by Mark Friedman on Monday, Jun. 30, 2003 12:00 am
One contractor has filed suit against Banana Joe's and Field Development Group of Dublin, Ohio, claiming he wasn't paid for nearly $15,000 worth of renovations he made on the restaurant, which opened at 300 President Clinton Ave. in March.
Several other contractors report that they are being paid, albeit slowly, for the work they did on Banana Joe's in February and March.
But just who is legally responsible for the bills is unclear.
Little Rock Attorney Herb Rule III, who represents the Little Rock Banana Joe's, insists that his client is not part of Field Development Group. Field Development is said to be run by entrepreneur Jon Field, who leaves a trail of litigation virtually everywhere he goes.
While disclaiming any relationship to Field Development, Rule refused to reveal who owns the Little Rock Banana Joe's. Documents on file with the
Arkansas Secretary of State's office list key officers of Field Development Group as officers of Rule's client, which is incorporated as 300 President Clinton Avenue LLC, but Rule also disputes the accuracy of those filings.
The confusion doesn't surprise attorney Austin Henry of Pittsburgh, who sued Banana Joe's in 1998 over allegations of stealing a satellite television signal.
"(Banana Joe's) had several different intertwined companies," Henry said. "I don't know if they created holding companies for each restaurant or different regions, but there were several different companies.
"These guys out of Ohio, they like to play hardball. And they had a reputation for putting off vendors and playing games with them," Henry said. "I don't know whether that's reflective of their standard operating M.O. or whether it's reflective of their cash-flow problems."
In Colorado and Michigan, landlords have filed suits claiming they advanced money for building out Banana Joe's locations only to later face complaints from unpaid contractors.
The Denver District Attorney's office confirms that it is investigating the Banana Joe's situation there as a possible case of theft. One of the unpaid contractors has speculated that Field diverted the renovation money to his professional race car, whose only corporate sponsor is Banana Joe's — an allegation that Field's lawyer has vehemently denied.
The burning question is who owns the Little Rock Banana Joe's?
Rule at first said, he wasn't certain exactly "who the owners are, except to the extent that Mr. Field is not an owner."
Then he said he had some information about the ownership, but it's not public.
Here's what is known:
In February, Paul Butler, Field Development Group's project manager, hired several contractors to renovate the former Pour House Bar & Grill into a Banana Joe's restaurant and an attached bar called Margarita Mama's.
Butler's connection to Field Development Group dates back to 1990, and his primary role has been director of construction.
Butler also is a founding member of InterSport Racing, which is Field's race car driving company. His duties at the races include overseeing team marketing and sponsor relations and organizing drivers for the race car, according to InterSport's Web site.
Butler filed the application of registration for 300 President Clinton Avenue LLC with the Arkansas Secretary of State on June 2 — more than two months after the restaurant opened.
The application listed Butler as a member of the LLC and said the company was formed Jan. 23. The address listed for its principal office was 6611 Liggett Road in Dublin, Ohio — the same address as Field Development Group.
Rule, however, said Butler is "not any longer, if he was ever, connected with ... 300 President Clinton."
The registered agent for the Little Rock Banana Joe's is listed as Bob Youngman, who is also the restaurant manager. He did not return a call left at Banana Joe's.
On June 16, Michael Dennis, an officer with Field Development, filed a correction with the Arkansas Secretary of State's Office. Dennis said the principal office for 300 President Clinton Avenue LLC should have been listed as 53 N. Main St., Fredericktown, Ohio. That address is the same address as Food & Beverage Management LLC, the company that has been sending checks to Little Rock contractors and other vendors.
And the person who registered Food & Beverage with the Ohio Secretary of State's office is Danny W. Bank. Bank's name is listed as the registered agent for several variations of Banana Joe's corporate names in Ohio as well.
Still, Rule maintains that the Little Rock Banana Joe's "has no connection with Mr. Field of FDG, except as a contractor ... And unfortunately, (Field Development) didn't pay all the subcontractors [so] 300 President Clinton, Banana Joe's in Little Rock, has stepped in to pay them when it was not expected to."
Rule said the Little Rock Banana Joe's is paying the tab for the contractors because it wants to avoid liens on the building, which could jeopardize its lease.
The Little Rock Banana Joe's is intending to pursue a claim against Field Development, too, Rule said.
"Be very, very careful about [a] connection [between the two companies]," Rule said. "There's not any legal connection."
The Little Rock Banana Joe's is subleasing the space from Paul Johnson, who is leasing the space from River Market Property LP. Johnson did not return several calls left at his home.
