It’s business as usual for customers of Plant Food and Wine, a popular Wynwood restaurant dishing out fine vegan and raw cuisine. But behind the scenes, a nasty legal fight continues to brew.
Matthew Kenney brought his brand of plant-based cuisine to Miami and the restaurant, but amid a $1.4 million lawsuit against him, the celebrity chef disputes who now controls Plant Food and Wine. Meanwhile, his legal troubles continue to simmer in Maine, California and even faraway Thailand.
Kenney, who is being sued by his landlord for remaining unpaid rent, opening a competing Miami-area restaurant and other alleged breaches of contract on his five-year lease, has disputed via Facebook that he has lost his Wynwood restaurant. The attorney for his landlord, Karla Dascal of The Sacred Space Miami, told the Miami Herald she took control of the restaurant July 1, according to a July 15 Miami Herald story about that and other lawsuits against Kenney.
“While our landlords claim to have taken control of the restaurant, they fail to acknowledge that we have not forfeited our lease, still hold many of the restaurant's licenses and permits and the intellectual property is ours,” he wrote in his blog post titled, “Life and Business” on July 15.
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Meanwhile, Dascal's company filed a voluntary notice with the court July 20 dismissing the first count in the March complaint as moot. Count I sought eviction, but Kenney voluntarily relinquished and abandoned the restaurant, turning over the restaurant operations, said Dascal’s counsel, Deborah Baker-Egozi of Greenspoon Marder. There is no longer a need for a sheriff to evict him because he voluntarily left, but the claim for damages remains, Baker-Egozi said.
Baker-Egozi also said that Plant Food and Wine employees are being paid by Dascal since her client took control of the property July 1. She said that Dascal’s human resources provider, Co-advantage, has hired almost all of the previous restaurant employees, including the two chefs. “The PEO [professional employer organization] issues checks to the employees and the payroll is fully funded by Karla’s entity.”
Kenney, a nationally renowned, award-winning chef focused on elevating vegan and raw cuisine, wrote in his posting that the lease he signed was untenable, with “above market” rent, yet he signed it anyway “against the advice of some of my inner circle.”
“Unfortunately, the economics of the location were deeply flawed from the onset for us,” he wrote. “Despite numerous attempts to negotiate [the lease] to something more reasonable, we were given an ultimatum to take it or leave it and I took it, against the advice of some of my inner circle.”
Kenney wrote that he was losing $30,000 a month even though the Miami restaurant was the highest-grossing location in his restaurant portfolio “for a while.”
As to the rent, Baker-Egozi said that the $2 million build-out of Plant Food and Wine was funded and executed by Dascal – “what he doesn't tell you is he walked into a turnkey operation.” Kenney also was operating the restaurant and the academy out of the space, she said.
The Miami restaurant isn’t Kenney’s only financial fracas. Despite opening eight global culinary academies focusing on his raw-food techniques — including a neighboring one at the Sacred Space — he sold the assets of Matthew Kenney Culinary Academy to the former CEO of his Matthew Kenney Cuisine, Adam Zucker. The Miami location was shuttered last month and the company is now called PlantLab. Kenney’s presence was scrubbed from the website.
Students who had paid thousands of dollars for classes were left in limbo when Miami classes were canceled and PlantLab is working to refund or credit the students, PlantLab’s spokesperson told the Herald.
Kenney has a history of lawsuits against him, including a stretch that led to his bankruptcy in 2004. Kenney said in his Facebook post that he is facing “only a single active legal case outside of” the Sacred Space suit.
In Thailand, Kenney is facing legal action by the Evason Hua Hin resort, where a Matthew Kenney Culinary Academy was located from mid-July to mid-December in 2016. Through Thailand’s Court of Arbitration, the resort is seeking damages for breach of contract, early termination of the agreement under false premises, issuing a $15,000 check that bounced and failure to transfer to the resort enrollment fees amounting to more than $100,000, said Alan Thomas, managing director of the resort, in an email.
In February of last year, the Internal Revenue Service sued Kenney for nearly $90,000 in Maine’s Waldo County. That lien is still unpaid, according to the Maine Register of Deeds, and there is a second lien for $4,221 filed by the Maine Department of Labor against MK Cuisine Global in September. In California, he is facing a civil suit from a former culinary student.
“The media has chosen to portray that dealing with lawsuits is our day to day reality,” Kenney wrote. “The reality is, we have grown aggressively and have made many mistakes, but also operate a brand with tremendous vitality, innovation and passion.”
Matthew Kenney’s Facebook Post
LIFE AND BUSINESS
Many of you have visited our first Miami restaurant, Plant Food and Wine. It is a beautiful facility, and I've always been proud of the exceptional cuisine and hospitality our team has created in that location. I'm sure to those not involved in the restaurant business, it appears to be a dream project for a creative person like myself, and in many ways, it is. Unfortunately, the economics of the location were deeply flawed from the onset for us. Not long before taking possession, we were presented with a lease that included above market base rent, steep royalty payments, CAM (common area maintenance) charges, valet fees and other up-charges. Despite numerous attempts to negotiate it to something more reasonable, we were given an ultimatum to take it or leave it and I took it, against the advice of some of my inner circle.
My inner circle happened to be correct. The restaurant opened to a 4 star review and blossomed. It has always been filled with wonderful guests and was the highest grossing location in our portfolio for a while. However, with the aggressive lease agreement, we were paying close to $60,000 to the landlord on a MONTHLY basis, and losing as much as $30,000 per month. By the end of 2016, we had invested an enormous sum into the project just to keep it going. We tried to renegotiate and despite appearances that we may be successful, the landlord eventually backed out on every suggestion they would renegotiate in good faith. In early 2017, it became clear our landlord wanted to take control of the property. Legal letters were sent, threats were made by them on a near daily basis, and steps taken to prohibit us from operating or being involved in other businesses in Miami. We have continued until today to work toward an amicable resolution, have avoided speaking or writing negatively about our landlords and have continued to provide support to the restaurant.
This situation is now being written about in the media, and I would like to address that. While our landlords claim to have taken control of the restaurant, they fail to acknowledge that we have not forfeited our lease, still hold many of the restaurant's licenses and permits and the intellectual property is ours. They and/or the local media have also built a case around my history of lawsuits and financial challenges, which is something I have been very candid about, even going as far as writing my memoir about the tremendous hurdles I have faced trying to build a new type of business for the plant-based market. Although our large portfolio of businesses has only a single active legal case outside of this, from a financial issue in 2014, the media has chosen to portray that dealing with lawsuits is our day to day reality. The reality is, we have grown aggressively and have made many mistakes, but also operate a brand with tremendous vitality, innovation and passion. We opened a restaurant in London last week, and another will open in California in August. All of our independent restaurants are profitable and our gorgeous new book is at the printer now.
Like I said in my memoir and repeatedly in interviews, there is a lot of work ahead. This brand is not easy to operate and many challenges lie ahead. I still have to work tirelessly on a daily basis to correct all of the mistakes I've made. However, one thing I have 100% confidence in is the quality of the work we do. Our team puts out incredible plant-based food across the globe and is making the impact I have always dreamed they would. We also have tremendous momentum, growth prospects and a company that is full of energy and love for what we do.
I felt it was necessary to address this at a time when others are using our past or present weaknesses (which I fully own and accept) to bring us down. The reality is, negative press does bring us down a bit but it will never knock us out.
Thank you. I'm getting back to work.