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A wanted man.


Howard Brooks' Hot Checks, Debts May Stop A Second L'Auberge Restaurant

Howard Brooks, former manager of L'Auberge Restaurant and Bakery in the English Village, hopes to learn this week whether he can open a new L'Auberge in the former Buster's West location in the Market Street Plaza.

Try telling that "good news" to Mary Louise Thompson, proprietor of the English Village shopping complex, site of the original L'Auberge.

"He owes everyone in the country," says Thompson as she rolls her eyes. "It's just incredible."

After six months of losing money -- at least $6,000-$7,000 a month -- Brooks abandoned L'Auberge in July 1990. To hear Thompson tell it, Brooks ran the once-successful restaurant straight into the ground, racking up a string of bad debts along the way.

Brooks pleaded guilty April 26 to $3,172 worth of hot checks he wrote on the L'Auberge account.

"I don't think I did anything wrong there," says Brooks. "For a while we were doing super."

Brooks says he had to pour $30,000 into advertising in one year to combat what he calls L'Auberge's main problem -- its location.

"I don't think I had a choice," says Brooks. "It was crucial that we get recognized. People would say, |English Village? Where is that?' They'd just draw a blank."

The English Village Brooks is referring to is a small, "old world" shopping complex located at 5500 Landers Road -- the access road in Sherwood that is home to multiple car lots, Sam's Wholesale Club and has been dubbed the "miracle mile" by area businessmen.

Brooks contends it may be a great place to sell cars and buy discount groceries, but not to run a high-class restaurant -- especially when competition enters the neighborhood.

Months ago, Brooks was quoted in Arkansas Business saying that the large chain restaurants popping up in the McCain Mall area -- the Olive Garden Italian Restaurant, Chili's Grill and Bar, TGI Friday's -- caused him to lose the small amount of business for which he was already fighting and forced him to close his doors.

After Mary Louise Thompson read Brooks was considering opening up another L'Auberge in west Little Rock, she had had enough and called to say so.

"He never put the money back into the business. That's what it amounted to," says Thompson. "It was just a matter of mismanagement on his part."

Not surprisingly, Thompson's version -- and opinions -- of what happened with L'Auberge are radically different than Brooks'.

What is not opinion is that Thompson and a long list of other people and businesses are still trying to collect debts Brooks owes on the original L'Auberge.

Meanwhile the restaurant sits vacant.

Attracting Debt

Mary Louise Thompson sadly shakes her head as she walks through the 3,500 SF that used to be L'Auberge.

"This is a beautiful addition to the city," says Thompson of the English Village as she points to the antique turquoise iron work she and her husband, Harrell Thompson, brought over from England. Thompson also notes the original English wooden facade that leads into the restaurant.

A service table still holds rows of flower vases and salt shakers ready to be put on the dining tables. But a phone on the wall is pulled from its jack and the expansive upstairs and downstairs dining areas are quiet.

The Thompsons started the English Antiques Gallery in 1979 and began adding other tenants to their English Village in 1986. Harrell Thompson thought a restaurant would help attract customers to the area.

Thompson and Jean Claude Bridoux opened L'Auberge in February 1987, and L'Auberge quickly established a reputation for quality. "Memorable" is how a full-page Arkansas Times review described the food.

Customers agreed, and monthly gross receipts were regularly $25,000 to $30,000.

But competition began to hurt the business.

"Business went down because the new plaza behind McCain Mall -- Lakewood Village -- took a chunk out of our business," says Bridoux, who owned the restaurant for two years.

L'Auberge never went into the red under Bridoux, but before he left, the restaurant was barely breaking even.

"Where we were located, we needed all we could get, and the little bit we lost hurt," says Bridoux.

Like Brooks, Bridoux put what he considered a substantial amount of money -- $1,000 a month -- into advertising to combat the problem of the location.

The restaurant's second owners, Robert Criswell and Randy Reed, operated the restaurant for less than a year before one of their cooks, Howard Brooks, began subleasing from them and then took over the lease in January of 1990.

"In January, my husband was so sick we just let him take over the lease hoping he'd be able to run it," says Thompson.

In less than a few months time, though, Thompson noticed the quality of the food and the cleanliness of the restaurant were diminishing.

Brooks often didn't open the restaurant at its regular hours. Thompson eventually had to refuse rent checks and demand cash because all Brook's checks were hot.

