Six days before Christmas 2016, Darth Vader strolled into the Thai food restaurant on North Main with the bad news: The joint was closing and everyone was out of a job.
To be clear, it wasn’t the dark-helmeted, planet-exploding villain himself who lowered the boom, but a 35-year-old, boyishly handsome restaurateur named Chris Cusack who wore Vader’s visage on an ironic Christmas sweater.
Cusack, who co-founded the management group that oversaw the highly acclaimed restaurant Foreign Correspondents, had called for the meeting during off-hours to tell the handful of staff who showed up what every employee already knew: Foreign Correspondents was kaput.
The day before, head chef PJ Stoops told the employees that Cusack and one of his business partners, Benjy Mason, had told him that the restaurant was closing after December 31. According to employees interviewed for this story, Stoops said that Cusack and Mason had no intention of giving the employees a heads-up, and it didn’t sit well with him. But something else was said that day — something that caused Stoops to wrap up his knives, shake employees’ hands and walk out of the restaurant for good. Days later, Canard, the bar that shared space with Foreign Correspondents, also closed. Just over two weeks later, the company’s other renowned chef would also quit.
But now the eight employees gathered at the meeting were being subjected to a patented Cusack spiel, a paean to his own talent and vision, peppered with a few boilerplate references to how proud he was of the staff. (Cusack declined to comment for this story.)
But all line cook Iggy Olivera could think of was that damn sweater, which, he later told the Houston Press, “immediately just rubs all of us the wrong way. Because, hey, like, dress up for this. Take this seriously. You’re telling us we’re out of jobs. The least you could do is wear a fucking button-up.”
After a while, Olivera couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up and began shaking hands with his now-jobless friends, ready to make an exit.
“[Cusack] says to me, ‘Bye, Chris.’ He didn’t know my name. I’d worked there for six months.” To Olivera, it seemed consistent with what he felt were the smug airs Cusack and Mason displayed on the few occasions when they showed up at the restaurant — primarily to talk with Stoops and his wife and fellow chef, Apple Stoops.
It also seemed fitting that, of all the wrong names for Cusack to throw out, he said his own. For years, Cusack had been the face of the critically acclaimed restaurants and bars managed by his group, Treadsack, given gushing articles in local and national media. Cusack’s concepts weren’t driven just by celebrity chefs, but by his own self-promotion and mythmaking, lapped up by friendly food critics who never looked behind his company’s curtain or talked to the lowly waitstaff.
When Cusack announced that Treadsack was opening three restaurants in less than a year, local media called it “ambitious,” without asking how the instant empire would actually be financed or whether it would even be sustainable. In a typically fluffy piece for the industry news-slash-advertorial site Restaurant-Hospitality, Cusack said the restaurants were projected to generate $20 million.
It’s unclear if that number, seemingly plucked out of the air, took into account the state and federal liens that Treadsack was racking up — IRS liens that today stand at roughly $1.1 million, with $283,000 in state liens. (The lien information for this story comes from the Harris County Clerk’s records. Cusack, Treadway and Mason did not respond to multiple requests seeking information about any payments that may not have been reflected in the clerk’s records.) Employee interviews and internal company records reviewed by the Press reveal that, as Treadsack’s flagship restaurant, Down House, came perilously close to being shuttered by the Texas Comptroller’s Office, and Foreign Correspondents hemorrhaged money, employees had to deal with bounced paychecks. Meanwhile, Cusack spun vinyl under the name “DJ Christopher Zane,” bought a Tesla, got married, honeymooned in Switzerland, got divorced and posed in a convertible sports car for Local Houston Magazine’s photo shoot of successful bros, called “Reigning Men.”
The focus on Cusack has worked well for Treadsack’s low-profile money man, Joey Treadway — the Emperor to Cusack’s Vader. According to employees interviewed for this story, Treadway sank a personal fortune into Treadsack, while still working in finance at the DeMontrond Auto Group. Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that Treadway has the most on the line, he has remained in the background. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment. With Cusack and Mason similarly tight-lipped for this story, it’s difficult to tell what the company’s plan is for the future. Or if there even is one.
From the beginning, back in 2010, Down House was meant to be more than something as pedestrian as a brick-and-mortar coffeehouse and restaurant.
