A series of small failures


Why I am in my parents’ basement
December 11, 2008, 11:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yesterday was one of those days that bitch slaps you out of nowhere.  Of course I know that the reason I’m living in my parents’ basement is because of my failed restaurant. But suddenly I saw the link so clearly — the almost $10,000 of organic food and products that we ordered from Tree of Life — a natural foods distributor — that I put on my own credit card was the root cause of my current predicament. This is relevant because I recently signed a paper releasing any claim on the restaurant. I settled for a mere $1,200 check, which my ex’s mother overnighted to me. I actually felt grateful to get anything at all. And I was happy to be done with it. There was nothing left to tie me to Tom. Nothing left in storage in his mom’s basement or attic in Ohio (I got all that moved out in May). Nothing left in Puerto Rico at Tom’s house. And anything I still had claim to in the restaurant — mainly my dehydrator, my Kitchenaid, a library table from New York, and some random things — were now his, since I accepted the check from his mother. I felt free. 

Then yesterday I got an email via Facebook from a friend in Puerto Rico:

 
Today at 9:11am
Hey Jodi,
Guess you probably heard Natural High is being reincarnated from the ashes at Daniels old location. Just got back from Thailand to find that someone broke into my house.
 
Today at 11:48am

no, i hadn’t heard that. OMG. crazy. what do you know? tom doesn’t tell me anything.

Today at 11:52am
What’s OMG? Tom’s fixing up his new place and daniel’s fixing up his new one. Neither is open yet. Daniel’s new place is as big as all of freshmart. Talk about trading places!
 
Today at 11:55am
tom totally misrepresented things to me… his mom got me to sign something and i received a tiny fraction of what he owes me, and signed over any claim i have to that place. that’s what’s OMG. are you saying that he’s going to run the cafe in freshmart now? i feel totally lied to by him.
 
Today at 12:00pm
Yea, he’s opening Natural High in freshmart. Sorry to hear that you were taken advantage of.
As a bit of background, Natural High Cafe was my restaurant in Rincon, Puerto Rico. Freshmart is a natural food/supplement chain with five stores on the island. Until recently, a couple we knew, Carey and Daniel, ran a lunchtime-only vegetarian cafe at the Freshmart store in Aguadilla. To say that their business, the Long Life Deli, was successful was an understatement. They bought a house in Rincon. Then they bought a second house in Rincon on Vista Nuclear (the street with views of the inactive nuclear dome, the large green landmark that gave the surfing hotspot Domes beach its name). They also bought a building in Rincon — the former Berrios furniture store, a massive space on Carretera 115. We heard that Carey and Daniel were going to open a cafe/natural food store in the old furniture store. We were beyond bummed. Rincon could barely support one vegetarian cafe, let alone two. And we thought they were friends. We never heard anything from them about the cafe or their progress. All our reports came secondhand from various common friends.
So the fact that Tom is re-opening Natural High where Carey and Daniel found so much success really got to me. I suspected that the reason Tom’s mom suddenly contacted me with this offer was because he knew he was going to re-open the restaurant and he wanted to cut me out of the operation, ensuring that I’d have no claim on any of his future profits.
I guess it’s time to start writing about Natural High Cafe.  Natural High (fondly referred to as “natty high”) originally was Tom’s brainchild, but he convinced me to join him. For a $4,000 investment, I would have 25% of the restaurant. My sweat over the next year would get me to 49% (he said he needed to maintain controlling interest so that he could fire me anytime without cause — like, if i started dating someone and he didn’t want to be around me… and I, stupidly, went along. I’m laughing as I write this — I realize how ridiculous that was.)
He didn’t force me into the business with him. I went willingly. It seemed like a relatively small risk for a potentially great reward. Maybe I actually could find a way to support myself in Rincon after all. Maybe I could eventually buy a little place with a view of Steps beach, Desecheo island, and the magnificent sunsets Rincon is famous for. “El pueblo de los bellos atardeceres,” the town of the beautiful sunsets.
 
