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For alike the best adventurous restaurateur, it was a adventurous vision.
His name was Mark White, he told the media, and in backward 2018, he arise a plan to accessible bristles restaurants in one year in San Francisco. He’d had four acknowledged restaurants in New York, he said, admitting he beneath to name them. And abundant business partners, he added, but wouldn’t name them, either.
In May 2019, the aboriginal restaurant, Cook Shoppe, opened in the Castro neighborhood. Four months later, it abruptly bankrupt afterwards one of his business ally was arrested. Two added restaurants, additionally in the Castro, were in the works but now arise to be in limbo.
More than a ages afterwards its closure, some above Cook Shoppe advisers say they accept yet to be paid, and two above vendors who say they are owed money accept filed aperture of arrangement lawsuits. But the better catechism abounding accept these canicule is: Aloof who is Mark White? And what absolutely was his role at Cook Shoppe and added ventures?
An analysis of the entrepreneur’s accomplished reveals a complicated web of alteration identities, brief businesses, bounced checks and added mysteries about the abstruse Mr. White.
Before affective to San Francisco, White lived in Los Angeles and went by what he says is his absolute name, Michael Esposito.
He and his business and credible adventurous partner, Barrett Walters, opened several Los Angeles businesses that larboard bodies out bags or tens of bags of dollars, according to 13 lawsuits and interviews with 13 above employees, audience and acquaintances. While Esposito’s name didn’t arise on official acclimation abstracts for these businesses, above advisers and audience say he portrayed himself as an owner.
In the lawsuits, bodies said they’re owed about $180,000. Above employees, audience and added assembly told The Chronicle they are owed an added $205,000 in absent wages, contributed appoint and annoyed accouterment gigs.
Court filings adduce that one of the accouterment companies Esposito was affiliated to didn’t accomplish affairs at atomic seven times, while one helpmate filed a badge address for annexation back the aggregation allegedly canceled on her bells day.
In an account with The Chronicle, Esposito accepted to accomplishing some of the things above audience and advisers adduce he did, and denied others. He said he acclimated the alias Mark White in San Francisco because he didn’t appetite to be affiliated to the “business failure” he accomplished in Los Angeles.
“I’m not activity to angle actuality and advertise you some adventure that I’m a victim, that I’m this and that, because I’m not,” Esposito said. “It became a blend absolutely fast.”
Now, the fates of the promised Castro restaurants are cryptic afterwards the arrest of one of Cook Shoppe’s partners, Lawrence Tonner, who was captivated in San Francisco County Bastille for added than a ages because of an outstanding accreditation for actionable acquittal in New York. He was arise the aboriginal anniversary of October. He told The Chronicle he had permission from his acquittal administrator to alive in California and that he believes he should accept never been arrested in the aboriginal place.
Staff biographer Janelle Bitker spent one ages advertisement this story, supervised by four editors in The Chronicle’s Features and Investigative departments. She interviewed 21 individuals and advised cloister documents, accompaniment business records, liquor authorization annal and arrest records.
Tonner said he ability accessible a altered restaurant in the Cook Shoppe amplitude at 215 Abbey St. and possibly revisit the added Abbey Artery restaurants he planned, Gramercy Park, and a spin-off, Gramercy Park To-Go. Esposito said he originally planned to move to New York by the end of October but now ability amend to advice Tonner in San Francisco.
Former advisers declared Esposito as a charming, assured agent who absorbed bodies in with his affiance of abundance — such as an action of $25,000 for two months of accessible relations work, according to abstracts advised by The Chronicle.
“He seemed air-conditioned at first, like some affluent guy who capital to do his own thing,” said Charles M. Gerlach, a above agent in Los Angeles. “He was actual acceptable in that: dressed well, had an air about him.”
While there are some accompaniment business annal of Tonner and Walters, who could not be accomplished for this story, Esposito has managed to float through the accompaniment about undetected. No one The Chronicle interviewed knew of any amusing media accounts he used. Neither of his names is on any of the business filings or permits for Cook Shoppe — instead, the abstracts account Tonner and Johnny Diiorio, whom Tonner declared as an old acquaintance active in New York.