Down House had an ethos; a mission to embolden and educate the community, which in this case was the increasingly hipsterized Heights. Housed in the former Heights Bank building on the corner of Yale and 18th, the establishment — named after Charles Darwin’s country estate — generated buzz even before it opened.
“Down House aims to blow your coffee-loving mind,” CultureMap Houston trumpeted in February 2011.
“It’s like the coffee shop, evolved,” Cusack told writer Sarah Rufca, who followed up six months later with something that reads like a love letter to Down House that was meant only for her heart-clasp-lock diary.
In a headline calling the place “Houston’s newest, cutest cult of coffeehouse cool,” Rufca wrote, “When it comes to the pantheon of adorable, Down House is just above a butterfly landing on your finger and slightly below a panda falling down.”
Paradoxically, it seemed, Down House’s perfection could potentially be a problem. As Rufca noted: “The only issue with Down House is the possibility of too many people liking it and wanting to be there.”
Treadway had tapped Cusack, his childhood friend, to be his business partner — after working at Outback Steakhouse, Cusack had success with helping run the popular Austin coffeehouse Thunderbird.
Cusack chronicled the experience of opening Down House — and quite possibly changing the very way less enlightened folk think about eating stuff — on his blog, writing in July 2011, “A lot of the thrill of doing this is the idea that we’re making an effort at bringing something new to people in town. This is a huge challenge for a city who knows what it likes and isn’t particularly interested in changing its mind about it. But I have a lot of faith in Houston, and I think we can really contribute to raising the consciousness and enjoyment people have with casual dining.”
For a general manager, Treadway hit up another friend, Forrest DeSpain, who had put himself through college managing restaurants and nightclubs, and who gave up his NASA engineering job to come aboard. Renowned chef Chandler Rothbard would helm the kitchen.
“We got lucky — we got a good location and we got an outstanding chef,” DeSpain says today. “And we knew a little bit about coffee.”
DeSpain, who was in charge of the first round of hiring, says he and the staff were a little skeptical of Cusack, who was prone to saying things like, “When we were at Outback Steakhouse, this is how we did things.” As DeSpain says, “It almost played as a joke to most of the staff.”
According to DeSpain, Treadway had his own brand of humor, which, in DeSpain’s estimation, included the name and logo of the management company, Treadsack.
“It’s a ball-sack getting ran over by a truck,” DeSpain says. “That’s the kind of guy that Joey is. He would think that’s hilarious, and that he’s playing this joke on the entire city of Houston, to call it ‘Treadsack.’”
If there’s one area that Down House took seriously, it was customer service. As pretentious as all the talk of “educating the community” could be, the Down House training manual put customer satisfaction above all else. From instructions on employee grooming and wardrobe (including what style of skirt was acceptable for female staff) right down to rules against smoking or using a cell phone during work hours, Down House demanded professionalism.
At the same time, DeSpain says, Treadway — whom he no longer considers a friend — “is very cutthroat and ruthless,” which DeSpain says he found out when Treadway let both him and Rothbard go. DeSpain, who had given up his job and was living off his 401(k), had figured that his old friend would have kept him on.
When asked about Treadway’s relative silence versus Cusack’s love of the spotlight, DeSpain said, “Anytime I see Chris’s name on anything, I’m like, ‘I wonder what Joey told him to say.’ Because it’s rare that Chris has an opinion that Joey hasn’t given him…Everyone’s always talking to Chris. If you want to know anything, you talk to Joey.”
Rothbard was replaced with Benjy Mason, and as Down House’s business grew, so did Cusack’s visibility. In 2012, he gave a 27-minute speech to a conference for a nonprofit called Bioneers, which bills itself as “a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators.” In a Bioneers statement, Cusack is quoted as saying, “I want to have a clear and direct effect on the farmers and ranchers we work with (and by extension, the plants and animals they work with).”
Before long, Treadsack acquired a very old, very low-key neighborhood icehouse, D&T Drive Inn, and spruced it up with charcuterie and a huge selection of craft beer. It was an instant hit.
Thanks to Down House’s popularity and Cusack’s surface-level charm, Treadsack was guaranteed good press even when he just talked about opening a restaurant.