The idea of working closely with Tom did give me pause. We broke up for the last time just after we took a trip to St. Martin with some of my best friends. While in St. Martin, my friend got pregnant. And I realized that I was secretly hopeful that I could be pregnant too. I was stupidly hopeful. I kept hoping that some miracle would occur, and that I would somehow finally be pregnant. I had been in menopause for over 8 years, due to some premature failure of my ovaries (there’s that theme again).  It’s actually called premature ovarian failure. You can read all about it on that diary I did for Slate five years ago. Maybe I’ll write about it again. Someday.
The restaurant was the brainchild of Tom, originally, but I did have a lot of influence. We decided we would focus on organic food. Tom, being a commited vegetarian, vowed that no meat would ever be served on our menu. Puerto Rico being the land of fried meat (see Anthony Bourdain’s pork parade across the island in the “No Reservations” episode on Puerto Rico), you could say that we were set up for failure from the very beginning.
The owner of the space had tried to run a vegetarian cafe there for the previous three years. He had a small clientele, a few health conscious people who put up with his erratic hours and glacial service. People complained about waiting a half hour for a smoothie–and that was when you could find the place open.  It seemed to be 4:20 p.m. there constantly.
So Tom was looking for a place to make his “living foods” — dehydrated raw cookies made out of soaked raisins and sunflower seeds and some spices. He had been making them in his home (i wish i could show a picture) and selling them to the starving students at the Ann Wigmore Institute, the raw food retreat center in Aguada, Puerto Rico where we both used to work. He took over the space from Nic. We had about a week before we opened to come up with a business plan (which we never did), a menu (which shifted constantly), and everything else we needed — plates, tables, etc.
It really was a success, at least on a certain level.  People loved our food. But we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. And eventually, we had to shut down.
If I had known that Tom was going to move Natural High to Freshmart, I would not have signed the paper Tom’s mom wrote up for me. I had it notarized at my bank, per her request. But I suspect that any court would not view it as valid, since they omited key facts about the business’s future.
My parents say to forget about it and move on. I want to forget about it. I want to want to wish him well. I want to want him to be successful. But I’d also like that $10,000 of food paid off of my credit cards. I’d also like him to reimburse me for the other expenses that I paid out of pocket (daily trips to Econo for produce or eggs or other things we ran out of that we needed for the day — things that he promised to reimburse me for, but never did).  If he really is starting a new venture, totally unrelated to Natural High, and I don’t deserve anything from what I created, as he says, then why is he calling it Natural High? Why is he using the equipment I helped pay for? And the furniture that I helped pay for? And the recipes I helped create? It’s not the same business?  Really? 
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7 Comments so far
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Wow.
What a complete and utter bummer. And, the way you present it, it looks like you were taken advantage of.
A pain in the neck to try and recoup anything. It may be worthwhile though. I know what it means to leave money on the table that has been stolen from you. It sucks and is one of those open wounds that does not easily heal no matter how many times you say “I’m over it”. Whatever you do, good luck. Go visit Mystic Hot Springs, it is only a couple of hours away and it will do you good.
L

Comment by Leslie Bocskor

I lost far more money than you on the restaurant in Rincon: last year’s record-breakingly bad tourist season had a lot to do with it.

I wanted to make a fair settlement with you but you made the process so horrible that I wanted nothing to do with you. The kind of mean and slanderous comments that you make above are indicative of what it has been like to deal with you, but still I wanted to settle with you. My mom kindly offered to be the peacemaker and broker a deal to end the thing once for and all, so that we could be free of each other at last. You signed a release breaking all ties and obligations in exchange for cash. There is nothing ambiguous about the release that you signed and there is nothing conditional about it. You agreed to walk away for cash. It was your choice. (And after all of the kindnesses my mother has done for you over the years, you now have the nerve to publicly slander her as a liar and a cheat.)

The restaurant in Rincon was dead, defunct, out-of-business. The only thing left to do was bury it.

I negotiated a deal to run lunch counter concession in the back of a health food store. What on earth does that have to do with you? BECAUSE you signed away your involvement in the name of the business (and every other aspect of it and walked away), I felt free to use Natural High Café for the new business to try and carry some of the good publicity from the old business to the new business. BIG MISTAKE! You will poison everything that you have ever been in contact with.

If (after you signed the release) I would have just lain down in misery like you, you would heave been happy. But since I dared to try to gather together the broken pieces and use them for the benefit of something new and positive, you are outraged.

You spent your settlement and now you want to extort more money by libeling my family and my business. The release that you signed is created specifically to stop people like you.

I had no idea that you would be so outraged that I got a gig running a lunch counter. But seeing the way that you harass and hurt my family, I no longer care if it causes you pain. Leave my family alone.

Comment by Tom Spontelli

Wow. Breakups are the suck.

So…in the world of “fair”, $1200 doesn’t equal $14000. The process sounds really painful and tedious for both of you.

It may be too late, and moving on might be the best thing for your head, but I KNOW there are attorneys in Utah who will at least review your status from a legal standpoint and let you know if you are in a position to renegotiate relieving yourself of financial burden. It requires a lot of legwork and re-living it on your end, but maybe a kind of quid-pro-quo ending would make you feel less frustrated.

Also…come ON, this is YOUR blog. Couldn’t Tom have sent you that letter in a private forum?