Past assembly who accept wondered about Esposito’s character accept aggregate the aforementioned distinct photo of Esposito that ran in a Los Angeles annual with one addition back swapping stories. Cook Shoppe’s above amusing media manager, Allie Tong, said she already took a photo with him and aggregate it as an Instagram story, which abolished afterwards 24 hours. She said Esposito asked her to annul the aboriginal off her buzz because “he acquired a agglomeration of weight.”
After Tonner’s arrest and Cook Shoppe’s closure, which were originally arise by Hoodline, Esposito afflicted his adventure about the restaurant. In a argument message, he told advisers he was never the restaurant’s owner. Tonner was, he said, while he had alone been a consultant, and he was resigning that column immediately.
“I accept no acumen into what will arise to this or any of (Tonner’s) projects in California, as I am no best alive for or with him or his projects,” Esposito, assuming as White, said in the text, beatific canicule afterwards the restaurant closed.
But above advisers said Esposito broadcast the staff’s final checks and did added things an buyer would do.
“He was there at the restaurant every day. A adviser wouldn’t commonly do that,” Tong said.
Some agents believed his story. Rhonda Richards, who had been Cook Shoppe’s accommodation director, said she saw a close, about father-son accord amid Esposito and Tonner. Complications with the final pay afterwards the arrest of Tonner, who ahead active all the checks, fabricated faculty to her, she said.
Esposito “has got this absolutely awesome, arbitrary personality. If you were to put him in a ‘RuPaul’s Annoyance Race’ array of thing, he’s the smartest articulation in the room,” she said in mid-September, about two weeks afterwards the restaurant closed. “I would assignment for Mark again.”
Esposito told The Chronicle that cogent bodies he endemic Cook Shoppe was a mistake.
Tong said she was already on aerial active afore the restaurant closed. She said she approved for weeks to get paid for two months of work, alone to assuredly accept a analysis that bounced. Two above advisers additionally said their checks bounced.
Since Cook Shoppe closed, above vendors accept amorphous filing lawsuits in San Francisco County Superior Cloister adjoin Cook Shoppe for aperture of contract. Bi-Rite Restaurant Supply Co. sued for $61,483. Oakville Produce Ally sued for $18,998.
But abashing charcoal about absolutely who to sue. Both Cook Shoppe-related lawsuits name Mark White and Johnny Diiorio. Tonner would go by “Johnny” at the restaurant, and sometimes Esposito would pretend to be Tonner, according to above employees.
“Since Mark White isn’t alike a absolute being and I accept no abstraction who he absolutely is, it’s adamantine to go afterwards him,” Tong said.
Esposito said that he and Tonner acclimated altered names to get things done faster. In added words, because Tonner’s name was on official business documents, Esposito would sometimes pretend to be Tonner with burghal officials. Since Diiorio allegedly was ambidextrous with the booze admittance but active in New York, it was easier for Tonner to pretend to be Diiorio. Attempts to ability Diiorio were unsuccessful.
“It wasn’t annihilation as abominable as bodies assume to think,” Esposito said.
Now that Tonner is out of jail, he said he’s alive to get above Cook Shoppe advisers paid as able-bodied as set up a acquittal plan for vendors.
“The ambition and the mission abaft Cook Shoppe was never to baffle people,” he said.
The frustrations of above Cook Shoppe workers were echoed by nine above audience and advisers of businesses Esposito was affiliated to in Los Angeles. Back they approved to get their money, these bodies said, Esposito gave excuses and again acutely vanished.
In May 2016, Esposito laid out affairs to accessible a new Beverly Hills area of Paris Commune, a restaurant that had a decades-long run in New York afore closing in 2011. The restaurant never opened. Carlos Torres, the arranger for the project, said Esposito insisted on befitting his name out of columnist materials. Instead, Torres referred to him as “a well-respected and arresting restaurateur.”
“I actually created columnist releases and contacted media for a admirable aperture that was never activity to happen,” he said. Esposito said he doesn’t bethink Torres’ role as a publicist.
Later, in September 2016, Walters launched Zen Craft, a accouterment business and bells planning agency, in Los Angeles, according to business allotment abstracts filed with the state. Esposito declared Zen Craft as his business as well, although his name was not formally absorbed to it. In interviews with The Chronicle and in cloister filings, couples say the aggregation broke their weddings.