In August 2013, Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook heaped lavish praise on the company’s forthcoming restaurant Hunky Dory, featuring beloved British chef Richard Knight, formerly of the wildly popular restaurant Feast. In addition to describing Cusack as a “do-it-yourself contractor,” the article’s news peg seems to be this: Treadsack decided upon a location and a “chipper name” based on a David Bowie album — thus establishing hipster cred. Additionally, Cook wrote that Knight was practically salivating over the imaginary restaurant’s imaginary feature — “a very big, sexy wood-burning grill.” Also, “the look will be clean and contemporary, with glass-window walls under wood-trimmed gables that give a nod to the Victorian architecture that persists in the Heights.”
But nothing topped CultureMap’s fawning coverage of Treadsack’s plans, written by food editor Eric Sandler, who would go on to become perhaps the group’s biggest booster.
As always, Cusack touched on educating the masses, suggesting that, thanks in part to Knight’s influence, the average Houstonian’s Cro-Magnon palate had evolved to the point where it would not flinch from a foreign flavor profile as if it were fire: “We’re at a nice point where guests are a lot more educated about food. If there was a [menu item] that was completely unfamiliar to them five years ago, they’ve probably seen it once or twice and maybe even tried it.”
Treadsack announced shortly afterwards that Hunky Dory would share property with a “farm-to-table Thai” restaurant, Foreign Correspondents. On Treadsack’s website, Benjy Mason stated, “We truly believe that Foreign Correspondents and Hunky Dory have the potential to be interesting and important on a national scale and at the same time solid neighborhood restaurants for the Heights.”
The chef would be PJ Stoops, who made his name in Houston’s foodie scene as a fishmonger. Stoops was interested in innovative dishes using authentic Thai ingredients culled from local farms and markets; there’d be steamed sticky rice with mackerel, scrambled duck eggs and spicy stir-fried pumpkin — nothing tacky, like pad Thai.
In what might be the only time Sandler wrote about the expense of such an ambitious undertaking, the article explained that “[w]ith rental rates in The Heights going for between $38 and $42 per square foot, Cusack thought that if they could find the right concept, it would relieve some of the pressure off financing Hunky Dory.”
In August 2014, a year after these stories ran, Cusack tweeted that the city of Houston had approved the Hunky Dory/Foreign Correspondents plan for permitting. And, apparently having grown restless during the interminable permitting process, Treadsack announced that it was opening a bar, Johnny’s Gold Brick, in the space formerly occupied by the Boom Boom Room.
Suddenly, in November 2014, Treadsack announced that another restaurant was taking Foreign Correspondents’ place: a “love letter to Gulf Coast food” called Bernadine’s, chef Graham Laborde told CultureMap. The article noted that “Foreign Correspondents is still on track to open next spring, but it will be at another location that has yet to be revealed.”
Cusack told CultureMap, “I feel like Graham is the Slumdog Millionaire of Bernadine’s — everything he’s done in his life leads up to this awesome project. Graham is an amazing problem solver. He’s a great communicator. He’s a really fun person to be around. That was something that we had the opportunity to learn over the last year and a half of getting to know each other.”
Of course, Laborde had something equally important: a very wealthy father in Lafayette, Louisiana. That would prove to be a valuable connection in the future.
‘In some ways, 2015 is the year of Treadsack,” Sandler announced in a March 2015 CultureMap video offering a look inside Johnny’s Gold Brick.
Sandler was on the mark: In June, Cusack attended the prestigious Aspen Food & Wine Classic, a three-day event, set against a mountainous backdrop, where superstar chefs and other industry insiders gather for paella parties and passionate debates over wine-and-burger pairings.
There, he was interviewed by Nancy Spears, founder of genConnect, a “digital media company that engages audiences with world-class experts and their wisdom.” Spears kicks off the three-minute segment by informing viewers that Cusack was “totally trending here in Aspen,” followed by Cusack saying that he’d owned restaurants and bars for eight years, and that “[I] opened my first when I was 25.”
Cusack spoke about his excitement for the opening of Hunky Dory, Foreign Correspondents and Bernadine’s, and Spears ended the interview on a profound note, proclaiming: “Houstonians love food.”
