Thursday, November 12, 2009
There are two Morgan Christophers.
There’s the charismatic coffeehouse king who turned a blighted corner into downtown Monterey’s most popular café, breathed life into a tricky space next to Osio Cinemas, and transformed Sand City into the hip place to drink in killer craft beer, fair trade coffee, savvy conversation and edgy art. There’s the man admired because he brought a big city buzz to a tiny town, spawned arguably three of the most popular coffee shops in the county and accomplished what people said couldn’t be done.
But while one Christopher was accomplishing the impossible, the other did what you can’t do. In an at-times claustrophobic business community, he ruffled feathers, burned bridges – and, at least sometimes, didn’t pay his bills, his employees or his taxes.
Christopher can be a personable host, perfection-seeking purveyor and amusing raconteur. He can also be a notoriously intense, articulate adversary and a self-confessed “lousy businessman.”
The Ol’ Factory Café, which opened in May 2007, was his biggest challenge – getting people to go to Sand City for something besides Costco – and he pulled it off. He beat the odds. The West End hub had to be his greatest victory.
But he broke the rules. Now it may turn into his worst defeat.
• • •
Christopher’s entry into the Monterey coffee scene was a matter of choice – and chance, he recalls.
Before opening Morgan’s Coffee & Tea in 1993, the 51-year-old Los Angeles native was a manager at Claremont Hotel in the Berkeley Hills. Christopher, who studied sociology in college (“I should have studied economics”), found himself unwinding after long days at the hotel in North Beach coffeehouses. Around then, he read a book on the history of cafes and wrote up a business plan for his own coffee shop.
“I was looking for a location that was in a small town, kind of near a main drag but not on the main drag,” he says. “A corner location would be interesting, preferably an architecturally-interesting building.”
On his way down to L.A. from the Bay Area, he passed through Monterey and saw 498 Washington St., the historic stone Herald Building.
With a knack for inventive marketing that has served him well over the years, he held sit-ins to allow his customers to use the adjacent plaza, held poetry readings and presided over an eclectic music scene. His whiteboard was known for philosophical quotations and pointed jokes about Monterey public figures.
An independent business champion, he brought a uniquely urban, aggressive style – and a sharp sense of the absurd – to laid-back Monterey.
On April Fool’s Day 2000, he “announced” that Morgan’s had been sold to its arch-enemy, Starbucks, taking it further by issuing Starbucks banners, cups, napkins, t-shirts and aprons to his startled employees, who took a while to get the joke.
He flirted with downtown politics, running for mayor in 2002 and challenging Dan Albert. (He lost.)
Matt Talley, a tattooed Carmel Valley-born latte artist who joined Morgan’s toward the end of Christopher’s run there, describes the roasting company as a “pirate ship,” with competitive baristas who weren’t allowed to man the espresso machine until they made Morgan a cappuccino that met his standards.
Christopher, who also owned a bakery on Alvarado Street, sold Morgan’s in 2003, saying he felt restless and was considering a move to New England.
But he couldn’t stay away from the java business, taking an interest in a narrow and neglected space tucked into the corner of Osio Cinemas.
Talley describes the spot as a “black hole” which had swallowed three businesses in the previous last six months. “There was nothing happening,” Talley says. “He came in and gave it life.” Christopher started Café Noir (now Café Lumiere) and turned it into a popular study spot and get-your-mocha-before-a-movie business.
While Morgan was still running Noir, former Pacific Grove mayor Dan Cort approached Christopher about a renovated factory building in Sand City, where workers once pressed black plastic Couroc trays.
Cort, who owned the building, wanted to transform it into a draw for Sand City’s burgeoning live/work artist community. At the time, the Design Center, a four-story building with retail space and lofts, was under development.
“Morgan did a good job at Morgan’s and Morgan did a good job at Osio,” Cort says. “I saw Sand City as a place at the end of the Rec Trail. It’s got this really special flavor.”