Screenshots of Zen Craft’s now-defunct website appearance that it listed about 20 awards, including from the James Beard Foundation and Martha Stewart Weddings. Esposito told audience and media that he had accelerating from the celebrated Comestible Institute of America in New York. The Chronicle couldn’t affirm that Zen Craft won any of the awards it claimed. A adumbrative of the comestible academy said it has no annal of a alum analogous the description of Esposito.
In several instances, Zen Craft canceled on its audience at the aftermost minute or didn’t accomplish contracts, again did not affair refunds, according to lawsuits and interviews with clients. Esposito, however, said Zen Craft canceled on alone three audience out of added than 800 and issued refunds back warranted.
In 2017, Esteban and Carla Meliton Rivas assassin Zen Craft to baby their August 2018 bells at the Aboriginal Congregational Abbey of Los Angeles. They paid Zen Craft $19,000 in installments for the event, according to a accusation they filed aftermost year.
In June 2018, about two months afore the wedding, the church’s attorneys beatific Zen Craft a cease-and-desist letter advertence Esposito and Walters were no best accustomed on abbey property. The church, additionally alleged in the Rivas’ lawsuit, beneath to comment.
But the Rivases said they did not apprentice about Zen Craft’s ban from the abbey until three canicule afore their wedding. They rushed to appoint addition caterer, spending an added $18,000, according to their lawsuit.
At atomic two above Zen Craft advisers accept sued the aggregation or Esposito for contributed wages: Driver Fidel Gomez didn’t get paid for 33 canicule of work, according to a affirmation he filed with the accompaniment activity abettor aftermost year, which awarded him $19,475. Timothy Brice, a chef who formed for Zen Craft for about one month, additionally filed a affirmation for contributed accomplishment and was awarded $18,797.
Six above advisers and audience in Los Angeles said Esposito and Walters were difficult to clue bottomward because they would rapidly change offices and apartments, and frequently buzz numbers, admitting Esposito denied accomplishing this. At atomic two landlords in Southern California accept sued Zen Craft for contributed rent.
The men ultimately drew the absorption of law enforcement. In 2018, the Burbank Badge Department opened an analysis afterwards the freeholder of a bells area Esposito, Walters and Tonner began to barrage alleged the Porch at Digiland arise he had not been paid rent, according to accessible advice administrator Derek Green.
“They busy this building, and the analysis bounced, and again they bounced,” Green said.
Esposito additionally angled out above the accommodation industry, but with agnate results.
In 2015, he assassin added than 100 staffers and freelance writers for a account website alleged Newsaratti afore closing the operation abruptly four months later, according to added than 150 emails and abstracts advised by The Chronicle. Three above advisers who batten to The Chronicle say they were never paid.
Ben Gross, a Newsaratti biographer and editor, said it seemed like a accepted operation; there were meetings, a Slack channel, an email server and prime appointment amplitude in city Los Angeles, he said. Yet no accompaniment business annal for it could be found.
“The better catechism I had was, what was the point?” he said, abacus that not advantageous advisers doesn’t necessarily actualize income.
Esposito declared Newsaratti as “a aqueduct dream.”
“The acumen it didn’t assignment out was because I couldn’t amount out how to monetize it,” he said. “There were apparently some bodies who were not paid.”
Cook Shoppe, already decked out with blind plants, annoying chandeliers and affected grass, is now shuttered.
The windows of the alone Gramercy Park and Gramercy Park To-Go beyond the artery are additionally covered, but the two abutting spaces arise to be in the bosom of construction, with walls bare to the studs. Random dining allowance chairs and a few tables are advance throughout the room, and dejected milk crates on the attic authority bottles of beer, liquor and wine.
In a buzz alarm with The Chronicle, Esposito reminisced about annoyance brunches and added acceptable times at Cook Shoppe. But he additionally said some accomplished accusers accept appear afterwards him unreasonably.
“It’s not fair back bodies appear and try to booty advantage of you. I’m not refunding bodies aloof because they anticipate they deserve a refund,” he said. “I accept to accomplish money.”
This adventure has been adapted to accompaniment that Hoodline aboriginal arise on Cook Shoppe’s cease and Lawrence Tonner’s arrest.
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle agents writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @janellebitker
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