And in September, one month before Hunky Dory and Foreign Correspondents opened, Cusack told the industry website Restaurant Hospitality that Treadsack was expecting $20 million in annual sales.
According to the website, “Cusack and Treadway know how to throw down, which makes them just the right guys to open some of Houston’s most thrilling restaurants that also serve great food. There’s a rolling party in Houston and the Treadsack boys are the ones behind it and a growing stack of cash from revelers happy to pay for the privilege.”
In October, Hunky Dory opened to rave reviews, and Cusack was chosen as one of the Houston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 — a selection of young movers and shakers who “represent the diversity and endless opportunity available in Houston.” As befitted the theme of “knockout business men and women,” the special issue included a photo of Cusack wearing boxing gloves, giving a left jab, with artfully out-of-focus heavy bags hanging in the background. And in a November 2015 interview for My Table, his responses went beyond his life as a hot young restaurateur and into politics and world peace, with Cusack musing about being an idealist whose “ambitions have centered around finding a way to do good in the world.”
By this time, according to employees who spoke to the Press, Cusack started giving a prepared speech to new hires, a sort of auto-hagiography that could stretch for three or four hours. According to an employee’s notes on the speech, it reveals the Cusack-Treadsack origin story, starting all the way back in B.C. (Before Cusack) with the vision for Down House. In 2010, Cusack saw potential to make Houston a “food city.” The poet Walt Whitman makes an appearance, as does a Cusack aphorism that sounds like something from Glengarry Glen Ross: “If you don’t know what the product is getting sold, you are the product.”
While the Hunky Dory-adjacent Bernadine’s had yet to open, Foreign Correspondents, which had found a new location in a Main Street strip mall, opened on the heels of Hunky Dory. Finally, after two years of buzz — and critical acclaim, despite the fact that the restaurants didn’t even exist — the restaurants were a reality.
Sandler went full-on fanboy for Foreign Correspondents in an October 20 story, writing, “The anticipation diners have for the restaurant is undeniable…All Houstonians need to do is embrace Stoops’ culinary perspective and prepare to travel to a delicious destination they likely haven’t experienced before.”
Things didn’t slow down in the new year: In January 2016, Bernadine’s — Hunky Dory’s neighbor — opened for brunch, thanks in part to a $200,000 infusion from chef Graham Laborde’s father, Lafayette attorney Cliffe E. Laborde III (not to be confused with Shreveport attorney Cliffe C. Laborde III). The elder Laborde’s investment was solely for Mothership Ventures, LLC, the business entity operating as Hunky Dory and Bernadine’s. (Graham and Cliffe Laborde did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Seemingly before Sandler would have a chance to catch his breath, he broke the news on “one of the more poorly kept secrets in Houston’s restaurant community” — Treadsack was opening yet another bar, located in the same space as Foreign Correspondents. Called Canard, it would be the domain of one of the most celebrated bartenders in Houston, Leslie Ross.
“This is a bar project that Leslie and I have been working on for a little over a year,” Cusack told CultureMap. “It’s called Canard. That is the French word for ‘duck.’ It also means rumors…I feel like a lot of Leslie and my working relationship has involved some sort of story or some sort of rumor.” (Ross declined to comment for this story.)
A better-kept secret in Houston’s restaurant community was how Foreign Correspondents’ employees felt about Treadsack leadership, or about paychecks bouncing throughout the Treadsack empire. And this was by design: Treadsack employees were required to sign a strict nondisclosure agreement that prohibited them from divulging any company information to a third party.
But that was just one factor — it’s highly likely that, even without Kremlinesque clampdowns, employees wouldn’t have divulged any information, for two reasons: a fear of being banished from the industry’s hermetically sealed bubble, and the dearth of local media interested in critical or investigative coverage of the industry. The food scene was a journalistic dead zone, a puff-piece paradise where tat-sleeved chefs and restaurateurs descended from on high to speak of all things artisanal. Any challenge to these very special people might cost a food critic a sweet scoop about a nonexistent restaurant’s nonexistent wood-trimmed gables.
Behind the scenes, Treadsack was having real financial problems; by the time Hunky Dory and Foreign Correspondents opened, the IRS had placed a $672,788 levy on Treadsack’s Wells Fargo account. By the time those restaurants closed, they, along with Mothership Ventures, LLC, owed the Texas Comptroller’s Office more than $226,000 in taxes, according to that office.
