Business

How the Boise Airport’s Big City Coffee shop went sour

Sarah Fendley, owner of Big City Coffee in Downtown Boise, has threatened to sue Delaware North Cos. for what she said is mismanagement of the airport eatery bearing her restaurant’s name. Fendley said the company has broken several tenets of its licensing agreement with Big City, including swapping locally-sourced ingredients with frozen Sysco products.
Sarah Fendley, owner of Big City Coffee in Downtown Boise, has threatened to sue Delaware North Cos. for what she said is mismanagement of the airport eatery bearing her restaurant’s name. Fendley said the company has broken several tenets of its licensing agreement with Big City, including swapping locally-sourced ingredients with frozen Sysco products. kjones@idahostatesman.com

Sarah Fendley finds complaints in her inbox weekly, sometimes two a day.

“I just purchased a pumpkin chai muffin from your store at the Boise Airport, and it was hard as a rock! … To add to it, the coffee was empty!”

“Hopefully you don’t expect people to continue to want to give you service (when) you cut your quality in half and keep the price the same.”

“Are you too cheap to have two sets of (Thermoses)? And a little employee training is warranted.”

Those emails, from the past month, are from people who thought Fendley’s popular Linen District restaurant, Big City Coffee, owns and operates the Big City cafe in the Boise Airport. It does not.

Big City was one of three restaurants that signed contracts in 2014 to let some of their menu items be sold under their names. That was part of a deal Mayor Dave Bieter said was meant to showcase some of Boise’s best-known restaurants.

But the employees and food at the airport location actually are under control of a contractor hired by Boise officials to manage the airport’s bars and eateries.

I can think of few ways to better feature Boise’s character than to offer travelers a taste of our local food scene. These great restaurants are part of the unique cultural fabric that make our city so great for residents and visitors alike.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, announcing the airport’s local push

Local business owners and employees say the contractor — Delaware North Cos. of Buffalo, N.Y. — has mismanaged the airport’s restaurants.

Delaware North declined to be interviewed and requested that Idaho Statesman questions be asked by email. The Statesman sent 19 questions, but Delaware North did not answer them. Instead, it provided a statement, saying its attorneys are reviewing a January letter from Fendley’s lawyer.

“We deny any wrongdoing and otherwise have no comment on this legal matter,” the statement said.

The company reiterated a statement it provided two days earlier, saying Delaware North “has received a wonderful response from travelers” at the airport.

“We are very proud of our business in Boise, and we have worked hard to develop strong relationships with the airport and our local partners,” the statement said. “Unfortunately the business concept at the Big City Coffee location did not translate well to the airport environment for a variety of operational reasons. Our intent is to replace that concept with another local brand and provide another local vendor the opportunity to showcase their business at the Boise Airport.”

Fendley sent a complaint letter to Delaware North on Oct. 20. The company replied with a letter Dec. 7 saying it would end its use of Big City’s name and menu in 90 days — March 6 — pulling the local brand from the airport.

Fendley said the deal went sour, for her, before the cafe even opened.

FAST EMPLOYEE TURNOVER

Although she was not responsible for operating the airport cafe, Fendley was asked by Delaware North to hire employees.

When those employees quit — which happened 80 times over the 13 months, she said — Fendley and her own employees spent hours at the airport training a steady stream of new bakers and baristas to ensure they followed Big City recipes.

Fendley paid bills she said Delaware North was supposed to pay. She fielded complaints from other local vendors selling to the airport who said Delaware North was ignoring them. Employees complained to Fendley when Delaware North was late issuing their paychecks or replacing ingredients that had run out.

$3.9 million The company’s total proposed capital investment in the new food and drink locations

$6.6 million Total 2015 sales at Delaware North eateries at the airport

$911,000 Delaware North’s 2015 rent payment to the airport, 13.8 percent of sales

Rebecca Hupp, the airport’s director, said her staff has been unable to substantiate Fendley’s allegations.

“The feedback we had from other local partners has been positive, and the response from the community about having local brands here has been overwelmingly positive,” Hupp told the Statesman. “That’s not to say the transition went perfectly. ... Overall, Delaware North has been very open to suggestions we’ve made. They’ve been open to our input.”

The deal earned the airport nearly $1 million in rent last year from Delaware North.

MISMANAGEMENT?

Fendley said this wasn’t what she envisioned when the city approached her about joining Bardenay, 13th Street Pub and Grill, and Parrilla Grill as part of the airport’s local-vendor push.