Johnson is listed with the Secretary of State as the registered agent for Banana Joe's Margarita Mama's Inc., a nonprofit organization. Under Arkansas' Alcoholic Beverage Control private club laws, a nonprofit corporation must hold the permit to allow the business to sell mixed drinks.
Another snag with the company has popped up because of its name, Margarita Mama's. The ABC doesn't allow restaurants to use alcoholic drinks in their names, but that infraction was overlooked when the company received its license to sell drinks. It is being changed to Marita Mama's in the next few weeks, ABC Director Robert Moore Jr. said last week.
Little Rock Location
In February, Butler began hiring local contractors for renovation of the Pour House. Contractors said Butler pushed them all so the restaurant could open in 30 days.
"I worked day and night to put that club together," said Keith Wiggens, a Little Rock plumber who was working on his first commercial job. Some days, he said, he spent 21 hours working on the plumbing.
By the time Wiggens finished, he said, he was owed $21,000.
About a week after the renovation was finished, according to several contractors, Butler left town and couldn't be reached for payment.
Butler also didn't return repeated calls for comment for this article.
When the restaurant opened in March, an article in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette described Banana Joe's as a national food and entertainment chain. The line of customers stretched out the door, as people waited to listen to the pulsating music of the '70s, '80s and '90s in a setting that emulated Key West and the Caribbean Islands.
For April, its first full month of operation, Banana Joe's paid $770 in city restaurant tax, indicating gross food revenue (excluding alcohol) of $39,291. For May, the restaurant tax payment of $747 indicates food sales of $38,115. Banana Joe's is current in its payment of the 3 percent tax, according to the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau's records.
About a month after the club opened, Wiggens said he finally started receiving $500 a week on his bill. As of last week, Wiggens said he was still owed $4,200.
Electrician Ron Bank of Little Rock, no relation to Danny Bank, said he was owed about $16,000 for wiring work he did on the restaurant.
After he completed his project, Ron Bank got in touch with Dennis, the officer with Field Development, who offered to pay him $1,000 a week until the bill was paid.
"I didn't buy in to finance this guy," Ron Bank said, but he accepted the weekly installments.
All of the checks he received came from Food and Beverage Co.'s account. One of the checks was rejected because the account had been closed. It was later paid.
(Arkansas Business Publishing Group, which publishes Arkansas Business and other periodicals, had a similar experience. After three Food and Beverage Co. checks written between April 17 and May 1 were returned for insufficient funds, Youngman paid cash for a $1,500 advertisement in the 2004 Greater Little Rock Guest Guide.)
When Bank's bill was at $3,715, Food and Beverage Co. sent him a check for $1,000 and said it was his final payment. Bank said it would have cost him about $3,000 in attorney's fees to collect the balance, so he decided to take the money and move on.
"They got a 10 percent discount on the cost of their project by not paying me 100 percent of what they owed me," Bank said. "I can survive the loss of money. It irritates me, but it isn't going to bankrupt me."
One contractor, Jimmy Seale of Little Rock, said he eventually received all of the $1,400 he was owed at the rate of $250 a week from Food and Beverage Co.
Planit Dirt Excavation & Concrete Inc. of Jacksonville, however, said it never received payment on the nearly $15,000 worth of work it did. It is suing for the amount of the contract plus court costs and attorney fees.
Planit Dirt apparently wasn't sure of the owners of the company either, so it named Banana Joe's Margarita Mamas Inc. and Field Development Inc., a.k.a. Field Development Group and FDG Inc. as defendants.
Although Rule has said his client, 300 President Clinton Avenue LLC, may sue the completely separate Field Develop-ment Group, it was Rule who responded to Planit Dirt's lawsuit as counsel for the defendants — which included Field Development Group but did not include 300 President Clinton Ave. LLC.
In his response, Rule denied the allegations and asked that the case be dismissed. Rule wrote that all the contractors who have "done their work in accordance with the contract" are being paid, suggesting that the Planit Dirt dispute involves a question of workmanship.
The entire Banana Joe's concept seems to have fallen apart in the last several months.
Entertainment Development Group of Agoura Hills, Calif., said it evicted Banana Joe's in April from its Denver location for nonpayment of rent.
Bob Murry, Entertainment Develop-ment's chief financial officer, said Mike Dennis, Field Development's chief financial officer, called him shortly after the Denver restaurant opened last fall and said the company's attorney had advised him not to pay the $100,000 in rent. Murry said Field Development had signed a 10-year lease worth about $5 million.