The continued media adoration may have distracted Cusack and Treadway from tax obligations: In August 2016, Foreign Correspondents was named by Bon Appétit as one of the best new restaurants in the country.
And in an October 2016 Houston Chronicle story, Cusack, photographed holding a Lone Star while leaning casually against the exterior of Johnny’s Gold Brick, was dubbed one of “five people who could shape Houston’s future.”
The story started like this: “For Chris Cusack, the future tastes like success.”
Two months later, Foreign Correspondents shuttered, and two months prior, the Texas Comptroller’s Office came calling to Down House.
“They have a full seizure scheduled,” the company’s bookkeeper emailed Cusack August 3. At the time, Down House owed more than $87,000. The bookkeeper explained that a comptroller’s representative needed to speak with Cusack “within the hour, so that she can go back and report to her supervisor of an actual payment date for the full amount.”
Fortunately, Cusack was able to set up a plan with the comptroller’s office. But there had been plenty of notice. Emails between the bookkeeper and Cusack from June and July show that the comptroller froze the bank accounts of both Down House and Mothership Ventures (Hunky Dory and Bernadine’s). On June 14, Cusack had to decide between paying the state or paying his employees; the latter won out.
“We can’t have [Down House] payroll getting fucked,” Cusack wrote.
This meant that important management employees, like Kimberly Flint and Michelle LaChapelle, would receive paychecks. According to a Treadsack employee list, those women were vital to the organization: Flint’s job title was “Joey’s Mother.” LaChapelle’s was “Joey’s Mother-in-Law.” By that time, according to internal records, Treadway’s sister, who had left the company around March 2016, was still receiving unemployment.
According to the company’s former bookkeeper, Treadway’s mother-in-law was also his child’s nanny, but it’s unclear if Treadway was referring to her or another person in a May 18 email to the bookkeeper stating, “Putting a nanny on payroll.”
This was apparently the first time the bookkeeper was aware of this new employee: “She would need a new hire packet filled out. She will be paid out of management, correct?”
Treadway told the bookkeeper to pay her $3,000 a month and asked when she could get on the company’s insurance plan.
The financials were in such disarray that Foreign Correspondents bounced a $58 check to Spec’s in June 2016. The bookkeeper asked Cusack and Treadway for help continually, stating at one point, “My fear is that we will always be playing catch up.”
The company’s previous bookkeeper had left in late 2015, and her successor claimed to have inherited a mess and a possible crime scene: Thousands of dollars were unaccounted for, and it’s unclear if that’s when it struck Cusack and Treadway that maybe they shouldn’t have entrusted their empire to a bookkeeper who was already on probation for embezzlement when they hired her. It’s also unclear if this fact was disclosed to investors.
The new bookkeeper was also tasked with human resources work after the original HR director left. However, Cusack did state in an August 2016 email that he wanted to handle all unemployment claims, because he felt the former director was sabotaging the company. (The former HR director declined to comment for this story.)
“We haven’t lost a single case since I started doing it again, and [the former HR director] lost like ten, seemingly on purpose,” Cusack wrote. (Treadway, of course, told the bookkeeper in a March 29 email not to contest his sister’s unemployment claim.)
The bookkeeper was also having to field pleas from general managers about employees’ bounced checks.
On June 24, Down House’s general manager told the bookkeeper in an email that one employee “has two checks that the bank won’t let him cash. He’s saying that they are just turning him away at this point. Knowing who his checks are for, they just look at them and tell him there is no money in our account.”
The bookkeeper wasn’t immune from problems with her own paychecks; earlier that month, she told Cusack in an email that “my check [gets] held too, but I already know it will, so I plan accordingly.”
At one point, the bookkeeper informed Cusack that she had to cut reimbursement checks, “and there will be three [overdraft] fees on it from my check being held last week.”
Cusack kept a sunny outlook: “We will get through this. I often have to step back from the day to day in my mind and really think about why we are where we are, and I remind myself that we did something that is next to impossible — opening five concepts within one year and five days…When we make it through to the other side, we are going to be fucking bulletproof.”
