For the past six years, Marcus Lemonis' relationship with small businesses has been fairly simple. He spots one he likes and, just when it seems to be on the verge of shuttering, he buys it.
Now, he finds himself in a less typical, more frustrating situation with one Highland Park business: a lawsuit.
Lemonis, the Lake Forest millionaire who has breathed new life into about 50 businesses in the past six years, is suing In the Raw, a vegan restaurant in downtown Highland Park. He says that after he invested more than $100,000 in the restaurant, its owners reneged on their deal.
Lemonis shared with Patch legal documents as well as email correspondence between himself and the restaurant's owners and their lawyer about the failed partnership. In the Raw's owners and their lawyer declined to comment for this story.
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In mid-December, In the Raw owners Beth and Mark Taussig approached Lemonis, who had been eating at the restaurant for months, according to the court papers Lemonis filed. The Taussigs were behind on their bills, including federal payroll bills and Highland Park and Illinois taxes. Lemonis agreed to take care of the restaurant's financial obligations in exchange for roughly 85 percent ownership of the restaurant. That percentage jumped to 100 once Lemonis realized just how much In the Raw owed.
"She [Beth Taussig] agreed," Lemonis said, and showed Patch an email that outlines this agreement, "and I began writing checks."
Lemonis invested over $100,000
Beth Taussig declined to comment for this story, and directed Patch to her attorney, who did not return repeated phone calls. However, Highland Park Deputy City Manager Ghida Neukirch confirms that In the Raw had not paid its food and beverage taxes for July, August and September. The total amount due to the city in taxes, interest and penalties was $4,378.51, according to Neukirch. She said the city has been following up with Beth Taussig with letters and phone calls.
"Our goal is to work with them to be in compliance," Neukirch said.
Between the end of December and the first week of January, Lemonis said he invested over $100,000 towards rent, vendors and other bills. He also began brainstorming a slightly tweaked angle for the restaurant, which would serve cooked food and meat in addition to raw, vegan food. The new restaurant, which would be renamed Pure and Simple, would also include space from the available storefront next door to be used for a wine bar.
"I felt like the strike zone was too narrow," Lemonis told Patch in early January when the deal still looked to be going through. "The menu is expanding and the restaurant expanding to attract more general population."
Then, on Jan. 9, Lemonis received an email from Taussig, which he shared with Patch, telling him he owned no part of In the Raw and should not step on the restaurant's property or the police would be called.
"When people are desperate, they do desperate things, and they're not going to get away with it."
"You have no membership or management interest in the In The Raw, LLC and have no possessory interest in the business’s real property," Taussig's email read.
The note instructed Lemonis to direct all further communication through Taussig's attorney.
"After them allowing me to pay all these bills, we then get this note. … 'Thanks for your money but we don't need it anymore because we're current,'" Lemonis said, interpreting how he read that email. "It's literally that simple."
Lemonis and Taussig never signed any legal contracts, according to Lemonis, who sent Patch emails indicating the two had agreed to the terms before Lemonis began writing checks.
"There's too much paper trail that basically says here's what the deal is," Lemonis said. "When people are desperate, they do desperate things, and they're not going to get away with it."
'We're baffled by the whole thing.'
Since receiving the note, Lemonis has filed a suit that seeks to stop the Taussigs "from interfering with [Lemonis'] right to operate and control the business, from wasting and/or diverting corporate assets, from engaging in conduct designed to harm the business and its goodwill and reputation ... and from unlawfully interfering with [Lemonis' finances]."
The suit has been transferred from Cook to Lake County. Before that happened, a Cook County judge ordered the Taussigs to turn over all of In the Raw's electronic documents and sales data. Lemonis says they have yet to do either.
"We're baffled by the whole thing," Lemonis said, "especially when the judge tells you to do something and you just don't do it."
At this point, Lemonis says he has spent about $150,000 on In the Raw: $119,000 on the restaurant and its bills, and another $30,000 on legal fees. He says that the experience has taught him an important lesson.
"I didn't do background checks," he said. "That's the mistake I made."
Lemonis to open a bakery in Highland Park
Lemonis is not letting the suit get in the way of his entrepreneurship. He recently announced he would be opening a second location of the gluten-free Evanston bakery he saved last December. He expects this new spot, which will be somewhere in Highland Park, to open in February.
In the meantime, In the Raw is still open, albeit with reduced hours. The restaurant recently cut its staff down since it's no longer serving dinner.
Lemonis hired those employees for his new bakery.
"Karma is a really funny thing," Lemonis said. "At the end of the day, we'll see what happens."