Comment by rebekah

I thought for a bit about not letting him post on here, but I have a lot to say about my experience at Natural High, and I don’t have anything to hide. and since he won’t talk to me, this is how we communicate.

I do disagree with a few things though. I’m not outraged because he put something new together. I’m outraged that he misrepresented what he planned to do with the restaurant and cheated me out of my ownership.

And contrary to what he wrote, I’m not lying down in misery. I’m looking at the whole experience with gratitude. Yes, I get depressed sometimes about my current living situation, but if not for those charges on my credit card, I wouldn’t have moved here exactly when I did, and I wouldn’t have met certain people that are teaching me a lot and giving me lots of joy. So overall, I’m grateful to be free. If i had to choose between no contact and being free, and say $50,000, I’d choose being free.

Comment by jodimardesich

Rebekah,

I did respond privately by email to Jodi’s concerns, but instead of replying to my email she posted this blog entry.

I asked her in my email that if she writes publicly about this situation that she at least try to do so fairly. She did not. So, I responded to her public defamation in the forum it was presented.

The fundamental disagreement we have on this issue is this: I believe that what is fair and right is that we, as the two owners of the business, should bear the restaurants debts/losses in the same percentage as our ownership. Jodi believes that her responsibility for the loss is fixed to a much smaller (set) dollar amount, no matter how high the restaurant debts are or her percentage ownership.

The restaurant was struggling in red ink, and we both hoped that a good tourist season last winter would bring things around. We were very wrong. Our losses became greater because of the worst tourist season in 16 years. Ouch! We tried, we failed, we closed.

The percentage of the failed restaurant’s debt that came out of my pocket was more than twice as high as my percentage of ownership. Is that fair? Every lawyer and business professional I have spoken to says that it is not fair for me to assume more than my share of the debt load. However… understanding Jodi’s difficult financial situation, all the bills were paid and I never asked her to make up the difference.

Since then, Jodi has started demanding that I pay her for any purchases that she had made for the restaurant. I tried to explain that if anything she has underpaid her percentage of the losses. This made her angry.

Before Jodi left, I did promise to ship or pay for personal equipment she left behind. I hoped that we could come to an adult intelligent understanding about the debt. I do believe that if things had been kept on the level of rational discussion, that we would have found a point of mutual understanding. Instead, the rational discussions turned to personal attacks. I refused to participate any longer, but I am a man of my word. I asked my mom, whom Jodi has told me she considered a friend even if I was not, to find out from Jodi the value of the personal effects that I had promised to pay on (as shipping was problematic) and to see if she would consider any additional payment just to drop the whole issue of the debt disagreement. They negotiated a payment of twice the cost of her stuff, and she would quit any and all claims about the business. Even though I that I had already borne more than my share of the losses and that Jodi was financially ahead in this catastrophe, that some added financial benefit to her would make things better for her. We both agreed to drop an unpleasant disagreement, and she got some much needed extra cash. Jodi was happy with this resolution.

With the issue resolved and full ownership returned to me, I decided to take these lemons and make lemonade.

To put it more metaphorically: I feel like I bought the title to a dead junked car and through my sweat, hard work and financial investment I was able to get that car running again. And now the original owner has come back and is demanding that I pay for the full price of the running vehicle because she sold it to me thinking it would never run again.

That’s all that I have to say. I hope that you all have wonderful day.

All the best,
Tom

Comment by Tom Spontelli

Tom:

I hear what you are saying regarding parity in percentage ownership and debt. Yet I am sure you know that 51% – 49% ownership with full voting control means that the difference between the parties is night and day. For all practical purposes Jodi may as well have had 1% if she had no ability to affect control. So to say that it should have been parity with risk assumed seems disingenuous on your part at best, and manipulative at worst. As well, reading from a distance it seems that one of the core issues here is that Jodi feels there was material misrepresentation in that the negotiation for release was done under false pretense with you and your representatives acting with the foreknowledge that you were reopening and trying to reclaim some value from the previous enterprise. A form of conveyance of assets. You controlled the business entirely, it seems, from Jodi’s presentation of it, you control what is left now, why not just pay back the debt leftover rather than leaving the bad feelings even if you are in the right? Would you not be happier knowing you had gone so far as to leave such a clean path?
Maybe I am not seeing things clearly, and it bums me out to see two people who I think of so highly having such a public and ugly battle over such minimal things.
I know the two of you are both better than this.

Leslie

Comment by Leslie Bocskor

We made a lot of mistakes. First was not having anything in writing. Second was not structuring the company to protect the owners from debt. Third was not having a business plan. Fourth was staying in business as long as we did when the writing was on the wall. There are so many other mistakes.

Sorry to disappoint, Leslie. 🙂

Comment by jodimardesich




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