-By John Lynds
There is trouble brewing over the beer and wine license at 303 Cafe. Apparently, on April 1, Sysco Boston LLC, a restaurant supplier, legally seized 303 Cafe’s beer and wine license due to an outstanding invoice for hot and cold Beverage containers that were ordered in August of 2007 prior to the popular East Boston cafe’s opening in September of that year.
“In 2002 we purchased the property at 303 Sumner Street,” said co-owner Melinda Jones. “It was a dilapidated, run down single family which was initially thought to be zoned as “mixed use” at that time, but it actually had been converted to “residential” several years prior in response to a shortage of residential property. Historically it was commercial space operating as a dry goods/general store by the name of Aronson’s. It was a well respected and much utilized neighborhood business fondly remembered by many locals.”
Subsequently, it became Jones and Tom Clackett’s responsibility to obtain approval to convert the zoning back to commercial, which involved meeting with the neighborhood association and the zoning board and eventually the licensing board. At the licensing board hearing the owners were granted the zoning change but there were numerous stipulations, one of which was that all “to go” material needed to have a logo on it in order to comply with city regulations.
“The construction/rehabilitation process took the better part of five years,” explained Jones. “Just prior to opening, we met with various vendors and decided to work with Sysco.”
According to Jones, Sysco assigned 303 Cafe a newly trained sales representative who came with his manager, met with the owners and assured them that they would take care of the new business owners.
“We advised them of our firm commitment to abiding by the stipulations set forth by the City of Boston and that we wanted our take out beverage containers to bear the 303 Café logo,” said Jones. “We were very forthcoming about our budget constraints and limited capital. They came back advising us that in order to purchase the materials with a logo it had to be purchased “in bulk” and that it involved purchasing several cases.”
The highlighted benefit was that the cost per cup was a significant savings and the cups were made with compostable material (eco friendly and cheaper).
“At no point in time was there a discussion regarding the gross number of cups or the total cost,” said Jones. “Obtaining this information, or in this case not, was entirely our responsibility, but in the midst of all of the other things going on in attempt to open, we trusted that our representative had our best interest as well as our financial limitations in mind.”
In October 2007 a phone call came from the freight company announcing that the cups had arrived and would be delivered the next day. A request to delay the delivery until a day that 303 Cafe would be closed was met with a response that it would cost several hundred dollars a day in storage fees. So the owners agreed to a next day delivery.
“We certainly could not afford hundreds of dollars a day for anything,” said Jones. “A phone call was then placed to the Sysco sales representative who said that he would come with some friends and help unload the cups to expedite the process and minimize any disruption in business.”
The next day two 18 wheeler trucks pulled up in front of the café. Shortly thereafter, three Sysco representatives arrived with a dolly in hand ready to help. Everyone working at the café that day came out to participate as well.
Housed on those two trucks were 306 cases containing a total of 255,000 “hot cups” and 134 cases containing 100,400 “cold cups”. Needless to say it required calling in extra help and over one hour to unload the boxes off of the truck and on to the sidewalk. It then took several hours to move the boxes into the building and rearrange the basement and clear out the overhead storage to store over 400 cases of cups.
“There still was no invoice indicating the purchase price of these goods,” said Jones. “Perhaps, naively so, we never imagined that it was over $30,000 dollars. Lack of experience and trust in the system led us to a false sense of security. Clearly, Sysco was aware of the cost as they had paid in advance. They had paid for product for a business that had not even opened yet.”
Later on it came to the owner’s attention that the credit department at Sysco was completely unaware of these transactions and would never have allowed them without payment in installments–1/3 prior to ordering, 1/3 prior to printing and 1/3 prior to delivery. This process was apparently by-passed by the sales representative.
“It never occurred to us to refuse the delivery on that day and to discuss the impracticality of that order (no payments had been made at this point) and suggest that the gross miscommunication, unethical business practice and subsequent results were their responsibility not 303 Café,” said Jones. “It was not until one week after delivery that the invoice for the cold cups arrived indicating that we owed $13,371.70. The next week the first invoice for the hot cups arrived indicating that we owed $24, 329.40. Shortly thereafter there was a demand for payment in full to which we responded that we did not have those funds available and for Sysco to take the cups back.”
Sysco stated that they were not interested in taking back the material because it now had a 303 Cafe logo on it that would make it unavailable for resale.
“The manager of the credit department came to the café and essentially forced us to sign a new credit application that held us personally liable for the purchase,” said Jones. “She was with a colleague who suggested “Don’t feel intimidated. We are not here to bully you.” It has become abundantly clear that we were being held financially accountable for a procedural error and perhaps a sales representative’s monetary ambition.”
Three years later, 303 Cafe have used approximately one-third of the cups.
“We will ideally sell all of the cups after nine years in business,” said Jones. “We have always felt that were being held accountable for an act of irresponsible business practice by a powerful large corporation. As a result, it was our decision to pursue legal action disputing our obligation to pay for the cups that we never actually signed a contract to order or had any idea of the quantity or cost until after delivery and then refused the opportunity to return.”
Unfortunately, the outcome was that 303 Cafe was obligated to pay a portion of the total amount as well as legal fees and other charges incurred in the process.
“Since that time we were under the impression that we were in the process of an appeal,” said Jones. “Unfortunately, we received notice from Sysco that they were demanding immediate payment or they would take other actions to obtain payment which was to seize our beer and wine license.”
Jones, Clackett and the entire 303 Cafe staff is now making a plea to the community for help in any way to regain their license and ideally begin to serve beer, wine and spirits again.
“This would likely ensure the longevity and prosperity of 303 Café,” said Jones. “It is our goal to continue to contribute to the growth and development of local businesses in East Boston and to supply a local venue to support local artists and musicians.”
Jones added that 303 Cafe intends to continue to operate without a beer and wine license and attempt to increase food sales to cover expenses in the interim.
“This may prove to be a daunting task,” said Jones. “Any ideas the community has regarding what our next step should be would be greatly appreciated.”