Catered to Death

A hard-charging wheeler-dealer, a catering perfectionist, and a bitterly dissatisfied wife -- it was a lethal mix

With the opening of Signature Grand in 1997, Berlin and Pecora were equal decision-makers over two bustling catering facilities and their subsidiaries. Many of their decisions were made in private, but top employees at Signature had plenty of opportunities to witness how the two men worked together.

It was a remarkably smooth fit -- at least in the beginning. "When they had a meeting and they were discussing how they were going to run the business, whatever way they ended up agreeing on, that's how it went," says Juska, who was a top manager from 1985 until late 2001. "You couldn't play one against the other. If anybody thinks that you could buddy up to Jerry and go against Michael, that's crap and that's wrong. They talked about everything."

The business relationship didn't, however, spill over into a friendship. One Signature Grand employee, who asked not to be named, says that the two men treated each other with respect but also kept a distance between them. "They never socialized, really," the employee says. "Only when they had to be together on certain occasions, like our New Year's Eve bashes -- but they had separate tables. I mean, Berlin was a Democrat. Pecora was a Republican. [Berlin] really wasn't a part of the business business. As far as the financial end of it, he was, but as far as the social end and how we did our sales, he was interested in the money. Pecora was involved in the daily things."

Miami Herald
Michael Pecora (left) and Jerome Berlin built a catering empire in  South Florida, but a feud over a condo  and Arlene Pecora's role at the  company led to bad blood
Miami Herald
Michael Pecora (left) and Jerome Berlin built a catering empire in South Florida, but a feud over a condo and Arlene Pecora's role at the company led to bad blood

Pecora, however, routinely acquiesced to Berlin's will to avoid arguments. In an interview with police soon after the murder-suicide, Lloyd Stanton, the company's chief engineer of 11 years, said: "Mr. Pecora and Mr. Berlin typically treat[ed] one another with mutual respect -- even though I think Mr. Pecora had to bite his tongue [when he believed Berlin was wrong]. If Jerry was right, Jerry was right, so why disagree and cause an argument?" Instead, according to Stanton, Pecora would try to "circumvent" his initial capitulation by verbally nudging his partner. "[Pecora] was the broken record, never raised his voice, but he just kept, in his diplomatic way, wearing [Berlin] down until he got his way," Stanton said.

Whatever the differences between the two, they possessed one mutual trait that served as the hallmark of the Signature brand: perfectionism. Although they manifested the attribute in vastly different ways, it resulted in high employee turnover, several lawsuits, and a catering operation that was the envy of the industry. Paradoxically, it also played a role in the final fatal rift between them.

"Michael Pecora was a genius," declares a former Signature Grand employee who was involved in sales and marketing and asked not to be named. "You have to understand the mass market that he was going after. Michael used to laugh that he'd be the McDonalds of the catering business. His labor costs, food costs, preparation costs -- he kept everything low. He had it down to a true science."

Pecora's exactitude, however, could be exasperating. For example, he frequently drilled receptionists by making calls from his office and posing as a would-be customer. "He would get on the telephone -- and I still laugh about it -- and he would make all these fake calls as if to pose questions to people," former employee Richard Schoenherr said in a deposition as part of a civil lawsuit. He said Pecora had unrealistic expectations for his employees. "He did say to me a couple of times in person, 'Richard, why is it that everybody else seems to appear so stupid?'"

If Pecora was eccentric in his perfectionism, Berlin could be downright scathing -- behavior that undoubtedly got under Pecora's skin over the years. "He was a screamer," a Signature Grand employee says of Berlin. "If he didn't like what you did or said... we lost more receptionists because of him. With Pecora, you could make a mistake, but with Berlin, forget it. He could become a maniac, literally screaming at you."

Mancuso, general manager of the Grand, told police that he had been stunned by Berlin's management style. For example, Mancuso said, a new receptionist didn't follow protocol in answering a phone call for Berlin once. "Are you an idiot?" Berlin screamed over the phone to her. "Don't you know what you're doing? You have instructions right in front of you. What's the matter with you?" Then he hung up and told Mancuso: "I want her fired right now. I want her off the property. I don't want to ever take another call from her."

Juska says he was frequently on the receiving end of Berlin's brutal criticism, which sometimes took place in front of other employees. Occasionally, Berlin would apologize for his behavior a few days later. "But if something had perturbed him that I'd done, I wasn't getting out of that," Juska says. "That was a tough part of working there, but it was a consistent part."

Even some outside the business had witnessed Berlin's darker side. "I've been in his presence when he went crazy," restaurant supplier Yablin says. "I saw him fire a young girl because she didn't say, 'Sir.' As far as a boss is concerned, I think everybody was scared of him. That's my personal observation."

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