And while Foreign Correspondents had jumped ahead of the pack to nab national accolades, some former employees of the restaurant told the Press they felt Cusack, Treadway and Mason paid little attention to the restaurant.
“In my opinion they did not set us up for success at all, I mean we spent the first month after opening with wires hanging from the ceiling in the women’s restroom and blue painter’s tape everywhere,” a former server told the Press via Facebook.
She added, “I very specifically remember my very first paycheck, from training, bouncing…a month before we even opened. And it never got better from there. There were literally pay periods, several in a row, where every single employee, including managers, had to be reissued new paychecks and it got to the point where none of our banks would accept them. It was a nightmare.”
She also wrote, “We did actively have insurance for a couple of months…then without being told one single word about it, the policies were canceled, but they continued to take 5 pay periods worth of it out of our check.” (Records reviewed by the Press show that, on at least one occasion, United Healthcare dropped Treadsack for nonpayment.)
The former server added, “I had the first part of a procedure done during the time we had the active insurance, everything was fine. I then had the second part of the procedure done during the time where I thought I had insurance…not so much fine…and again, never one single time, did they [Cusack, Treadway, or Mason] ever show their faces to talk to us about any of these issues.”
Iggy Olivera, the former line cook, also told the Press that his bank placed holds on his paychecks after enough of them bounced; at one point, because the funds hadn’t been released, an autodraft to the electric company didn’t go through, and his electricity was shut off.
Foreign Correspondents’ general manager wrote the bookkeeper in July 2016 that two employees had bounced checks; a dishwasher had two checks returned because, according to the bank, “neither of these checks have enough funds.”
“I’ll let you know if my check bounces, lol,” the manager wrote.
“Between you and I, you’re not the only one in that boat,” the bookkeeper replied. “My check from last week just got released yesterday. My overdraft fees are ridiculous.”
In the records of these messages obtained by the Press, Treadway intervened only when the bounced checks involved family members.
In February 2016, Treadway wrote the bookkeeper, “Did you write my sis and moms check on closed account [sic]? They aren’t going through.”
Four months later, Treadway still seemed unaware of the extent of the company’s payroll problems. In a June 20 email, he wrote the bookkeeper about his mother-in-law’s bounced check, asking, “We have issues with Treadsack payroll?”
The bookkeeper emailed Cusack about the bounced check, saying, “I know that he doesn’t know what’s going on.”
In the midst of the chaos, Cusack apparently gave one investor a positive report during a June 16 lunch meeting.
“It was great hearing how the restaurants and our partnership investments are doing well,” attorney Richard Rothfelder told Cusack in an email. But Rothfelder, who invested in five of the restaurants and bars, was concerned that he was still waiting on some checks and sales reports for Down House and D&T Drive Inn. (Rothfelder did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“Additionally, if you ever run into problems in the future that will affect the amount or timing of the partnership payments on any of the five restaurants I’ve invested in, please let me know,” Rothfelder wrote. “I’ll continue to work with you, but want to make sure we have full communication.”
That same month, as his employees’ checks bounced, Cusack went to the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, where he sat for an interview.
In a Q&A, Cusack talked about getting married right in the middle of an opening. Asked how he did that, Cusack responded:
“I don’t know, I feel like we’ve been trying to figure out our path from here. You know people, when they go through a traumatic experience? Afterward, you’re like…life is so much easier than it was before!”
Four months after the interview, and just ten months after his marriage, Cusack filed for divorce, citing “discord or conflict of personalities.” (Cusack’s wife declined to comment for this story.)
On December 2016,CultureMap
’s Eric Sandler wrote about Foreign Correspondents in typical Sandleresque fashion — sympathetic softballs to an old pal who, like a hipster Icarus, flew too close to the sun.
“In the turbulent world of Houston restaurants, even critically-acclaimed restaurants can struggle to find an audience,” Sandler proclaimed. But the article ended on an optimistic note, with Cusack saying, “We’re looking forward to what the future holds.”
Cusack told Sandler, “We put a lot of love, work, and money into the building, and we’d hate to see it just go away. We don’t have firm details on anything specific for the space right now, but we are discussing a number of options that we’re pretty excited about.” (Apparently they took the moving-out option: Phillip Pham, owner of the popular Vietnamese restaurant Hughie’s, told the Press last week he plans to open a new restaurant in the Foreign Correspondents/Canard space.)