Christopher says he saw potential in the industrial patch, that it “could be that South of Market, Greenwich Village kind of thing. I stupidly thought, ‘Hey, this was kind of like Manhattan.’”
He says he took a line of equity on a family house in L.A. to fund the costly, oft-delayed $400,000 construction, bringing in eco-friendly materials, solar power, hip design and postmodern art to the funky confab of corrugated tin and recycled wood.
Christopher wanted it to be Sand City’s first true “third place,” a spot away from home and work to have free discussion and meet new friends. “It should be a place where the person feels welcome and comfortable, and where it is easy to enter into conversation,” the Ol’ Factory’s website says.
He assembled an impressive team for the ’07 opening – chef Rick Edge, wine-beer maestro Thamin Saleh and curator Lisa Coscino. Talley came on as a manager, too.
As word of mouth spread, the Ol’ Factory became a destination for people like Bill Samuels, who moved to the Peninsula from San Francisco for an attorney job but still craved the café scene of the city. “I could not have made it as long in Monterey without this place being around,” Samuels says, adding that one of the main reasons he moved into the Design Center was so he could walk to the Ol’ Factory for a fair trade latte or Green Flash IPA. There really is nowhere else in the area where you can walk in and engage in intelligent conversation with a stranger, he says.
Morgan and his staff hosted quirky spelling bees, pajama parties and boisterous gathering. Christopher proved as discerning about his beers as he was about his coffee and teas, pouring picks like Weihenstephaner Vitus (from the “world’s oldest brewery’’) and Arrogant Bastard American Strong Ale that drew plaudits from Monterey Beer Festival chief Jeff Moses and thebeergeek.com. “Our Bay Area beer friends who have stopped in have been pleasantly surprised by our little slice of heaven,” the beergeek blog reads.
Menu items like fish tacos and steak ‘n’ frites were justly enjoyed, and huevos rancheros and veggie omelets made it a popular stopping point for weekend brunchers.
Carmel Valley music promoter Greg Pool says the Ol’ Factory filled a niche for touring folk and indie bands, all the more critical since Monterey Live closed, making it one of the only spots for live music in Seaside-Sand City.
And on special occasions, like the election of Barack Obama, the place became celebration central.
“That night is going to be up there with the birth of my kids,” Christopher says. “It was unreal. I thought the bolts were going to pop out of this building. There were about 250 to 300 people screaming their brains out.
“At 8 o’clock, when they called California – it was chilling.”
The scores of people that spilled into the street represented a dramatic departure from its previous existence. The Contra Costa street strip was a “ghost town,” Talley says, until the Ol’ Factory got going.
“It’s got people who went there every single day and don’t want to see it go,” he says. “It has taken Morgan – his name, his reputation, and his wallet – to get it there.”
But, as was the case with his other local ventures, it didn’t last.
Rumors that had circulated for weeks were confirmed when the Ol’ Factory closed Oct. 4, with a note posted on its window, and a longer, rambling message from Christopher on its website (www.olfactorycafe.com/thebasics.html).
Morgan blamed an unexpected, nearly $44,000 sewer connection bill from the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency, among other problems, but later took responsibility for the café’s undoing: “We suffer through a lot of things, but most glaringly, the Ol’ Factory suffers an owner who allowed all of it to continue… Ultimately, a business is the owner’s responsibility, not the employees’. The mess is my doing.”
He is concerned about getting a fair shake – or a potential bum rap. “I am someone who likes a big vision and then has stumbled famously and publicly trying to fund those ideas,” he writes in an e-mail to the Weekly. “But this isn’t Watergate. I’m not Bernie Madoff. There is no grassy knoll. There is no conspiracy to bilk others or to cause harm to anyone. Certainly, no one is harmed anywhere near the degree I have been financially and [in] terms of how this has impacted my own health.”
• • •
Questions about how he conducts business have long surrounded Christopher.
