Matthew Kenney came to Miami to start a vegan revolution.
Instead, Kenney, a celebrated chef and cookbook author known as a raw food wizard, has lost his Wynwood restaurant, Plant Food and Wine. He is being sued for more than $1.4 million for unpaid rent and for reneging on an agreement to not open a competing Miami restaurant, public records show.
It’s not Kenney’s first brush with financial failure. A trail of liens and lawsuits touches New York, Miami, Oklahoma City, Maine and Los Angeles.
In response to inquiries by the Miami Herald, Kenney’s marketing manager sent an email Friday stating, in part, “The suit from Sacred Space has never been served on us.” As for his past problems, she wrote, “Matthew has been very candid about the challenges he and the company have faced,” referring to his January 2015 memoir, “Cooked Raw.”
In 2004, Kenney filed for bankruptcy in New York in the wake of debts and lawsuits related to his restaurants. Now he has paved another trail of at least two dozen liens, complaints and lawsuits around the country, a Miami Herald review of public records shows. They range from state and federal IRS claims that he hasn’t paid his employees’ taxes to lawsuits by angry landlords, suppliers and culinary students.
The plant-based food entrepreneur, whose company Matthew Kenney Cuisine is based in Los Angeles, is the author of a dozen cookbooks, has twice been nominated for a James Beard Award (the Academy Awards of the food world) and operates nine restaurants around the world, according to Matthew Kenney Cuisine website on Friday. Those included Plant Food and Wine in Wynwood, housed at The Sacred Space Miami, and the new Plnthouse in the 1 Hotel in Miami Beach.
Until June, the empire also included eight culinary schools, including ones in Barcelona, Berlin and Wynwood, adjacent to Plant Food and Wine. But last month, Kenney sold assets of Matthew Kenney Culinary Academy to his former COO and interim CEO, Adam Zucker, Zucker said. Zucker opened a new education entity, PlantLab (plantlab.com); Kenney’s presence has been scrubbed from the website. Caught in the transition were students who had paid thousands of dollars in tuition and travel expenses for a scheduled culinary course in Miami that was abruptly canceled.
Kenney’s landlord has taken control of the restaurant, Plant Food and Wine, on July 1 and retained most of the staff, including chef de cuisine Horacio Rivadero, who has led the kitchen since the restaurant’s inception. The Miami culinary academy has closed.
In Miami, tensions between Kenney and his landlord, Sacred Space’s owner Karla Dascal, started big and filtered down into the minutia, according to the lawsuit from Dascal.
In the complaint filed in Miami-Dade County 11th Judicial District Circuit Court in March, Dascal alleges that a Kenney-owned company owes her company $1,401,777.56 in unpaid rent for the remainder of the five-year lease and $98,124.43 in sales tax, plus attorney’s fees and other expenses. The complaint also says Kenney violated a non-compete clause in the lease by opening another plant-based restaurant, Plnthouse at Miami Beach’s 1 Hotel, within Miami-Dade County, and seeks eviction.
This year alone, Kenney’s companies paid back more than $14,000 in late sales taxes and penalties, according to documents from the Florida Department of Revenue.
Meanwhile, according to a letter from Kenney’s lawyer that is included in the lawsuit, Kenney barred Dascal or any of her employees from so much as coming into his restaurant, even though the contract specifies they are entitled to half-price meals. Kenney stopped tweeting and tagging The Sacred Space and Plant Food and Wine on his social media, which he was required to do as part of the contract, the lawsuit claims.
At the same time, Kenney was at work lending his name to another Miami-area restaurant. In March, Kenney opened Plnthouse, a more casual vegan restaurant with 105 seats near the 1 Hotel South Beach’s pool, spa and gym, overlooking the ocean. It’s open for breakfast and lunch daily through 6 p.m. with a full bar.
That, too, was in breach of contract, according to the lawsuit. The 1 Hotel’s relationship with Kenney is unchanged despite the ongoing lawsuit, a spokesman said Friday.
Citing the pending litigation, Dascal’s counsel, Deborah Baker-Egozi of Greenspoon Marder, declined to comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit. The attorney said she “is confident that Dascal has always acted with the utmost integrity in all of her business dealings.”
In response to Miami Herald queries to Kenney and his company, Matthew Kenney Cuisine’s marketing director, Yasmeen Lee, emailed this statement: “The suit from Sacred Space has never been served on us. We continue to focus on guest experience at all of our establishments and the growth of our brand including the restaurant we opened in London last week and the one we’re opening in California mid August.”
Lee followed that with this statement: “Matthew has been very candid about the challenges he and the company have faced while building a path in the plant-based market, specifically in his memoir ‘Cooked Raw,’ which goes into great detail about all of this. By your own acknowledgment, aside from the Sacred Space case which was never served, the entire brand has only a single pending lawsuit [which the company is not even aware of and which stems from 2014]. This is a testament to the progress the brand has been making as it continues to grow in a positive direction.”
