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‘Catch Me if you Can’ Restaurateurs Blow Town Owing Everyone Money

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Cook Shoppe on Church st, now closed. image yelp

The two ‘Catch me if You Can’ con men who came into San Francisco this past Spring and rented out 3 separate restaurant spaces on Church Street, are gone.  One is in police custody, the other is at large.  We’re writing this article not just because it’s a fascinating story, but to warn people not to work for these hucksters in the future.  And since they are likely to use fake names again, publishing their pictures at this time is all we can do to warn people.

Mark White (not his real name) pretended to be the owner of Cook Shoppe

You may have heard of the new Cook Shoppe restaurant that opened on Church St last May, replacing the neighborhood staple Chow Church near the corner of Church & Market St.  You may have also heard it shut down in August.  You may not have heard how the two ‘New York Restauranteurs’ who opened the place were already on the run from the authorities, were using fake names and were lying about their pasts.

Lawrence Tooner & ‘Mark White’ came into the Castro last Spring posing as successful restauranteurs from New York.  ‘White’ told the press they had several ‘successful restaurants’ in New York but neglected to mention any of them by name, and he claimed they wanted to revitalize Church Street with 3 new restaurants, maybe more.  The 200 block of Church st. really needed some new businesses, after all, Chow Church, Crepevine, and Sparky’s Pizza & Diner were all vacant, and Tooner & White rented them all. Claiming they wanted to open Gramercy Park, and a spin-off, Gramercy Park To-Go, across the street from their soon to open Cook Shoppe.  Big plans, big, big plans.

Gramercy Park, SF. It never opened

Nobody at the time was suspicious, they had the cash and qualifications to rent 3 storefronts in San Francisco after all.  If anyone should have done a background check it was their landlord.   Cook Shoppe’s landlords are Thomas Iveli and Robert Sigmund of Norcal Holdings LLC, they neglected to comment on this story.

Now let’s meet the con men: 

The guy calling himself ‘Mark White’ and claiming to be the owner of Cook Shoppe to reporters, staff, and government officials was lying about his name and title.  In fact, the same guy had opened up several similar businesses in LA in the past using the name ‘Michael Esposito’ and he blew town owing everyone money there too!  He was involved in a catering company called ‘Zen Craft‘ and defunct news media business called Newsaratti both companies collapsed while owing there staff wages.   Janelle Bitker of the SF Chronicle did some excellent investigative reporting on this huckster’s past, it appears Espensito/White left LA with 13 lawsuits, with 13 former employees, clients and acquaintances. While Esposito’s name didn’t appear on official organizing documents for these businesses, former employees and clients say he portrayed himself as an owner (just like in SF).   In the lawsuits, people said they’re owed roughly $180,000. Former employees, clients, and other associates told The Chronicle they are owed an additional $205,000 in lost wages, unpaid rent and unfulfilled catering gigs.

This guy stiffed people by not showing up with catering on their wedding days, opened up fraudulent businesses and never paid staff, and was kicked out of several locations for not paying rent.  What an asshole.

‘Michael Esposito’ was featured as part of a restaurantuer power couple in an LA magazine.

In San Francisco Cook Shoppe racked up debts with its suppliers too,  Bi-Rite Foodservice Distributors (BiRite) and Oakville Produce (Greenleaf), filed suit against Cook Shoppe and 212NYCSF LLC for breach of contract, seeking collective damages totaling over $80,000.  No one knows how much rent they didn’t pay their landlords, Espensito/White used fake names in San Francisco, and never put his real name on anything we know of.  His business partner Tooner was left holding the bag, and he’s literally in prison in New York now.  (more on that below).

It is very unlikely that anyone is going to get paid what is owned to them involving Cook Shoppe, and that really, really sucks.

Cook Shoppe owner, Lawrence Tonner’s August 16 mug shot.  Photo SFPD

Hoodline did some great local reporting on this story and here’s what they found out about Tooner.  The reality began to set in for Cook Shoppe staff on August 16 when ABC officials showed up and arrested Lawrence Tooner for selling alcohol without a liquor license at Cook Shoppe, and for having a felony warrant in New York State.  Shortly after that his partner ‘White’ also disappeared, meanwhile the paychecks for some 30 restaurant staff bounced.  On Wednesday of this week, Tooner was extradited to New York City to face his warrant for a 2012 conviction of felony second-degree burglary, grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen goods. Hoodline reported that he is currently being held at the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center in the Bronx.

We spoke with one of ‘White’s’ former employees Allie Tong, who is a social media consultant in SF,  Allie was hired to help promote ‘White’s’ new restaurants, she said that White posed as the restaurant’s owner and liked to brag a lot about how much money they were spendingon the renovations.  He bragged about renting out the two Gramercy Park spaces across the street and she said he bragged about talking to several other landlords in the area about opening up even more restaurants.  He often used the name Tooner to officials and contractors around the restaurant.

Tong was also stiffed on her wages when everything fell apart in August.  I asked her if he ever appeared suspicious during the times they worked together and  she said, “not really, he was always very confident, but now it appears like he was some kind of sociopath.”  She also found it strange that ‘White’ never wanted his picture published for promotional materials, he claimed it was because he felt like he looked ‘out of shape’ in the photos, but Allie realized later it was because he might have been recognized by all the people he owed money to.

Cook Shoppe Back patio.  Image Yelp.

Wong said that after Cook Shoppe opened several times she saw him verbally abusing staff, and he became increasingly unkind to her as well.  She now regrets ever working with them.

What we can’t figure out is why they kept trying to open restaurants like this, it can’t be a very profitable scam.  Even if you neglect to pay your staff, landlords, and contractors, you still are only going to be able to operate for a month or two before everything falls apart.  Is this a ‘fake it till you make it’ situation?  Run by two overconfident idiots?  Or is there a way that this scam is very profitable for the one guy who’s name is not on any legal document, who can pocket tens of thousands of dollars in the few weeks, by not paying any bills or people who worked for him, and who can simply disappear when things fall apart?

As we said before, we’re not writing this article just because it’s a fascinating story, but to warn people not to work for these individuals in the future.  And since one is in prison (Tooner) and the other (White) will most likely use a fake name in his next scam, here are their faces again.

‘Marke White’

Lawrence Tonner’s August 16 mug shot.  Image SFPD

We hope the vacancies on Church get filled soon, with honest people who pay their lenders, contractors and staff.

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

I'm the managing editor here at Broke-Ass Stuart. I enjoy covering Bay Area News as well as writing about Arts, Culture & Nightlife.

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