Despite its popularity, Morgan’s Coffee & Tea ran into problems within a few years. The feds and state have been after him to pay his business taxes since 1995, according to liens filed in the Monterey County Recorder’s Office. By 1996 he’d filed for bankruptcy, claiming that a “woman from L.A. who ran a bar in the area” cheated him and other businesses for a lot of money, exacerbating his financial problems.
He sold the business and bakery to Herb Evans and Dean McAthie of Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting for $400,000 and signed a restrictive non-competition clause, which barred him from opening a café within a three-mile radius of Morgan’s. His opening of Noir prompted a lawsuit from Evans. The non-competition clause had a value of $25,000 and Evans sued him for twice as much. “I enjoy the guy when I’m around him,” Evans says. “It’s just hard to be in business with him because you don’t know if he is going to live up to any agreement that he made.”
Noir was also a bad breakup. Christopher didn’t see eye to eye with his landlord and his term ended abruptly. Christopher says Mark Borde of Central Coast Cinemas, LLC, tried to raise rents and the spot became unaffordable. Borde says they couldn’t come to agreement on the terms of the lease and he evicted Christopher, fully within his rights as landlord. Borde declined to discuss what kind of tenant Christopher was. “I have no interest in stirring up old muddy water,” he says.
The pattern of great scene making and iffy business practices continued.
By the time he was ready to open Ol’ Factory in May 2007, Christopher says, he wasn’t left with much operating cash. The mechanic’s liens showed unpaid plumbing and electrical bills totalling over $50,000. (Christopher says he is trying to pay them.)
Cort moved to sell the building to then-tenant Kevin “Robbie” Robinson of Carmel Stone Imports but was held up by a lien filed by artist John Chappell for close to $4,000 in ceramic tile and stone façades. “[Chappell] didn’t want to involve me in a debt that wasn’t my fault,” Cort says, “but it was the only way he saw that he could get his money from Morgan.”
Chappell says his mistake was doing the work on a handshake. “He gave me one payment half way through,” he says. “He balked at the final payment, claiming my work was inferior.” Cort ended up paying off Chappell so he could complete the sale.
Separately, Chappell, a member of the Sand City Arts Committee, says he was the first artist to hang his wall art in the Ol’ Factory and provided a 300-pound stone lamp that he says disappeared after he filed his lien. Chappell took Christopher to small claims court and lost. “I think I have the first honor of being 86’d from his restaurant, even before it opened,” Chappell says.
Christopher says Chappell didn’t do the stone work as he requested, and Cort’s decision to pay the bill “completely undermined my right as a private businessman to have the work we had commissioned redone.” As for Chappell’s lamp, Christopher says the artist picked it up and Chappell “hatched this plan as some sort of misguided ‘revenge’ scheme.”
Rick Edge, one of Ol’ Factory’s seven kitchen managers, says he consulted there between February and May 2007, running the kitchen and throwing a party catered by cooks from the Culinary Center of Monterey. But Edge says Christopher never paid him, and he left after all the kitchen equipment was repossessed.
“You can’t run a business paycheck to paycheck,” Edge says, “and that was what was going on.”
Edge adds that he ran into Christopher in Smart & Final and told him he was surprised he showed his face in public. Christopher responded with a letter – his common calling card – saying his potatoes were greasy and that his leaving was no loss, Edge says.
Christopher says paying Edge for his time at Ol’ Factory wasn’t part of their agreement and “the business wasn’t in a financial position to have paid regardless.”
Talley admits Christopher was a hardheaded perfectionist: “The amount of pressure that Morgan put on his kitchen managers is pretty intense. A lot of them broke.”
The IRS was still tracking tax payments from 2003. A September 2008 federal tax lien said he owed more than $142,000. Christopher says the lien has been somewhat paid down. An IRS spokesman declined to discuss the lien due to privacy and disclosure laws.
His landlord says he also owes thousands of dollars in back rent and outstanding security deposit. “I could have three-day-noticed the man every day for the last two and half years,” Robinson says, adding that while he’s been patient with Christopher, there’s no excuse for not taking care of his debtors. “Nobody made him not write those checks. I’ve heard the sob stories and [how] it’s everybody else’s fault. How could it be someone else’s fault? He collected the taxes and he didn’t pay them.”
