Josie Duran overheard Matthew Kenney’s pitch many times.

As a lead server at Plant Food + Wine in Venice Beach, Calif., Ms. Duran often waited on Mr. Kenney, the restaurant’s chef and owner, as he entertained potential investors on the restaurant’s fig-tree-shaded patio, persuading them to trust him with their money for his ambitious culinary projects.

At a time when adopting a plant-based diet has become an environmental and ethical cause around the world, Mr. Kenney, 59, is among the world’s most famous vegan chefs. Plant Food was the flagship restaurant of Matthew Kenney Cuisine, a sprawling, health-focused company that until recently operated, managed or invested in more than 50 restaurants across the globe, from Los Angeles to São Paulo to Dubai.

But Ms. Duran grew to resent Mr. Kenney’s visits — in part, she said, because she believed she was helping the chef cultivate a misleading image of success.

“I just knew the investors were investing in a lost cause, and I couldn’t say anything,” said Ms. Duran, who worked at the restaurant from 2021 until she quit early last year. “I would have my check bounced for the fifth pay period in a row, and Matthew Kenney would be presenting to them how amazing Plant Food + Wine is doing.”

In fact, Plant Food, which just relocated to the Four Seasons hotel in July, closed in January, the latest of at least 17 restaurants associated with Mr. Kenney that have shuttered since late 2021.

Ms. Duran is one of more than 60 former employees, jilted investors and frustrated business associates who told The New York Times of a 30-year pattern of chaotic and reckless management by Mr. Kenney, marked by businesses that opened to positive press and then closed, often quickly and amid a flurry of lawsuits, unpaid bills and bounced paychecks.

They said Mr. Kenney has been able to persist, despite repeated failures to meet his financial obligations, in part because of his prominent role since the mid-2000s in promoting vegan cooking. Many investors and employees said they were willing to overlook financial warning signs and excuse his past failures because of their devotion to animal rights and mindful nutrition.

In response to questions about his business practices and personal conduct, Mr. Kenney called The Times’s reporting “despicable,” saying it lacked “a basic understanding of actual facts” and was “not based in reality.”

Mr. Kenney’s business woes were no secret. The chef and his companies have been named in dozens of lawsuits in at least nine states, alleging a variety of misdeeds including illegal labor practices and stiffing creditors, landlords and employees. According to public records, Mr. Kenney owes $1.2 million in back taxes in New York State alone.

Yet Mr. Kenney maintained what appeared to be a glamorous lifestyle — including renting a $20,000-a-month house in West Los Angeles — paid for in part by his companies.

Other aspects of Mr. Kenney’s conduct seemed to be at odds with the holistic, empathetic ethos his brand espouses. He was sued for harassment and discrimination by a Black employee, for instance, and in graphic text messages with a co-worker, viewed by The Times, he frequently used racist and misogynistic language.

And although Mr. Kenney became a prominent figure in veganism, championing its virtues to both investors and the public, he conceded to The Times that he had eaten seafood a “few times,” though he claimed to have done so “openly” and not to have eaten “land-based flesh” in more than 20 years.

In addition, employees felt pressure to run interference for Mr. Kenney’s romantic relationships, including two with young women who worked for him.

“We were all specifically told not to tell the women he brought that he had a girlfriend,” Ms. Duran said. “And we also knew when the girlfriend would come, not to mention the dates he would bring to the restaurant.”

Peter Cassell, a restaurant industry veteran who was general manager at one of Mr. Kenney’s New York City restaurants in the early 2000s, was blunt in his estimation of Mr. Kenney. “Checks bounced all the time,” he said. “Nobody that I know that has ever dealt with Matthew has ever gotten away clean.”

News articles about Mr. Kenney’s failure to pay bills (including to Donald J. Trump, his first restaurant’s landlord) have appeared for decades, starting in New York, where he began his career in the 1990s, and following him as his businesses expanded to Maine, Oklahoma, Florida and California.

Pure Food + Wine, the raw vegan restaurant he opened with Sarma Melngailis, his ex-girlfriend and business partner, was featured in “Bad Vegan,” the hit 2022 Netflix series. Mr. Kenney was pushed out of the restaurant by Jeffrey Chodorow, the restaurant’s financial backer, who described Mr. Kenney in the series as “a very talented chef who had a bad financial history.”

