Wednesday, May 09, 2012

TOP STORY >> Diners go online in fight over eateries

Leader editor-in-chief

A food fight involving three Jacksonville restaurants has been simmering for months, if not years, and now has spilled over to Facebook, where the comments are as strong as the morning coffee.

The controversy went public last month, when supporters of Feastros, a struggling Jacksonville restaurant, posted comments critical of First Street Café. They’re both in the old Walmart shopping center near the air base.

Mark Spraight, Feastros’ owner, who served soul food in a town that has few minority-owned businesses, went on Facebook on April 17, the day before he closed, and blamed First Street Café for invoking a noncompete clause in its lease and forcing the landlord to shut Feastros. Spraight also claimed First Street’s owner used bullying tactics to get him out of the shopping center.

Within hours, Feastros supporters put up some 125 comments on Facebook. E-mails and phone calls to The Leader called First Street Café’s tactics shameful.

The owner of First Street Café denies he had anything to do with Feastros closing.

Here’s an additional twist: First Street has been accused of violating a noncompete agreement with a similar diner, Cody’s Cafe, which also serves plate lunches and was once owned by the family that’s involved with First Street.

Here are some sample postings on Facebook:

“This is not 1957, this is 2012 and we will not stand for the things that went on back then!” said one posting.

“What has happened to you is unbelievable in America in 2012. There is Rally’s and Sonic next door to each other, selling the same foods with McDonald’s across the street.”

At the end of last month, the Little Rock newspaper published a short item that mentioned Feastros’ claims that it was unfairly shut down.

Kevin Elrod was upset with the Little Rock paper for not running his side of the story until it ran a correction a week later.

Elrod insists he didn’t press the landlord, C.J. Cropper of the management firm Marcus and Millichap, to shut his competitor down. He also denied competing unfairly with Cody’s, because his parents owned it before they sold to new owners and they’re not in charge of his operation.

Elrod, 35, told us Monday that the first he’d found out about Feastros closing was on First Street’s Facebook page, where he posts the daily menu every morning. He was pilloried for driving Feastros out of business, for being un-American and worse. His Facebook page was removed Tuesday.

“I didn’t call anybody on him,” Elrod told us. “I was shocked when they closed down.”

“I didn’t have a noncompete clause — the landlord did,” he continued.

Elrod opened First Street Café in 2010. Feastros opened the next year after moving from Sherwood to Jacksonville.

First Street Café’s specialty is breakfast, plate lunches and hamburgers. He said the landlord had come to him and asked him if Feastros could serve barbecue, smoked meats and catfish in the evenings.

“He wasn’t supposed to be open when we were,” Elrod explained, but he also said he didn’t care if Feastros served barbecue in the middle of the day or in the evening. Elrod closes at 2 p.m.

Cropper ate at both places and discovered that Feastros started a buffet similar to what First Street Café was serving, Elrod said. The landlord told Feastros that was in violation of the lease and kicked out Feastros, which was behind in rent and was also in bankruptcy.

Elrod said, “I didn’t call the landlord or the mayor,” which he was also accused of on Facebook.

Cody’s, which also serves breakfast and plate lunches, was owned by Kevin Elrod’s parents, Jim and Karen. They opened Cody’s more than 20 years ago, when Kevin was a little boy. They sold Cody’s about four years ago and opened a restaurant in Cabot, which soon closed.

Jim and Karen Elrod signed a noncompete agreement with state Rep. Mark Perry, when he bought Cody’s from them.

“I’d like to know who really owns First Street Café,” Perry told us. “Kevin is their front to get around the noncompete agreement with Cody’s.”

Perry said the Elrods weren’t supposed to compete with him for five years. Even though he recently sold Cody’s to another couple, he says the noncompete agreement is still valid.

“It’s hurt us,” he said, referring to First Street. “People associate us with them all the time. They come into Cody’s and say they’ve eaten at the other restaurant. We have nothing to do with First Street Café.”

Karen Elrod insists Kevin owns the restaurant. “We have nothing to do with it,” she said.

She said she helps out at the restaurant when her son is sick, but otherwise she and her husband are trying to enjoy their retirement.

After reading comments on Facebook, she said, “You’d think the Elrods are the worst people in the world. It’s been the most bizarre thing we’ve been through. We’re never been the kind of people to put others out of business. We had nothing to do with it. We didn’t know they were going to shut down.”

It’s gotten so bad, she said, “people have threatened to blow up the shopping center.”

Spraight, Feastros’ owner, posted a note to Kevin Elrod:

“The only reason at the end of the day we lost our contract was because your mother was complaining about us to the landlord and that was the only reason he could use to get us out the contract!! I have recorded tapes!!”

But Spraight remains upbeat. He thinks he’ll reopen in a new location. “I have received a call from the city stating their position. They are aiding the search for a new location,” he said on Facebook.

His message to Elrod: “Love you brother and don’t worry I’ll be back!!!!!!!”