CEO of Culinary School Who 'Disappeared' Appears to Have Spent a Week in Jail
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Editor’s note: Click here for Entrepreneur's full coverage of PlantLab.When you can’t reach your company’s CEO for nine days -- and he’s the “only person solely responsible for all finances” -- what do you do?
The team at PlantLab -- a collection of culinary schools around the world formerly owned by celebrity chef Matthew Kenney -- had to find out the hard way on Wednesday. That morning, they sent an email to enrolled students that all upcoming courses were canceled until further notice, in the wake of Zucker being unreachable. Entrepreneur broke the story on Wednesday.
“It is our regret to inform you that all courses at all locations are canceled until further notice,” PlantLab’s admissions team wrote in the email, which was reviewed by Entrepreneur. “The entire team of PlantLab has been unable to contact the CEO, Adam Zucker, since Tuesday, August 21st, 2018 at 11:15 a.m. PST. Adam Zucker is the sole owner of PlantLab and the only person solely responsible for all finances and location payments. Due to these factors, we are unable to continue holding classes.”
But Thursday at 12:42 p.m. ET, Zucker contacted Entrepreneur via email. “I have been dealing with a catastrophic personal issue,” he wrote. “I never disappeared and [sic] working aggressively this week to course correct and get everything moving forward.”
That personal issue may have involved jail, according to public records from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. A 42-year-old Adam Reed Zucker was arrested on August 21 at 9:40 p.m. PST and booked just three minutes later.
He was charged with seven counts of embezzlement and grand theft, 23 counts of money laundering and five counts of tax evasion. For all charges, that Zucker pled no contest -- a plea that is functionally similar to pleading guilty, but it can shield the party if they are sued in civil court. According to L.A. County court records, he was convicted on all counts on Aug. 27.
The Zucker who was arrested was reportedly released on August 29 at 4:49 p.m. PST, with a court date set for Jan. 17. According to a background check website, the cell phone number for a 42-year-old Adam Reed Zucker in Beverly Hills, Calif., is the same as the CEO's alleged phone number that PlantLab sent out in its email to enrolled students, saying, "If you wish to express any immediate concerns or questions, please send them directly to him."
Evan Nierman, a spokesman for PlantLab, said in a statement to Entrepreneur: "It would be highly inappropriate to comment upon any legal matters that are of a personal nature and unrelated to PlantLab. The company remains committed to the success of its students, is working to restart its regular operations and intends to continue courses at all locations as soon as possible."
Would-be students told Entrepreneur they had pre-paid thousands of dollars in tuition. A group on Facebook called “Plantlab scam” has 168 members and counting. And for a few hours on Friday afternoon, PlantLab's website was unavailable.
One woman, Ingrid Clay, told Entrepreneur that she paid $6,500 to attend the course in Barcelona and that she’d already booked her flight and housing. Another student said, “I am enrolled for a course in Barcelona in April 2019 and I fully paid my tuition as well as I booked my flights. As you can see on the email below received yesterday, they don’t clearly mention any refund.”
PlantLab’s students aren’t the only ones who want financial retribution. One employee with the company who asked to remain anonymous said, “We have not been paid [and] have no information and no one to contact regarding this.”
Kenney -- the plant-based food entrepreneur and celebrity chef behind 24 restaurants around the world, 13 cookbooks and the series of online plant-based cooking courses that later became PlantLab -- told Entrepreneur he has had “zero involvement” with the company since the sale besides a now-defaulted-on licensing agreement.
The sale transition, which happened around June 2017, seemed rocky. Less than a month before, attendees of a Matthew Kenney-branded wellness retreat in Kauai complained that the retreat wasn’t at all like the program overview they’d been promised, according to Anastasia Belova, who says she paid $8,500 for the retreat. One consultant who contacted Entrepreneur, Geoff Kinkade, said he’s worked with a number of unsatisfied customers from Kenney’s retreat. “They claim to have been falsely advertised [to], severely mistreated and ... even over-charged thousands of dollars without reimbursement,” said Kinkade. “The MK company claims it is no longer their responsibility, though it was under the Matthew Kenney brand at the time.”
As for the culinary school itself? Around the time of the transition, students who had pre-paid up to $5,500 in tuition received notice that their upcoming culinary course had been canceled. It affected about 30 students, but they were eventually refunded, Kenney told Entrepreneur.
“I’ve always tried to be very transparent about the challenges associated with building a brand and creating something that is new to the market,” Kenney said. Since the transition, he says that his company, Matthew Kenney Cuisine, has grown rapidly and remains profitable. In 2019, Kenney expects to feed 1.5 million guests across all of his restaurants.
When Kenney sold his culinary education programs to Zucker, he said he thought it was the right thing to do at the time, believing that the new business plan to grow the brand would result in a stronger business.
But the question of who is responsible here is murky at best.
One former employee of Matthew Kenney Cuisine, who spoke on condition of anonymity, left within the year Zucker was hired. The individual said Zucker only had experience in furniture sales -- in fact, he had no culinary background whatsoever.
“They’re claiming no responsibility, but why did students sign up?” said the former employee. “Matthew sold his company to somebody who has no background. Where does the trust fall? … There’s a lot of other people that Matthew could’ve hired, but Adam knew how to sweet-talk Matthew … into giving him the company. ”
Kenney said Zucker’s and PlantLab’s shortcomings are also affecting his bottom line. He said PlantLab was his company's tenant and that his company could be on the hook for a "very sizeable" rent for the space PlantLab was subleasing.
“In regards to PlantLab, it’s not good for anyone the way this has turned out,” he said. “We’re also experiencing a lot of losses."
Adam Page, owner of web development company A. Page Code, said he designed and created PlantLab’s website and has yet to receive payment. Page said Zucker and the company owe him $26,000 for his efforts, which involved almost a year of work, more than 60-hour work weeks and nightly 9 p.m. phone calls to make sure everything was up to standards. The final invoice he sent and earlier email threads were reviewed by Entrepreneur. “I am a one-man team, not a big business, and [Zucker] obviously screwed a lot of people,” Page said.
On July 24, Zucker wrote in an email to Page (which Page forwarded to Entrepreneur): “If it is any conciliation [sic], I am dealing with this with several vendors. No excuse though.” On July 31, he cited his mother’s health as the reason for his lack of responses. And on Aug. 8, he wrote, “Sorry for not responding sooner. Have just been in a nightmare. … I really want to catch up and make this right ASAP.”
Page said he emailed Zucker on Aug. 15, 2018 to notify him that he’d like to pick up the check in person from PlantLab’s Beverly Hills office on Aug. 22 -- and that Zucker never responded. On Aug. 22, Page wrote him another email.
“I know that recently there have been some personal hardships for which I am very sorry to hear, but this payment has been pending for nearly four months,” Page wrote. “I feel like I have been more than patient through the bank errors, confirming you have personally gone to the bank to make the transfer or that you’re sending a check, but still have yet to receive the final payment.”
On the same day, Page said he called and texted Zucker to no avail.
“Oddly enough, I guess that was the day he disappeared,” Page said. “When PlantLab called me Friday to tell me no one had heard from him, I didn’t know if I believed it at all.”
PlantLab's spokesperson said the company planned to send a follow-up email to its students on Thursday evening from Zucker himself, but it wasn't sent until Friday evening. Entrepreneur was able to review the email draft ahead of time. In it, Zucker writes, "I sincerely apologize for the confusion and concern this caused. ... In recent days I have been working hard to restart PlantLab's regular operations and to continue our courses at all locations as soon as possible. That is the goal and where I am focusing my attention. ... As specific timelines for rescheduling the courses become clear I will look to share this information with you."