In January, The Los Angeles Times published an investigation detailing the collapse of at least 12 of Mr. Kenney’s businesses, including allegations that he owes millions of dollars in rent and $1 million to a former investor.

But through it all, Mr. Kenney has continued to win over new investors.

Cindy Landon, an actress, producer and widow of the Hollywood star Michael Landon, said she decided to become an investor in Plant Food + Wine when it opened in 2015 despite being warned by her business manager and others that Mr. Kenney shouldn’t be trusted, because of his previous failed business ventures.

“He’s charming, he’s bright, he’s passionate,” Ms. Landon said. “I thought, You know what? I’m going to move forward on this.”

Ms. Landon is among seven people who told The Times they had invested in Mr. Kenney’s businesses in recent years and felt he took advantage of their commitment to veganism. They said Mr. Kenney provided unreliable financial data about their investments, if any at all, and that they now assume their money is gone.

“In the world of veganism and animal rights, there are a lot of extremely wealthy people,” said Richard Weintraub, a prominent Los Angeles-based real estate developer and an investor in Plant Food. “We really want to trust, and we really want to believe that these people have the same interests at heart.”

Mr. Kenney painted a rosy economic picture of his businesses in a March 2022 email to an investor that was viewed by The Times. “We hope to be generating more than 100M system wide this year and 250 next year,” he wrote, adding that his company was valued between $50 and $100 million.

Six months later, New York State auctioned off the contents of his Manhattan restaurant Sestina for unpaid taxes.

Even some business associates who said they feel wronged by Mr. Kenney express admiration for his talents as a chef. Kyle Saliba said he has opened five businesses with Mr. Kenney in the past 25 years, including a Double Zero pizzeria in New York. He called Mr. Kenney a “visionary” and a “genius.”

But he also said the chef had “no entrepreneurial skills,” and he is suing Mr. Kenney and two of his businesses, alleging fraud and seeking damages of more than $25 million.

Chaotic financial operations were characteristic of Matthew Kenney Cuisine, according to more than 30 former employees.

In the summer of 2022, Rebecca Rubel was put in charge of human resources for Matthew Kenney Cuisine, which then operated about 12 restaurants in the United States. She said she routinely responded to employees complaining that their paychecks had bounced.

Ms. Rubel recalled conversations she had with Matt Bronfeld, the director of hospitality for Matthew Kenney Cuisine. “It was always the same thing: ‘We’re just waiting for some money from an investor and then it should be fine,’ ” she said. “It never really ended up being fine.”

Mr. Bronfeld’s job gave him operational oversight of Mr. Kenney’s restaurants in the United States from 2018 to 2023. Mr. Bronfeld had an unusual background for such a job, having been convicted in 2015 of grand larceny and sentenced to five years’ probation for embezzling more than $400,000 from former business associates.

He said Mr. Kenney knew of the conviction when Mr. Bronfeld was promoted to the director role after just a year with the company.

Mr. Bronfeld became the main corporate contact for managers of the individual Kenney Cuisine restaurants in recent years. Several employees said he was amiable and responsive under difficult circumstances, and crucial to addressing the many financial problems that arose at the restaurants.

Mr. Bronfeld said he would commonly respond to the insufficient funds at one restaurant by transferring money from another of Mr. Kenney’s business entities, an assertion corroborated by dozens of emails and text messages among employees and management that were viewed by The Times.

“Matt Bronfeld would say, ‘We have to rob Peter to pay Paul,’ ” Ms. Rubel said about the moving of funds between business entities.

“That’s how it always worked,” Mr. Bronfeld said, adding that managers who were in the job before him had done the same thing. “There is nothing new that occurred when I worked there.”

He added, “Matthew was apprised of everything going on in the company.”

In written comments, Mr. Kenny sought to place the blame on others, claiming that he was the victim of embezzlement by unnamed executives within his company and that he had reported the matter to the F.B.I. A spokeswoman for the F.B.I.’s Los Angeles office said, “We cannot confirm or deny an investigation.”

In a lawsuit filed in March 2021 against Mr. Kenney, his companies and Mr. Saliba, a former executive for Mr. Kenney’s companies said he had made formal complaints about “unethical and illegal financial practices,” including Kenney’s “receiving investor cash and using it for personal purposes.”

