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Over the past few years, the most acclaimed young restaurant in L.A.’s nationally buzzed-about dining scene has been three-year-old Alma, a tiny, sparsely decorated room in downtown’s Historic Core district. Run by prodigy chef Ari Taymor (the nephew of choreographer-director Julie Taymor), who was 27 when Alma was crowned Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appetit in 2013, it’s drawn everyone from foodie cognoscenti like Wolfgang Puck to Hollywood fans like regulars Alison Brie and Dave Franco.
The restaurant’s striking success has made it one of the toughest reservations in town. Which is why it was surprising that Taymor and his partner, Ashleigh Parsons, announced an Indiegogo campaign Wednesday to raise $40,000 to save their restaurant. It turns out the independent-minded pair, who have no investment backers, have been quietly fighting a costly lawsuit against a would-be business partner that has left them near financial ruin even months before trial.
The plaintiff is Michael Price, a prominent business manager whose clients include a slew of comedians and comedy writers, including B.J. Novak, Dan Mintz (Bob’s Burgers) and Daniel Chun (The Simpsons). In court documents obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, Price accuses Alma’s founders of reneging on a deal to give him 20% ownership of the restaurant in exchange for his help organizing the business, which he claims was in trouble by the end of its first year.
“We are dealing with an irrational party that has not been willing to reason with us, work with us, offer even a settlement agreement,” Parsons tells THR. “We were really overwhelmed and leaned heavily on our advisors and legal counsel, who are basically friends and family. This is an issue that we never even thought we’d ever come to, ever.”
Price sued in July 2014, alleging he met Taymor and Parsons through his frequent meals at Alma and discussed with them the restaurant’s insecure financial footing. “Despite its unqualified critical success, within a year Alma was on the brink of disaster,” states his complaint. Read it here.
In December 2013, Taymor and Parsons allegedly emailed him, proposing he help iron out the trouble.
The restaurant’s problems were substantial, says Price. He claims he helped them renegotiate the lease on their spot across from the Ace Hotel and reorganized their previously nearly nonexistent bookkeeping. He says Taymor and Parsons hadn’t paid their taxes on the restaurant and on advances they’d personally taken from the business, so he cosigned loans for each to pay what they owed. “Because there was a basic lack of business acumen of all involved, and most specifically Parsons, errors were committed that not only put Defendants on the brink of financial ruin, but had cause them to violate the law,” states the complaint.
He says he continued helping with decisions involving the restaurant’s operation, and when he didn’t, they “frequently had problematic, if not comically absurd” results.
“A representative example was when Parsons, now bullish on the business prospects of the restaurant, ordered such a large number of high-end cases of wine, they were not only unable to store them in their climate controlled wine cabinet, they had no space to store it in the restaurant itself,” states the complaint. “Therefore, dozens of cases of extraordinary wine sat outside in the blazing ninety plus degree heat next to the dumpsters for the restaurant.”
In exchange for his business counsel, they agreed over drinks in April he would become a 20% equity partner in the restaurant, he says. But when he pressed them for documentation of the agreement a month later, they allegedly told him they no longer wanted him involved. “Either defendants are terribly naïve and simply do not realize that you cannot accept the benefit of the bargain and then refuse to perform, or they are charlatans who feigned ignorance in order to fraudulently induce Price to contribute money, time and effort into the restaurant,” states the complaint.
In a demurrer, or motion to prevent claims from going forward to trial, in September 2014, the Alma restaurateurs argued Price didn’t clearly demonstrate a “meeting of the minds” on the terms of Price’s involvement. Significantly in regard to the Indiegogo campaign, they entered a separate motion to remove from the proceedings just the portions of Price’s campaign in which he holds the restaurateurs should pay his lawyers’ fees for the case (a standard move for a plaintiff).
The court disagreed. Judge Stephanie Bowick of the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in February the potential partners’ discussions weren’t unclear enough to throw out the case. In the most recent filing, in March, the restaurant founders advanced their potential defenses, which include the arguments Price filed his claims too late and dealt unethically with the restaurateurs.
The trial is scheduled for January 26. Says Price’s lawyer, Jill Basinger of Glaser Weil Fink Howard Avchen & Shapiro, “Taymor and Parsons approached my client and asked for his help. They offered him a partnership. 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.”
Responds Taymor and Parsons’ lawyer, Jason Davis of Davis Law Group, “My clients deny the allegations in the complaint and deny they’ve breached any contract with Mr. Price.”
The Indiegogo campaign raised over half of the funding goal in the first two days. Even so, Parsons says the rising costs of the lawsuit might still force her and Taymor to close the restaurant. “We were trying to be independent and do it on our own and make ends meet, and we’ve been really struggling. We’re in depositions and we’re racking up legal fees. We’re sad and we feel like we’re drowning,” she says. “We still have so much we want and have to do.”
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