Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Sheriff Wants to Sell my Restaurant for Me

No tourniquet could possibly be big enough to save the restaurant from the geyser of blood spilling out and its impending doom. Although business was good on the weekends, the weekdays were slow and the debt continued to mount. It was August 2003, a little over a year into my new venture and more money was going out than coming in -- never a good business model. As I switched from one purveyor to another (leaving a large un-paid balance with each) I found new ways to justify my blind eye to the current financial state. Payment plans extended some time, followed by COD deliveries and lastly payment with bad checks. I pushed the envelope for as long as possible before being cut off. As a personal justification to never paying, I would initiate a fight mounted with lies, stiff them on the bill and just kept trucking along, self blinded.

As time went by and I continued to fool everyone (mostly myself), I noticed the game began to get harder. Did purveyors actually correspond with one another? Did they discuss their accounts -who was good pay and who was a deadbeat? Did Joe’s Fish Company tell Billie’s Produce market that I gave them a stiff one and then told them to go screw themselves. YES THEY DO! And, one day while sitting at the restaurant two deputies from the sheriff’s office came walking through my front door. I cordially said, “Hello” and they cordially said, “You have been served.”

I wasn’t concerned that my restaurant was being offered on the public auction block for a $15,000 seafood bill. I thought that with a phone call, some money down and a payment agreement we could have this matter resolved quickly. Far from the truth…I had finally met my match. I wasn’t dealing directly with the purveyor anymore but rather a collection lawyer who worked for all the purveyors. He was good at what he does. We exchanged a few phone calls and tried to come to a resolution. (I didn’t have nearly enough money to pay the debt off.) During one phone call he said “Mr. Lee, you have one week to come up with the money and, as a courtesy, I won’t call any of my other clients and let them know they shouldn’t sell you anymore….see you at the sale.” I can probably count on one hand the amount of times the words “me” and “fear” had come out of my mouth in the same sentence.

My encounter with this lawyer was one of the most pivotal moments in my career as a restaurateur. He used tactics I was unfamiliar with and they scared the shit out of me. With a sheriff sale looming just days away I began to beg borrow and steal (by steal I mean robbing Peter to pay Paul) as much money as possible to offer some sort of payment. I didn't come up with nearly enough, but the lawyer was willing to work out a payment arrangement (something I now think he knew all along he would do) and finally let me off the hook -- 24 hours before the sale. Never had an affirmation been so clear…I was a bad and blinded businessman. I needed to re-evaluate my entire business model in order to stop the bleeding. I needed to change my business practices in order to restore my reputation. So I called every purveyor, apologized, and made what I thought could be affordable arrangements to pay them all back. Some hung in there with me and some told me to go screw myself. My inexperience could no longer be a crutch, things needed to be fixed—fast! But was I already in way too deep?

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