Other former employees who helped Mr. Kenney with his financial transactions described similar financial activity — including paying for Mr. Kenney’s rent, pool cleaning, housekeeping and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of dental work — and their accounts were backed up by text messages from Mr. Kenney viewed by The Times.

“The money was taken out of the operating money for restaurants,” said a former accountant for Matthew Kenney Cuisine, who was allowed to speak anonymously because they feared their name would be associated with Mr. Kenney’s. “Therefore vendors weren’t getting paid and employees weren’t getting paid.”

“There didn’t seem to be any sense of this is not the way to do things.”

In the same lawsuit, the former executive, who is Black, also claimed that he was the target of harassment and discrimination because of a speech impediment and his race, including “being subjected to the use of the ‘N-Word,’” while employed at Mr. Kenney’s company, where “a harassing work environment permeated with racist terms for Asian business partners, and Jewish employees.”

Ultimately, the case was settled, and the former executive was awarded $80,000 and more than $20,000 in lawyers’ fees.

In dozens of text messages with Mr. Bronfeld viewed by The Times, Mr. Kenney regularly referred to employees and business associates in racist, misogynistic and profane terms. In one exchange from 2020, Mr. Kenney asked about the lawyer representing his own side of the harassment case, “Is she black?,” adding, “If she is I’ll kill you.” He went on to suggest that the lawyer was performing sex acts on the plaintiff, while mocking the plaintiff’s stutter.

In a 2022 text, he wrote, “All Latin men are crybabies,” adding, “Hate to be racist but it’s my experience.” In a 2018 exchange, he described South Asian business owners as “grocery store Indians.” In another, from 2021, he asked about the sex life of a female employee of color and criticized the personal hygiene of previous sexual partners in graphic terms. He added that another woman was attractive “until she turned 21.”

Mr. Kenney told The Times, “These words do not even sound as though they are written or spoken by me.”

A number of employees at Plant Food + Wine also said they were uncomfortable that Mr. Kenney, then in his mid-50s, had a brief sexual relationship with a 19-year-old hostess at the restaurant. (The hostess declined to be interviewed.)

It wasn’t the first time that Mr. Kenney had been involved with a younger subordinate. In the mid-2000s he dated a personal assistant in her early 20s. And there was the relationship with Charlotte MacKinnon, Mr. Kenney’s former girlfriend, whom he met when she was a student at the University of Miami in 2016. Ms. McKinnon eventually moved in with Mr. Kenney in Los Angeles and became creative director of Matthew Kenney Cuisine.

Four former Plant Food employees said that when Mr. Kenney brought other women to the restaurant, managers instructed employees to lie to Ms. McKinnon, a task made more uncomfortable by the fact that Ms. McKinnon was a colleague. (Ms. McKinnon declined to respond on the record to written questions from The Times.)“People were caught in middle of weird stuff like that,” said Yvette De Vito, a former Plant Food server, who also knew of Mr. Kenney’s relationship with the hostess. “I got the impression that this person had no moral code or compass and only cares about himself.”

As the pandemic brought mass closings and chaos to the restaurant industry, Mr. Kenney’s company continued to expand. “It was really, really aggressive growth, without a plan in place,” Mr. Bronfeld said.

During that period, 22 entities connected to Mr. Kenney received $3.5 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds, of which at least $2.7 million was eventually forgiven.

In late 2020 and into 2021, Matthew Kenney Cuisine opened plant-based restaurants in Culver City and San Francisco, and partnered in vegan drive-through restaurants in California and Rhode Island.

Liora, which opened in Baltimore in the summer of 2021, was part of this expansion. Employees saw a unique opportunity in the upscale vegan restaurant.

“Many of us were coming from other restaurants where we were feeling exploited and were feeling burned-out because of Covid,” said Karishma Avari, a sous-chef. “Liora felt like something we could make our own,” she added, “to change the things that we saw in the industry that we didn’t like.”

They succeeded, in some ways. Liora made Baltimore Magazine’s list of the city’s top restaurants two years in a row. The staffs at Liora and Double Zero, the vegan pizzeria that operated in the same space, were predominantly women and people of color.

“We really made a difference in the vegan community,” said Natalie Carter, the head chef at both restaurants. “We drew strength from each other.”

