And it was doing well, it was growing. They had professional chefs on down to servers, busboys, etc. But the point is they employed a number of people. Their business plan - both culinary and their plans for expansion, for Boston - was very impressive. These kids knew what they were doing.’’
Zabala and Konovalov thought that opening a restaurant that generated steady revenue and from the beginning employed more than half a dozen people met the E2 visa threshold.
“I mean they checked - she told everyone they checked before heading to Colombia - to make sure their papers were in order,’’ says Andrea Howley, former chairwoman of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council. “It’s so bizarre that this happened.’’
What happened, immigration experts say, is not uncommon. The standards for E2 holders can be arbitrary, and immigration officials are not required to explain their approval or denial of such visas.
The State Department does have an immigration fraud profile alert for applicants from Russia and Colombia, but Sparages says she does not believe Zabala and Konovalov were viewed suspiciously through that prism.
“Our consular officers - US consular officers - are the best. They’re well trained and very good at what they do,’’ she says. “But I believe that maybe there’s a disconnect between ‘traditional’ immigration issues they encounter and small business.’’
She says that while the US Citizenship and Immigration Services Department has taken a more friendly tone toward investment visas, she has seen an uptick in the number of people like Zabala and Konovalov who have their E2s inexplicably revoked.
Joshua L. Goldstein, also a Boston immigration lawyer, agrees. He says what probably happened is that the couple were victimized by nothing more than a new set of eyes reviewing their paperwork. “The fact that they were renewed at least twice only means that the consular officers reviewing their file were satisfied with what they saw,’’ Goldstein says. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if during their trip abroad a new, different person reviewed their file and decided they didn’t meet the standard. It happens that arbitrarily.’’
Alison Mills, Capuano’s press secretary, says the congressman urged the State Department several times to either reinstate Zabala’s E2 visa and Konovalov’s accompanying spousal visa, or to at least grant them tourist visas so they could get back to Boston and Bon Savor. But each request was denied.
“We cannot compel State to issue visas,’’ Mills says. “And the State Department, in most cases, does not give us a reason, other than that the applicants are not eligible under US law for the visa they seek.’’
In spite of Zabala and Konovalov’s uphill battle, the neighborhood and even local government officials rallied around them, says Michael Reiskind, a longtime Jamaica Plain community activist and secretary of the JP Business and Professional Association. In their absence, employees of Bon Savor kept the restaurant open for more than a year, with reduced hours.
“We want to come back because we miss our friends and our restaurant, but most important because we want to recover our good name,’’ Konovalov says. “This is a democratic country. How can you meet all the requirements by law, get rejected, and then be given no explanation? The way things stand, people might assume that Ibonne and I did wrong. And we didn’t.’’
Both the neighborhood council and the business and professional association teamed with Capuano’s office to gather signatures for letters to send to the embassy in Bogota, where the decision was made to revoke Zabala’s visa. Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s office even endorsed the letter-writing campaign.
On Jamaica Plain rallying behind the couple, Konovalov says, “It really brought me to tears. So many people tried to help us. After being gone so long, before we were able to sell the restaurant we accumulated a lot of debt. We didn’t know what we were going to do. But we decided to be straightforward with our suppliers and tell them what had happened and where we were. Do you know that every one of our suppliers - all local businesses, small business too - told us, ‘We want to help too. Don’t worry about it. Pay us what you can. If it’s 20 percent of what you owe, it’s 20 percent, we’ll take that. Whatever you can do.’ ’’
Michael Sandberg and his wife live in Newburyport, but they frequented Bon Savor for Sunday morning brunch. At that point, Sandberg says, the restaurant employed four cooks and three servers, a tidbit he learned after talking to a manager. “It is ironic that actual ‘job creators’ were not allowed to come back and continue their job creation, and now seven more people are out of work,’’ Sandberg says.
Krista Kranyak, the owner of Ten Tables, whose Grass Fed Burger Bar is taking over the space, says Konovalov and Zabala were good neighbors. “We had a great relationship,’’ Kranyak says. “If they were too busy, rather than make customers wait too long, they’d suggest diners come over to our restaurant. And if we were too busy, we’d tell customers to try out Bon Savor. Running a small business is tough under any circumstances, but in this economy it can be especially tough. Still, it seemed they were doing fine. I signed the letters on their behalf too, because it just didn’t make sense that these people who worked so hard and made themselves an important part of the community couldn’t come home.’’
David Warner, cofounder of City Feed and Supply, directly across from Bon Savor’s old location, says, “It seems like they did everything they were supposed to. It’s a shame they can’t come home, since this is definitely home to them, or was. It’s tough enough to be a business owner. It’s sad when something like this - paperwork - makes it even tougher.’’
As for now, Zabala is concentrating on completing her MBA in Colombia, and Konovalov says simply he is “supporting her . . . but we hold out hope that we’ll be able to return and open another restaurant or reopen Bon Savor.’’James H. Burnett III can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.