Co-owners sue partner, accuse him of mismanaging their Salt Lake City bar

Majority owner of Twist Bar & Bistro will “defend” against the allegations, his lawyer says.

The co-owners of a popular Salt Lake City nightclub are suing a third partner they believe is mismanaging the bar, taking business funds and engaging in “inappropriate” conduct with employees.

Twist Bar & Bistro co-owners Todd Wilcox and Brian Popelka filed a lawsuit in the 3rd District Court against the bar’s majority owner, Kirk Bengtzen, who oversees the management and operations of the club at 32 Exchange Place.

Wilcox and Popelka own 30% and 10% of the bar, respectively.

Bengtzen “intends to vigorously defend against the allegations,” his lawyer wrote Monday in an email, adding that such disputes commonly occur in businesses.

“The restaurant and hospitality business has been extremely challenging during the past year of the pandemic, and this has put a strain on Mr. Bengtzen and his partners,” attorney Richard Madsen said. “Mr. Bengtzen hopes to resolve these matters either through settlement or the court process.”

In the complaint, Wilcox and Popelka say Bengtzen has become “increasingly secretive” about business dealings. Bengtzen did not tell the partners about a drunken driving charge he received in late October — which, they say, could affect Twist’s bar license with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Without telling Wilcox or Popelka, the suit states, Bengtzen also “signed an additional lease in Twist’s name and began building a dance club” in the bar’s basement.

Bengtzen, they assert, hired a general contractor to assist with the construction but refused to have the contractor obtain permits. As a result of the unpermitted work, Salt Lake City has issued a cease-and-desist order against further construction.

“The [basement] dance club is unable to open,” the complaint says, “and Bengtzen has refused to pay the general contractor, subjecting Twist to liability on a large financial obligation.”

Wilcox and Popelka say bank statements and other financial records show Bengtzen has transferred more than $140,524 from business accounts to personal accounts “without explanation.” The co-owners also believe Bengtzen was taking the cash collected as “cover charges” when customers entered the bar.

“Bengtzen concealed these misappropriations,” the suit alleges, “instead claiming that the company was suffering losses based on current economic conditions.”

In April 2020, Bengtzen told Wilcox he needed to provide additional capital to Twist or sign over a portion of his interest to Bengtzen, the suit states. At that time, Wilcox transferred a 13% interest in Swage LLC — Twist’s parent company — to Bengtzen.

In January 2021, Wilcox and Popelka report they also received complaints from employees that Bengtzen had engaged in “inappropriate sexual talk and, in some cases, made inappropriate sexual contact with them,” the complaint states. As a result, some employees have resigned.

The lawsuit is the latest dramatic turn for Twist.

On Feb. 13, it was one of five Salt Lake City bars shut down by the Salt Lake County Health Department for violating state COVID-19 health orders. Twist quickly reopened after submitting a plan to comply with the coronavirus guidelines.

It was not the first time the bar had been cited. It received a warning in October from the health department for failing to meet coronavirus mandates.

Last April, Bengtzen was among the business owners who continued to pay employees while the bar was closed due to COVID-19. In December, he also led the charge to get then-Gov. Gary Herbert to lift the state’s 10 p.m. alcohol ban.