(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Customers arrived at East Boston’s 303 Café last Tuesday to find the doors locked, the lights off, not a single extreme BLT or avocado turkey wrap in sight.
The café reopened the following day, but it could soon close permanently. Its owners say the problems date to 2007, shortly before the café opened, when a salesman for a restaurant distributor placed an outsized order and left them holding the bill.
Owners Melinda Jones and Tom Clackett say that for almost four years they have faced a nightmare of swirling debt and legal battles, but their story began with a simple dream.
Having lived for years in East Boston, they loved the neighborhood but longed for the kind of stylish, casual café they found easily across the harbor, a place they could get an omelet and a mimosa for Sunday brunch, or a soup and a salad on a weekday afternoon.
There was no place in Eastie like the one they imagined, so they opened one themselves.
Jones, 43, and Clackett, 36, who were married in 2000, admit they were naïve. Neither had worked in a restaurant before or had training in food service. Jones thinks it was their inexperience, combined with the inexperience of others they worked with, that led to their problems.
“This is the quintessential example of everything that could go wrong in a new business,” Jones said.
In 2002, Jones, Clackett, and a business partner bought the run-down building at 303 Sumner St. and began the long process of renovating it. Together they transformed the space, working on it in their free time, with no budget, while all three maintained day jobs.
“There was nothing about this place that suggested that this would be a good decision at all, except for the fact that Tom and [our partner] were licensed contractors,” Jones said. “So it’s like, no matter what disaster you presented to them, they could do the work themselves.”
Doing that work took five years. By the end, Jones and Clackett had concluded their partner didn’t share their level of commitment to the venture, so they bought him out for $200,000 — everything they had.
They prepared to open with advice from friends who had worked in restaurants and from two consultants they hired — both of whom had restaurant experience but had never opened one. Jones believes that was one of their mistakes.
For supplies, they selected Sysco Boston, a branch of the country’s largest food-service distributor. Jones and Clackett say Sysco assigned them a new sales representative with ample enthusiasm but little experience.
They say they told their sales rep they had a tight budget but were required by the city to use paper drink cups bearing the café’s logo. They say he replied that they would have to buy the printed cups in bulk but didn’t specify how many.
Jones and Clackett say they trusted him to place an order appropriate to their needs and budget — and that was another mistake. Clackett said several times before the cups were delivered, he and Jones asked Sysco how much the cups would cost and how many would be ordered.
“They just said, ‘Oh, no. We’re going to get it to you, and just don’t worry about it,’” Clackett said.
On Sept. 13, 2007, the 303 Café opened. About a month later, according to the owners, two 18-wheeler trucks showed up at the café with 440 cases of hot and cold drink cups. The boxes filled the café’s basement and much of its kitchen storage.
In more than three and a half years, the owners say the café has used roughly one-third of those cups. They expect it would take nine or 10 years to go through them all.
When the full bill for the cups came in late October 2007, the charge was more than $35,000. Clackett said he expected the total would be $7,000 – $10,000.
Jones said when they could not pay the bill, two representatives from Sysco’s credit department came to the café with a new credit agreement to create an account for just the cups. Documents provided by Jones show that on Oct. 26, she signed the agreement and promised to pay $100 per week.
Jones estimates that over a two-year period, she paid Sysco $5,000 to $7,000, but more than once she fell behind on the payments before finally ceasing them entirely in 2009, leading to a series of legal claims, counter-claims, and rejected settlement offers.
The legal battle reached its climax with a civil trial last October, and a judgment that Jones owed Sysco $24,875, plus attorney fees and court costs, for a total of more than $30,000.
Charlie Wilson, a spokesman at Sysco’s corporate headquarters in Houston, said a jury had rendered its verdict and there was little more to say about the case.
“A court of law reviewed the facts in this case and made its determination,” said Wilson, “and it’s the restaurant’s owners’ decision whether or not it chooses to comply.”
Jones and Clackett say what happened next was what really hurt them. When they hadn’t paid the debt by spring 2011, Sysco moved to seize their assets. On April 1, a deputy from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department came to the café and took its wine and beer license.
Clackett said that loss has cost the café as much as half its dinner business, making it even more difficult to pay Sysco. An open-mic night that used to fill the room only attracted three or four people after they lost the ability to serve drinks, according to Clackett.
“Countless tables come in, sit down, ask, and then get up and leave,” Clackett said.
And he said the stress of the long legal battle and mounting debt — on top of the usual difficulties of starting a new business — took a toll on his relationship with Jones. The two are now separated, and Clackett is ready to sell the building and get out of the restaurant business.
That’s why he changed the locks last Monday and notified employees it would be closing.
The next night, he agreed to give Jones a copy of the new keys. She re-opened the café last Wednesday, against his wishes. He said he planned to meet this week with his attorney to discuss how to force a sale of the building.
It’s not the way Clackett wanted this story to end. He lives just a block from the café, and he said everyone in the neighborhood knows him. He worries his neighbors don’t realize how difficult a decision this has been for him.
“I dreamed of doing this,” he said. “It’s really, really hard for me to walk away.”
A nurse practitioner, Jones for years has worked a fulltime job at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, overtime hours, and additional part-time nursing jobs to earn enough to make the café’s payroll. She said she’ll keep doing that; she’ll keep doing whatever she can to keep the café going.
“I’ve poured every ounce of my life into this,” she said, “and if I walk away now, I lose everything.”
Email Jeremy C. Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)