Mounting problems preceded the cafe’s opening day in December 2014, she said.

On that first day, Fendley said, the cafe did not have dishes on which to serve the first order, a bacon wrap.

At first, she was excited to know that Big City’s you’ll-never-finish-that-size scones and Idaho-roasted Doma coffee would greet travelers as they arrived and departed. But excitement gave way to dread that she had signed over her brand and recipes to a company that would not work as hard for Big City as she did.

Delaware North agreed to run the airport cafe without daily support from Fendley. She said the reason she spent many hours working at the airport location — instead of letting Delaware North run the cafe as it saw fit — was that she felt compelled to protect the Big City name.

“That’s me, that’s all I have. I’ve worked 16 years for this place,” Fendley said in an interview. “I couldn’t let it fail. … The people in town don’t know that it’s not me running it. They don’t know it’s not Kevin (Settles) running Bardenay.”

I’m at your airport location, and your cashier here is getting hammered by travelers wanting breakfast. In 15 minutes, I counted 14 people walk away because your shop here does not do breakfast. Wow!

Email from traveler to Sarah Fendley

Settles told the Statesman in an interview, and Fendley in an email, that his experience with Delaware North was not perfect but it wasn’t the quagmire Fendley described. Occasionally a recipe would not be cooked according to Bardenay’s specifications — a requirement under the licensing agreement. But the management at Delaware North seemed to fix those problems quickly, he said.

The owner of Great Harvest, which supplied bread to Big City at the airport, said turnover was so frequent that he often didn’t know who was in charge.

STAFFING, HYGIENE AND SAFETY

At the airport Big City, four employees quit on the same day in August, Fendley said.

Staffing problems led to untrained workers botching orders, mishandling food and, when not enough workers showed up, not serving hot breakfast items, Fendley said.

Through a public records request, the Statesman obtained several emails that document complaints from Fendley and others who did business with, or worked for, Delaware North.

As part of her demand-to-cure letter to Delaware North, Fendley included emails and text messages from former employees complaining about working conditions.

“I have never worked anywhere that is so unorganized, unprofessional and dysfunctional,” one former employee wrote. “...We are so understaffed and it makes every shift so stressful because we can’t please customers.”

Another employee wrote, “We went for almost three weeks without soap for our dishes!!! I begged for management to bring us some Dawn dishwashing soap so we could do dishes. No response, EVER!!!”

Often times, many days would go by without clean towels, and I would have to save my one towel for a few days. More than often there was no dish soap to clean my dishes. I also encountered a man that had broken into the airport secured area and had sneaked into the bakery. He was recently released from prison and high on bath salts. I resigned from my position because I no longer felt ‘secure’ at my job.

Former employee at airport Big City Coffee

Bill Green worked for Delaware North as Big City’s baker for 10 months until he injured his shoulder on the job in October. He told the Statesman he regularly worked 10 to 15 days straight because there was no backup baker. Fendley covered him one weekend so that he could get a break. When Green returned, he said Delaware North had delivered food products that sat at room temperature and spoiled.

Green said he often lacked basic baking ingredients such as oats and flour, and rarely received needed ingredients in a timely manner. Other restaurants also fought inventory problems, Green said.

After the cafe opened, Green said, he made runs to WinCo one to three times each week to buy ingredients. He said he was reimbursed twice.

He said he threatened to walk out one night when Delaware North refused to fill a product order, saying Big City already had too much inventory. “I had no butter, no buttermilk, half a bag of flour. I asked, ‘What do you want me to do?’ They said, ‘Figure it out yourself.’ 

HEALTH CODE VIOLATIONS

Green said he is a former restaurant owner and caterer with 40 years of food-service experience. He said inadequate training led to risky food-handling practices at Big City and other airport restaurants. He said he once saw employees preparing cooked food on surfaces exposed to raw meat. He said he saw employees replace date stickers on grab-and-go items with newer dates.

“I’ve never seen anything run so poorly,” Green said.

There have been 12 critical violations flagged by health inspectors in visits to Delaware North’s eateries since they opened. The violations include problems with segregating foods that should not be stored or prepared together, as well as with date-marking or discarding food. They also include common violations such as problems with hand-washing and refrigeration. The Downtown Big City location had two critical violations in 2015.