In the 2015 memoir Lee cited, Kenney largely attributed past business failures to growing too fast, bad partners and the post-9-11 economy and lauded his plans for a Miami restaurant with Dascal. “We could not have asked for a better business partner,” he wrote.
Matthew Kenney’s companies have a history of complaints and lawsuits — with most of the complainants and plaintiffs claiming they were or are owed money.
Kenney has more than two dozen tax liens filed against him, dating back to 1995 and as recently as February 2016, when the IRS sued him for nearly $90,000 in Maine’s Waldo County. Most of those, according to public records searches, are for either not paying sales tax or withholding taxes from his employees’ paychecks but not paying the state or federal government.
In 2009, Kenney opened Oklahoma City’s first vegan restaurant and closed it in 2014, leaving behind unpaid rent and back taxes owed to the IRS, according to a report by The Oklahoman.
At least 21 complaints have been filed in California courts against Kenney or his companies since 2013. The plaintiff of a 2014 lawsuit by a landlord in California won more than $400,000 in back rent. Most of the other cases were small claims, valued at less than $5,000 in damages, or larger contractual disputes filed by vendors, employees or students, public records searches show. Many of these cases were settled, with the outcomes confidential.
Also caught up in the Miami legal wrangling are Kenney’s culinary students.
At least 15 students from around the world plunked down between $2,500 to $5,500 to take a sports nutrition culinary course branded by Kenney and Brendan Brazier, creator of Vega nutritional powder and author of “The Thrive Diet.” That multi-week set of courses, scheduled to start in early July in Miami, was abruptly canceled as soon as it began. Many of the students also paid hefty costs for associated travel and accommodations.
Brazier, who developed the curriculum for the sports nutrition course that has been running online for several years, said he did not know the Miami course was canceled. Brazier is also a small investor in Kenney’s Plant Food and Wine restaurant in Venice, Calif. “I don’t know, to be honest, how [the investment] is doing. I don’t get the quarterly reports like I do in my other investments. But him being a chef and for quite a while the CEO of the company, that’s a lot, and I am a big supporter of the plant-based cause.”
A pending complaint filed in a California court by a Swiss student of Kenney’s Culinary Academy in Los Angeles alleges breach of contract, fraud and unfair business practices. It stems from a two-part $10,000 course held in Santa Monica, California, that didn’t prepare her to be a raw food chef, she alleges.
PlantLab’s new owners say they’re working with the students of the canceled Miami sports nutrition class to come up with an amicable solution for each party. Several have already been credited or refunded, a spokesperson said.
“Everyone involved has lost focus. It’s not about Matthew Kenney. It’s about the employees and the students and the patrons of the restaurants,” Zucker, the PlantLab CEO, said on Friday. “That’s why I am sitting here with a brand new company. … We are going to go in a whole new direction.”
Concerning the students, Lee of Matthew Kenney Cuisine e-mailed this statement: “As we are no longer the operators or owners of that business segment, we do not have control over it. However, we are extremely disheartened for the students. We operated the education business from 2009 until recently and wish nothing but the best for the Academy.”
Before it was sold, Kenney’s Culinary Academy was bringing in $5 million in annual revenue and looked forward to tripling that in three years with expansion plans for 20 more cities, according to a glowing article about Kenney in Forbes in December. In the same article, Kenney said his restaurant/hospitality division would generate $15 million in revenue over the next 12 months, but the products/licensing division would be the biggest money maker. With the three units together, he projected revenues of $100 million in the next five years, according to the article.
Locally, Kenney, considered a pioneer in fine raw-food cuisine, opened Plant Food and Wine in February 2016 to much fanfare. He first arrived on the Miami scene a few years earlier when he was involved in Seed Food and Wine events and hosted South Beach Food and Wine dinners. In early 2016, Dascal opened The Sacred Space, an event and education hub for mindful living and well-being. She believed Plant Food and Wine would be the perfect complement to the serene space, and the artful restaurant quickly made a name for itself — drawing a four-star (exceptional) review from the Herald, one of only two in 2016.
The restaurant has a modern dining room with high ceilings, open kitchen, carefully stocked bar and about 100 seats, both indoors and outdoors in the palm garden. The concept was modeled after the Plant Food and Wine in Venice, California, and it serves full-flavored and exquisitely plated dishes. “This is some of the most emblematic cuisine I’ve ever done,” Kenney said at the time of opening. It has been open for about 18 months and the restaurant attracts a crowd.
[Update on July 21: Who’s in charge at Plant Food and Wine? Depends on whom you ask]
Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg. Carlos Frías: 305-376-4624, firstname.lastname@example.org. Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.