Naturally, Cusack’s tweet after the restaurant’s closure focused on him, and not the freshly unemployed: “I’ve heard you’re not a real restaurateur until you close your first place. I guess I finally made it.”
Two days later, Sandler wrote about the shuttering of Foreign Correspondents’ partner bar, Canard. For the first time, Sandler broached the taboo subject of payroll problems.
“Paychecks bounced because the restaurant didn’t make any money,” Cusack said. “All those we’ve replaced or given cash on the spot,” he says. “I will never let anyone go unpaid.”
This was good enough for Sandler. But it ticked off a lot of employees. Ryan Cooper, the former general manager of Down House, took issue with Sandler’s article, kicking off a Facebook thread in which employees shared stories of how they’d worked themselves to the bone for restaurants and chefs they truly loved, only to be screwed by the owners. Some of them alluded to the fact that, while they had to wait a week for their checks to clear, Cusack treated himself to a Tesla — an expense that might be more understandable if the company weren’t bouncing $58 checks.
The employees felt like they were taking a risk by breaking their nondisclosure agreements, but they found the article, and Cusack’s platitudes, so distasteful that they had to say something.
Others posted anonymously in the story’s comments section, prompting Sandler to say in response, “We don’t make people use their real names in the comments on the site. They can say just about whatever they want with no accountability.”
Apparently, such accountability did not extend to Cusack; Sandler did not question anything Cusack said. He didn’t ask to see financials, didn’t look up public records and apparently didn’t speak with the rank and file.
In a Facebook response to a comment by Cusack, Sandler wrote, “As a journalist, I appreciate your professionalism throughout this whole process. I know it can’t be easy, but I think being direct with people will benefit you in the long run.”
But Cusack was not “direct” with the Press. For one thing, he was concerned about his former employees’ non-disclosure agreements, saying, “A lot of them seemed to have really violated it, and I’m not sure where that leaves us. And so I contacted my attorney, and he said he’ll get back to me.”
Cusack assured the Press that he really did want to talk, saying, “I’ll get back to you as soon as I speak with my attorney, and I’ll be happy to continue the conversation.”
Of course, Cusack did not continue the conversation. Although he told the Press he would provide a statement in lieu of answering questions, the statement was instead first posted to Facebook. In it, Cusack wrote of the sacrifices he and his partners had allegedly made to try to save Foreign Correspondents and Canard: “We stopped regularly depositing our own paychecks, often putting our own accounts into overdraft to make sure that all our employees would get paid in a timely manner. On top of that, my partners, Benjy Mason and Joey Treadway, poured tens of thousands of dollars of their own savings into the company to make sure that we could cover payroll and other expenses every week. Unfortunately, this still wasn’t enough.”
Cusack continued his PR campaign a few days after the January Press story about the company’s problems, appearing on a paid programming restaurant industry talk show hosted by Cleverley Stone. The talk show was yet another place for Cusack to make broad claims without support. Cusack seemed genuinely befuddled by the Press story, calling it “savage” and a “hit piece.” (Stone declined to comment for this story.)
In late January, the Houston Chronicle reported on chef Knight’s departure from Hunky Dory, a restaurant built almost entirely on his name.
“It’s been great, but it’s time for me to move on,” Knight told the paper. According to the story, “Treadsack owner Chris Cusack said Knight is parting on good terms to pursue other opportunities that include a project with his wife.”
Cusack also said that Laborde — the executive chef at Bernadine’s — would become Hunky Dory’s “culinary director.”
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Fortunately for Cusack, the setbacks have not deterred him from stepping in front of a camera. Looking serious and focused in a sportcoat, he graces the shellacked pages of the current issue of Houston CityBook.
In the piece, headlined “Don’t Tread on Me,” writer Daniel Renfrow notes that Cusack “is ready to take on 2017. He’s hosting bi-monthly restaurateur summits, and hopes that their discussions will help keep Houston in the national culinary spotlight.”
The piece includes a game in which readers can try to guess the “fake fact” among three statements about Cusack, including his first job, his shaving habits and the placement of a Bob Dylan tattoo.
Anyone looking closely should be able to spot the lie.