Cort agrees: “There is no excuse, no rationale for mistreating people, not paying your bills, not showing respect for the people you work with.”
Christopher says the Ol’ Factory started out very slow and took every dollar he could get to stay open. “All of the money goes back into the day-to-day operations of the business to try to force it forward,” he says.
He also says he didn’t have solid bookkeeping: “When you don’t know where the hemorrhaging is happening, you can’t make adjustments.”
• • •
Groups of Ol’ Factory loyalists – beer snobs, young progressives and knitters – chat and eat potluck food: spinach dip, pizza and pita chips. A list of ways to save the Ol’ Factory circulates, from a raffle to a micro-loan. Christopher called the meeting to rally the troops and seek potential solutions for the cause.
Back from a self-imposed sabbatical seeing his family in Florida, the gray-goateed entrepreneur grabs a microphone and stands in front of the baby grand piano with about 100 devoted followers listening. He opens with a Letterman-like list of false rumors he’s heard on why Ol’ Factory closed, plays nice with Sand City officials – Councilman Jerry Blackwelder is in attendance – and says he just wants the place to work, with or without him. “I feel like I burned down your house,” he says.
After a run through of Ol’ Factory-saving proposals – memberships, divvying the business up like a timeshare, a reality show – he admits he owes payroll and resale taxes totaling between $100,000-$120,000.
The bottom line: He needs a plan to pay off his debt and someone else to come in and help him run the business. “Being the only one running this is not working and assistance is crucial right now,” he tells the crowd. “I don’t want to be 100 percent owner. I don’t want to be the face of the place, really.”
While there are lots of people who say they’re willing to help, Christopher doesn’t want people writing checks until the house is in better order. One woman suggests plaques on the wall for donors for a “Save Morgan” campaign. “Not ‘Save Morgan,’” Christopher says. “That wouldn’t work if I was standing on a cliff.”
• • •
Christopher is holed up in the Ol’ Factory. The curtains are drawn. Jazz fills the high-ceilinged room. Just a shaft of sun sneaks in from a fake stained-glass window. In the glow of the laptop’s screen – and in the face of stacks of bills and paperwork – his eyes look tired. The list of “preliminary funding” ideas is tacked to the umbrella of a beer-barrel table.
He says he may step back from the operation entirely. “Right now, trying to make everyone happy isn’t necessarily my first concern,” he says. “My first concern is handling the debts of the business, however that has to be done.”
“I don’t know what is going to happen but this can’t go on too long,” Christopher says, adding that he plans to pay rent for November and see if an angel investor flies in. It’s unclear how much time he has left. Robinson says lots of people are interested in the property and Christopher has serious defaults on his lease. Lawyers are involved, and the beleagured tenant is trying to hold his ground.
Old associates are long gone. Talley is back working next to Osio, free from the stresses of management, relieved to be making thick lattes with leaf designs. He was the only employee to work with Christopher through all three businesses, but the stress was too much. After five years, he wanted out.
“My job security wasn’t safe,” he says. He ended up taking a job at Café Lumiere. The two had a falling out and “traded some nasty e-mails,” Talley says.
Nevertheless, Talley hopes his former boss can somehow get through his latest round of troubles.
“As many people as he’s pissed off,” Talley says, “he still doesn’t need to go down in a ball of flames.”
Despite all the travails, at the Weekly’s press time, Christopher remained hopeful, saying he’s talking with three different restaurateurs about saving the day.
“I’ve hit a chord, and there’s a lot of interest in keeping it going,” he says, adding that no deal is finalized, and he doesn’t know when the Ol’ Factory might reopen.
“The situation I created is just not easy to resolve,” Christopher says. “There will be a café in Sand City, one way or another.”
And if resurrection fails?
“I’m going to pack up my shit and get out of Monterey.”