Back in 2011, Linh Lee hired Regan Louchart, a contractor, to renovate her cell phone store in Lansing, Michigan, after a fire. The two began dating, and Lee paid Louchart $67,000 to convert half the space into a restaurant. In 2015, they opened Capital City BBQ, a Vietnamese-barbecue joint that combined Lee’s family recipes and Louchart’s obsession with barbecue. (Lansing, recall, is the capital of Michigan.) The restaurant did well: In 2017, it was featured on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in which Guy Fieri praised the brisket.
This past July, Lee and Louchart broke up. And then things got ugly.
Louchart, it happened, had registered the utilities, including the phone, under his construction business and had never shared the password with Lee. Last month, just before the holidays, the Lansing State Journal reports, he recorded a new message on the restaurant’s outgoing voicemail: “Happy Holidays from Capital City BBQ. Due to the holidays we will be taking an extended leave until March 1st. We look forward to your business and seeing you after March 1st. Have a happy holiday. Thank you.”
Lee didn’t realize anything was wrong until she noticed that the phone hadn’t rung for four days and that the restaurant had only pulled in $2,800 over that time, less than half its usual sales. At first she assumed that it was a problem with Comcast, but as soon as she learned that the outgoing message had been changed, she got a new phone number and publicized it on Facebook. Unfortunately, the old number is still listed on the restaurant’s sign and on websites such as Trip Advisor.
But maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised. In the immediate aftermath of the breakup, she told the State Journal, Louchart emptied their joint business bank account and forced her to move out of the house they shared. In November, just before Thanksgiving, Louchart took a $13,677 smoker from the restaurant, leaving Lee to scramble to fulfill catering orders. After Lee reported the incident to the police, Louchart produced a receipt for the smoker showing that he paid for it; Lee argued that it was the property of the business, which, she maintained, was hers. Although she and Louchart had been described as co-chefs and co-owners on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and in other media coverage, she told the State Journal this was not the case: “I told him I would give him 50 percent, if he could show the money he invested just like I did.” (Louchart declined to comment.)
Now Lee has hired a lawyer. “That’s exactly where a business dispute belongs,” the State Journal opined, “in a court where a judge can weigh the evidence, not settled with dirty tricks.” But maybe the moral of this story is to make sure that, when you open a business with a partner, everyone has access to the passwords.