Compounding the nonpayment, Entertainment Development had given Banana Joe's $1.9 million for renovations at the property. The improvements were made, said but several contractors weren't paid, Murry said.
Contractors have since filed liens against Entertainment, claiming they are owed between $1.2 million and $1.4 million, Murry said.
Murry said he doesn't know what happened to the money it gave Banana Joe's for the renovations.
Jim Bachman, owner of Air West Enterprises Inc. of Englewood, Colo., said Field owes him about $300,000 for the heating and air conditioning work he did on the 32,000-SF Denver Banana Joe's and Margarita Mama's.
Bachman suspects Field funneled the money to his race car company.
"Totally untrue," said Rex C. Anderson of Davison, Mich., who is an attorney for Field Development Group. Field himself did not return a call for comment.
Field has a filed a countersuit against Entertainment Development for breach of contract for allegedly failing to market the restaurant.
Field "has many successful restaurants. And it's a risky business out there. You're lucky to get half of them to even make it," Anderson said.
In an e-mail, Anderson said the contractors weren't paid because the landlord was dragging his feet and using money that should have gone to the Denver contractors for other mall operations.
"When the Fields store did not open on time, the landlord took the rent out of the tenant money allowances, which was supposed to be paid to the sub contractors," Anderson wrote. "When the store finally did open, the landlord never paid the outstanding $1.2 million remaining on the $2.4 million contracts. This was money, which was to be disbursed to the sub contractors."
The Denver District Attorney's Office said it has an open criminal investigation into a theft allegation against the owners of Banana Joe's, Lynn Kimbrough, a spokeswoman with the office, confirmed. But she wouldn't release details of the ongoing investigation.
Allegations of diverting funds also popped up in Novi, Mich.
PLC Novi West Development LLC of Novi, Mich., said it paid more than $3.1 million to Unit 48 Inc. of Dublin, Ohio, which was doing business as Margarita Mama's and Bourbon Alley. Field was behind those companies as well.
PLC said the restaurants were scheduled to open in the fall 2002, but they never did because of nearly $1 million in overruns.
"Unit 48 and Field have been unable to account for all of the money spent by [PLC] on construction allowances," PLC said in the lawsuit.
PLC is suing for its money back plus other damages.
Anderson said PLC agreed to pay $4.5 million for renovations and then "pulled the rug out from underneath Jon." He described Field as the victim of landlords who evicted the restaurant after Field improved their properties.
In Houston, the Field Development Group also is facing a $3 million breach-of-contract lawsuit after the Banana Joe's there closed in November, Anderson said.
In that market, Field spent "tens of thousands of dollars" on a marketing blitz, only to have the landlord sell the nearby parking lot so his customers didn't have a place to park.
Banana Joe's recently opened a location in Salt Lake City.
The first sign of trouble for the Banana Joe's chain could be found in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1997.
A Banana Joe's had opened in downtown Buffalo at the very site where Buffalo Bill's quarterback Jim Kelly had operated an unsuccessful sports bar.
Banana Joe's soon learned that most people in Buffalo who work downtown go home after work, said attorney Richard Amico of Buffalo.
Sometime after opening, the local merchants began demanding cash for deliveries, Amico said. When the managers couldn't pay for food, items were removed from the menu, he said.
Then about six months after it opened, it closed.
"I think they just locked the doors and told everybody to go home," Amico said. "Nobody ever sees or hears from them ever again. They left a lot of contractors holding the bag."
Amico sued Field Brothers Development Group, which did business as Banana Joe's Sports Bar and Grill of Buffalo Inc., charging it violated the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) by not giving its employees enough warning that it was closing.
Amico dropped the case when he learned that to trigger the WARN laws, a company needs at least 180 employees, which Banana Joe's didn't.
More lawsuits soon followed.
In 2000, Fox Sports Net filed a lawsuit against Banana Joe's of Pittsburgh for violating the Federal Cable Communications Act for using its signal without authorization, said Henry, the attorney in Pittsburgh who handled the case for Fox.
Henry said the case settled for about $3,000 because Banana Joe's was either going out of business or was already closed.
The oddest case against Bananas Joe's, though, emerged in St. Louis in 2000.
The U.S. District's Attorney Office charged the company with transporting hazardous materials, identified as some sort of paint-related product, at the Federal Express Haith Cargo Facility at Lambert St. Louis International Airport on May 25, 1999.
Field pleaded guilty to the one count and was fined $100,000 and ordered to pay $7,261 in restitution, according to the court docket sheet. He has been paying several hundred dollars every few weeks, court records indicate.
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