The airport’s contract stipulates that it may sanction Delaware North $250 for a first occurrence of a health-code violation, $500 for a second occurrence and $1,000 for each subsequent violation. After three health code violations in a year’s time, the airport can terminate its contract with Delaware North.

There were no sanctions.

“We obviously take any allegations seriously, especially allegations about food and health safety,” said Hupp, the airport director.

She said all inspection reports she has seen “overall were positive.”

OTHERS NOTE IMPROVEMENT

Scott Graves, who owns both Parrilla Grill and 13th Street Pub and Grill, said high employee turnover has been exacerbated by high managerial turnover. Four Delaware North general managers have overseen food concessions over 13 months, he said.

“The shocking thing is how much staff has turned over,” he said. “I don’t know how you can ever be profitable if you do that.”

Graves said food quality was poor when the restaurant first opened but has improved since, thanks in part to Delaware North fixing problems when he asked it to. But he said he receives complaints about service at the airport that he fears have already affected Parrilla’s reputation.

I’ve not had the negative experience Sarah has, but Sarah has been much more hands-on. I think she’s had to be.

Scott Graves, owner of Parrilla Grill and 13th Street Pub and Grill

One year into the licensing agreement, Graves said most of the problems have worked themselves out. He said he feels “pretty flat” about the airport operation.

“We wouldn’t do the deal again, but I’m OK with where it’s at right now,” he said.

Settles said Delaware North resolved his few problems quickly. Settles, who operates three Bardenay restaurant-distilleries around Idaho, said he was careful to submit a pared-down menu of simple items.

“We went into it expecting some headaches,” Settles said. “The headaches haven’t been that bad.”

Zeppole Baking Co. also was part of the local marketing push. It delivered pastries, and the plan was to later deliver bread. Orders slowed to a trickle, and Delaware North stopped ordering altogether when Zeppole owner Charles Alpers said he would start charging retail rather than wholesale price because of the low volume.

Alpers told the Statesman that Delaware North was frequently late on payments and sometimes skipped invoices, once owing more than $1,000 to Zeppole. He said Delaware North still owes him about $150.

$320,000 Delaware North’s proposed investment to build the airport Big City cafe

$581,400 Delaware North’s 2015 sales forecast for the airport Big City

Fendley wants to keep the Big City Coffee shop at the airport under her control. If she cannot get that, she wants Delaware North to pay $300,000 and not use the Big City space for a coffee or baked-good shop for at least two years.

Her lawyer, Michaelina Murphy, of Meridian, sent a 21-page letter to Delaware North and the Boise Airport in late January, outlining Fendley’s allegations and demands.

Delaware North President Kevin Kelly responded Feb. 3 with a letter saying, in part, “We reject your allegations and note that your demand appears to be an attempt to extract money after (Delaware North) properly exercised its termination rights” according to the contract.

Hupp said the airport is not getting involved. She noted that even with several restaurants closed for construction, sales hit $6.6 million in 2015, up 10 percent from the previous two years. More than $1 million of those sales were at Big City Coffee, according to Fendley’s records.

“Going back to some of the allegations about improper staffing or lack of quality, you would expect those types of allegations to translate into decreased sales, and we haven’t seen that,” Hupp said.

Fendley said she is trying to rectify a problem.

“I felt like the city did us a great honor by getting Big City in there,” she said. “That was a big deal, and I wanted to be proud of it.”

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey

What Fendley wants

Through her lawyer, Big City Coffee owner Sarah Fendley said she wants either of these:

1. For the city to deem Delaware North in default or breach of the lease. Then Big City Coffee would sign a new lease with the city to operate its own cafe in the airport and pay rent to the airport.

Delaware North would sell all equipment, decor and other property in the current space to Big City Coffee for $1. The new Big City would do everything separately from Delaware North, which would provide a “complete audit” of gross receipts at the Big City airport cafe and pay “all outstanding royalty and reimbursement payments.”

2. For Delaware North to take down the Big City-themed coffee shop to a “vanilla” shell, pay Fendley $50,000 for time worked as an independent contractor, and pay Big City Coffee $250,000 for breaking its license agreement and damaging Big City’s reputation.

She wants to prevent future businesses in the Big City space from selling coffee, baked goods or “other similar” Big City items for at least two years, and she wants Delaware North not to disparage Fendley or her business, provide the “complete audit” of gross receipts and pay “all outstanding royalty and reimbursement payments.”

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