You may have thought that the story that came out of the closure of Cook Shoppe — in the former Chow space on Church Street in the Castro — was already nutty, but there's more!
As we learned in late August, a partner in the restaurant who may or may not have been its co-owner, Lawrence Tonner, was jailed in San Francisco due to an outstanding warrant related to a previous conviction and parole situation in New York State. Another person involved in the business, who had initially portrayed himself as an owner and who now says he was only a "consultant," Mark White, turned out to be using an alias, and claimed to have run multiple successful businesses in New York that he refused to name. They, along with another named partner named Diiorio, who was allegedly based in New York, were planning on opening a restaurant called Gramercy Park in the space across from Cook Shoppe, but when that project was taking too long, they snapped up the Chow space, gave it a quick remodel, and reopened it earlier this year, only to close it four months later amidst all the above-mentioned chaos.
As Hoodline reported in August, that chaos included some trouble with California's Alcoholic Beverage Control agency (ABC), because what they thought was a temporary permit to sell beer and wine turned out not to be a permit, and they were illegally selling alcohol without a license.
But things get weirder as Hoodline reported last week, and as the Chronicle has subsequently spoken to "Mark White," whose real name may be Michael Esposito, and spoken to several former employees at food and media businesses that he apparently ran in recent years in Los Angeles. Esposito and boyfriend Barrett Walters were featured in Angeleno Magazine in January 2018 after opening a catering business called Zen Craft — and the Chronicle notes that this is the only photo of Esposito that anyone seems to have, including former employees of Cook Shoppe.
Tonner and Esposito appear to have both been involved with another Los Angeles food business, a never-opened restaurant called Paris Commune — which, like Gramercy Park and Cook Shoppe, was co-opting the name of a well known restaurant in New York City. As the Chronicle reports, in May 2016, "Esposito laid out plans to open a new Beverly Hills location of Paris Commune," but that never came to pass. And as for Zen Craft, it reportedly left behind employees and vendors who were unpaid, which is the same thing that has reportedly happened with Cook Shoppe. Also, its now defunct website made claims about having a James Beard Award and some endorsement from Martha Stewart, neither of which appear to be true.
A couple of large Bay Area vendors, including Bi-Rite Restaurant Supply (unrelated to Bi-Rite Market), report being unpaid by Cook Shoppe, with Bi-Rite having already sued for $61,483. Some former employees of Zen Craft have successfully sued to get unpaid wages back, but the company reportedly stiffed at least one bride whose wedding they were supposed to cater.
In a bizarre sidebar, Esposito also tried to launch a news website in 2015 called Newsaratti, for which he hired over 150 writers and staffers, and then shut it down within four months. He claimed in his talk with the Chronicle that he just didn't figure out "how to monetize" the site, and it was simply a "pipe dream."
Sensing a pattern of behavior here?
Remarkably, Tonner tells the Chronicle he still plans to repay Cook Shoppe's vendors and reopen the place. And separately Esposito seems to be shrugging the whole thing off.
"It wasn’t anything as nefarious as people seem to think," Esposito tells the Chronicle this week. Also, he claims people "took advantage" of him, and "The goal and the mission behind Cook Shoppe was never to hoodwink people."
Tonner was apparently released from jail in SF in the last week — extradited to New York, per the Chronicle — saying that the whole warrant thing was a misunderstanding. As for the aliases and this guy named Diiorio, who knows!?
It's unclear what's happening with the former Crepevine space where White/Esposito has said he still plans to open a restaurant called Gramercy Park, but liquor from Cook Shoppe is still sitting in what appears to be an active construction site.
Stay tuned for where this drama goes next! It sounds as though they're not done.