As the chef Ari Taymor tells it, he and his business partner Ashleigh Parsons were two naive idealists, blithely foraging in the face of factory farming while trying to do something different with Alma, their independent 39-seat restaurant in downtown Los Angeles that was a hit in the national food press soon after opening in the fall of 2012. Taymor was just an inexperienced but hardworking 26-year-old when he started Alma as a "pop-up concept" restaurant in early 2012, not long after eating a fateful piece of lamb that, the press has repeated, set him on the path to cooking.
But dreamers don't always make the most astute businesspeople, and so the young Parsons and Taymor, who is now 29, turned to a powerful businessman to help guide them through some difficult decisions. And then, as Taymor is now telling it, that businessman tried to take their restaurant from them, and then he sued Taymor and Parsons. Now Alma is on the brink of shutting down, victims of bullying by a Hollywood bigwig bent on revenge.
To save their restaurant, Taymor and Parsons launched a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo to raise $40,000 in legal fees to fight the charge, with the likes of James Franco and Alison Brie throwing their weight behind the campaign to #SaveAlma. "While his accusations are unfounded, this individual vowed to attempt to bankrupt our business, using the lawsuit as a form of retribution for our having declined their advances for ownership of Alma," the crowdfunding pitch says.
But court documents examined by BuzzFeed News portray a much more complicated story than the straightforward bullying narrative. According to these documents, Taymor and Parsons accepted help from the "wealthy and connected member of the Hollywood entertainment community" for months — specifically, January 2014 through the spring of 2014 — without formalizing their business relationship; Parsons acknowledged in an email filed at the courthouse that his assistance came "at a very crucial moment."
The former adviser, a business manager named Michael Price, claims in his lawsuit that the novice restaurateurs were incompetent at running their business and would not have a functioning restaurant were it not for him. The suit shines a light into the recessed-wall corners of a high-end restaurant, where a whimsical chef served instant enchantment to a moneyed public — a fantasy that turned corrosive.
The adviser relationship started because Price was a frequent diner at Alma. And everyone involved acknowledges that on Jan. 5, 2014, Taymor, Parsons, and Price met to discuss problems the restaurant was facing, and Taymor and Parsons asked for help from Price. In the lawsuit, Price says he was offered a stake in the restaurant at that meeting and that, believing this, he proceeded to offer financial and legal assistance which was vital in keeping the restaurant afloat. His complaint says the initial vague offer of partnership was later clarified in a verbal agreement on April 14, 2014 that he would have a 20% stake in the business.
In documents BuzzFeed News examined at the courthouse, Parsons and Taymor do not state exactly what was offered verbally in that April meeting, although an email Parsons sent to Price May 27 hints at it: "we have realized that we would like to remain an independent business," she wrote, suggesting that a different proposal had been floated. In that email, well after the meeting in April, Parsons and Taymor offered Price a 7% profit-sharing deal in writing, which he rejected immediately; the next day, they offered to set up a payment plan to reimburse the money he had spent on the restaurant.
Taymor, Parsons, and Price's lawyer declined to comment on what happened in the intervening weeks, citing ongoing litigation; Price did not respond to a request for a comment. He filed a lawsuit against them last July. His attorney wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News, "After he did everything they asked, and they thanked him in writing for saving the restaurant, they refused to live up to their agreement. This is a simple issue of fairness."
Taymor is presenting a different version of the story. In an interview he gave to Grub Street this June, Taymor said Price seemed to want nothing in return when he first became an adviser. The complaint, however, quotes an email Parsons sent to Price in December 2013 — around the start of the more formal adviser relationship — saying "we would love to see whether you would be interested in being involved as we continue to build this company." Taymor continued in the recent interview that as time went on, "it became clear that this individual wanted some kind of repayment, so we offered a profit-sharing agreement. In the middle of negotiations, well after we had presented our initial offer, we were sued."
In court documents, Parsons, Taymor, and Price all acknowledge that he was an important adviser. Price's complaint describes his attorneys sorting out Alma's lease problems (they had two leases on the same space). The complaint says the company had no accounting records, no knowledge of when bills were due, and no awareness of how much money was needed to run the restaurant; an email from Parsons filed at the courthouse confirmed that the restaurant's first clean profit and loss statement came after Price began helping them with their finances. Price's accountants, the complaint says, fixed significant problems in the restaurant's tax filings.
According to Price and his attorneys, Parsons and Taymor were so inept that they needed his help in virtually every aspect of running their business. The complaint describes a time when Parsons ordered so much expensive wine that there was no space to store it all in the restaurant, and cases of it were left outside in the blazing heat next to the Dumpsters. On their spring 2015 menu, the price of a bottle of wine ranges from $44 to $170.
Taymor described "initial pickles" in the business in the Grub Street interview, including improper tax filings. Taymor blamed an unscrupulous accountant for these problems: Price's complaint alleges that the restaurant had misreported or failed to pay "[basic] restaurant and payroll taxes." The complaint also states that Taymor and Parsons themselves took improper advances from Alma and had not paid taxes — hence personal loans on which Price cosigned. In an exhibit from the lawsuit, Parsons portrays Price's role in these "pickles" as something more: She wrote in an email to Price, "We would not be where we are without your help and your resources."
It's a common scenario, said Joe Spinelli, president of Restaurant Consultants, Inc. These types of partnership lawsuits happen frequently, although in terms of the agreement itself, "Most of the time, that would be put in writing: It'd be very clear," he told BuzzFeed News. Many restaurant owners, particularly smaller ones, make the accounting and tax mistakes described in the lawsuit: "90% of the time, it's because of inexperience," he said. "A lot of time it's because they don't have a good foundation. The place starts out without a lot of good underpinnings."
Spinelli, who said he's worked in restaurants and consulting for more than 40 years, said, "With a lot of these chef-owners, they specialize in one part of it, and they don't really understand the other part of it until they get in trouble."
Taymor told Grub Street this June that the restaurant had no investors, and that they "got the doors open" with about $25,000. "We definitely grew up upper-middle class, but nobody was coming in with a trust fund to build a restaurant," he said in the interview, although Parsons wrote in an email to Price that Taymor's parents had "invested their entire savings" in Alma. Moreover, Bon Appétit reported in 2012 that the restaurant opened on a budget of "less than $50,000" — a figure repeated in Alma's crowdfunding pitch.
To fight this lawsuit, Taymor and Parsons are asking for what they term a "community effort": The restaurant that sits in an area where more than a thousand homeless people live had $40,890 in donations by publication time. Alma has been dropped from the suit, though, which makes it puzzling that Parsons and Taymor's crowdfunding campaign is called "Save Alma Restaurant" — the lawsuit is now against the individual owners, and not their company. The restaurant owners did not comment on why this was, and Price's attorney did not clarify on the record why Alma had been dropped from the suit.
While seeking donations, the restaurateurs are emphasizing their urban garden and their outreach program to teach public school students about "wellness." In Alma's crowdfunding campaign, the restaurant is described as "more than just a restaurant." "We have always acted with full integrity and with care in terms of our business ownership, our employees, our community of friends and advisors and our sourcing," Alma's owners wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News.
And while a tattoo on Taymor's left forearm reads Tout Sera Fini — "everything will end," which he has called his mantra — it is unclear whether the words are a source of comfort now that the end threatens.
"We believe that Alma has just begun to fulfill its potential and embody purpose as a business and as a force in this community," the proprietors of the 3-year-old restaurant wrote in their crowdfunding campaign. "We along with our advisors and legal counsel maintain wholeheartedly that we did nothing to deserve these charges."