When Brooks just quit coming to the restaurant in July 1990, Thompson had to call a locksmith to get in because Brooks had changed the locks. Then Thompson spent $2,500 cleaning the place.

Thompson attended to her ailing husband until his death in November 1990, then in January she began actively trying to lease the former L'Auberge location.

Thompson's losses since Brooks left have so far totalled $20,000, and she says the damage lingers as Brooks continues to say it was the location, not his managerial style, that caused L'Auberge to fail.

Hot Hot Hot

Howard Brooks is a small man, and his low-key manner of speaking -- his most physical expression is a slight wince -- makes him appear even more unassuming than he is.

When Brooks read negative comments about his business practices, his most vocal reaction was, "I'm not pleased with what I read."

Brooks is only 27, he never went to college, and the only managerial experience he had before L'Auberge was at a management training course for Wendy's and six-month stint as a manager of a restaurant in Louisiana.

If Brooks wasn't in over his head when he started at L'Auberge, he was by the time he left.

The Sherwood Police department picked him up on a hot check charge at the restaurant last summer. But that was only the beginning of Brooks' financial troubles.

The city of Sherwood -- once it locates him -- wants to sue Brooks for not paying the city's hamburger tax, and several area businesses have collection agencies after him for bills he owes ranging from as little as $50 to almost $5,000.

While Brooks saw sales increase when he took over L'Auberge, eight to 10 weeks later he began losing $5,000-$6,000 a month.

But Brooks was gung-ho to make his business work.

Brooks had KOLL-Cool 95 FM land a hot air balloon near his restaurant for publicity, he created a "Diner's Club" coupon that customers could use at the restaurant, and he even created a L'Auberge newsletter.

But for all of Brook's earnestness, his efforts failed.

Big Bad Debts

Brooks still owes KOLL $1,200, and there are several angry customers who didn't get to use the coupons they paid for before L'Auberge closed.

Brooks has a list of reasons for what went wrong.

"I don't have anything against Ms. Thompson," Brooks says, "She just didn't know what was going on."

While L'Auberge's location was his biggest complaint, Brooks says, "You talk about mismanagement -- when you have someone running a complex, you have to have some sort of responsibility as for advertising."

Brooks feels Thompson didn't do enough to advertise the English Village, and "I stuck my neck out on a line to try and promote the place."

There was also a credit card fiasco where the company that was servicing Brooks' credit cards folded and he was left with $15,000 worth of unpaid meals.

Brooks turned to a minority business development organization for help.

"They told me to close it," says Brooks of his sudden departure. "The flow of traffic has shifted and it's going to be a while before they start building up there."

Brooks also worried about employee theft and says that's why he had the locks changed.

Brooks isn't anxious to talk about what happened, but he also says, "I don't have anything to hide. I'm just trying to focus on where I'm going."

Noose Around The Neck

While Brooks is ready to open a new L'Auberge, there are several things standing in his way.

The name, for one.

"I bet he hasn't even checked to see if the name is registered," says Thompson, "And it is a registered trademark."

There are also questionable aspects about the new business.

Brooks says part of the money he's using to start the restaurant is from his profits at L'Auberge.

"I understand the money I made was mine and the restaurant's was the restaurant's," says Brooks.

But that's not what his creditors say.

Brooks also says he has other investors, but he won't say who.

"We have everything we need to make this go, but it's not definite till it's definite," says Brooks.

There are some who are confident Brooks' new endeavor could succeed.

"He wasn't the best manager I ever worked for," says Brooks' former employee Maria Schroeder, "but he would have done OK with a better location -- the location is lousy, off an access road."

Keith McFarlin of Barnes Quinn Flake & Anderson Inc. is currently trying to lease the space and says, "There's been a lot of activity and interest on the space, but from what I'm seeing" the retail market is not good right now.

And the restaurant business may not be good for Brooks right now, either.

There are too many people waiting for Brooks to make a dollar so they can get their money back.

"We can't find him, so we're waiting for the restaurant to open so we can serve him with a subpoena," says KOLL General Manager Steve McNamara. "We'll be his first customers, along with the sheriff."

Carrie Rengers Arkansas Business Staff
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on Howard Brook's creditors; Howard Brooks
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 6, 1991
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