But checks began bouncing shortly after Liora opened. Kari Bare, its manager, said that if the payroll was $10,000 for a given pay period, Matthew Kenney Cuisine would put $2,000 into the account. This happened enough times that many local banks started refusing to cash checks from Mr. Kenney’s companies, according to several Liora employees. Ms. Bare said workers “would all fight to go to the bank to see who would get paid first. It was just really sad.”

On the same day she discovered that a Liora server was subsisting on canned beans because of unpaid salary and tips, Ms. Bare said she saw on Instagram that Mr. Kenney and Ms. MacKinnon were in Dubai, attending the opening party for a luxury hotel where Beyoncé played a private concert.

After discovering that the restaurants’ liquor license couldn’t be renewed because of unpaid taxes, Ms. Bare asked the company’s lawyer to help. According to Ms. Bare and another manager, the lawyer declined to help, saying she was also owed $7,000 by Matthew Kenney Cuisine.

Ms. Bare, who estimated that Liora and Double Zero took in $1 million to $1.5 million in 2022, recalled a FaceTime call she demanded with Mr. Kenney shortly before the restaurant closed in April 2023 to discuss the many unpaid bills.

“He kept saying that he’s not really worried about making money. He’s worried about the bigger picture and bringing plant-based food to the world,” Ms. Bare said. “I told him, no one will work for free.”

According to a class-action lawsuit filed in December 2021 in U.S. District Court in New York, pay practices at Mr. Kenney’s New York City restaurants violated federal and state labor laws. The suit, filed by former employees against Mr. Kenney and more than a dozen of his businesses and partners, alleges in part that Mr. Kenney, his partners and companies unlawfully kept workers’ tips. The defendants have denied the claims, and the case is still pending.

The kitchen staffs at two Kenney restaurants walked off the job because they weren’t getting paid, according to former employees — in 2022 at Sestina in New York, and last year at the Double Zero in Venice, Calif.

“I had a dishwasher call and threaten to kill me once,” said Kara Knowles, the former general manager at Althea, in a Saks Fifth Avenue store in Chicago. “That’s how high tensions were.”

Before that restaurant closed in October 2022, Ms. Knowles said the store’s managers grew so distrustful of the accounting at Matthew Kenney Cuisine that they installed their own cash registers in the restaurant, “so they could just get the money directly.”

Mr. Kenney described Althea’s staff as “lazy” in profanity-laced text messages to Mr. Bronfeld in 2022. Mr. Kenney was upset that the restaurant’s 11 employees, three of whom had autoimmune-related health issues, refused to work until they were all tested for Covid, according to the texts. “So sickening,” Mr. Kenney wrote.

At the Double Zero in Boston, sheriff’s deputies arrived during a meal to close the restaurant because of unpaid rent soon after Anthony Williams became general manager in November 2022. In less than two years, the vegan pizzeria had more than $1.3 million in debt, including unpaid rent and taxes, according to bankruptcy filings.

As bounced paychecks caused Mr. Williams to fall behind on his rent and car payments, Mr. Kenney’s other Boston restaurant, Plant Pub Fenway, racked up accolades — The Boston Globe named it the top restaurant opening of 2022 — and unpaid bills.

Pat McAuley was a local partner in Plant Pub Fenway, but he said Mr. Kenney’s company owned the business and controlled its finances. The restaurant was evicted by its landlord, who claimed about $230,000 in unpaid rent, according to an eviction notice filed in October of 2022, three months after it opened. Mr. McAuley said he has been left responsible for about $46,000 in unpaid wage claims.

Mr. McAuley said that in the 12 weeks it was open, the restaurant made hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. “We don’t know what happened to it,” he added. “They didn’t pay vendors other than the very bare minimum.”

“You have all of these people, from vulnerable communities, not getting paid in the middle of a global pandemic, and Matthew Kenney is living a very glamorous life,” said Greta Herrin, a sous-chef at Sestina in New York, which closed in 2022 after the state seized the property for nonpayment of taxes. “It was insane.”

Mr. Kenney’s struggles have not kept him from starting new ventures. He still holds an interest in a Double Zero location that opened in Times Square last month. In February, a Canadian company announced a partnership with Mr. Kenney to help develop recipes for its plant-based seafood.

For Cindy Landon, who stood by Mr. Kenney for years, the decision to speak out came only after hearing from so many investors and employees who had, like her, been burned by him.

“They all tell me these stories,” she said, “and they tell me this man needs to be stopped.”

Susan Beachy contributed research.



Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *