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French restaurateurs may have been serving up fraud

- D.A. is investigating after smorgasbord of complaints

By KELLY NIX

Published: February 5, 2010


FRANCIS AND Christine Richard received glowing reviews for their short-lived French restaurants, Chez Christine in Carmel and Bistro Christine in Monterey, and for restaurants they operated earlier in Hollister and Gilroy.

By all accounts, the food they prepared for their customers was outstanding and won them many fans.

But three weeks into opening a new restaurant in Pacific Grove — Le Normandie — the Richards are facing allegations they’ve bilked landlords out of rent, stiffed restaurant suppliers and duped well meaning customers into lending them money.

Their total indebtedness may be more than $400,000, according to more than a dozen people interviewed for this story.

Some of their unpaid creditors have even accused the French couple of creating phony medical problems to attain sympathy and solicit loans.

The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office has taken notice of the Richards’ business practices, telling The Pine Cone its consumer fraud unit has launched a criminal investigation.

Bad luck?

Christine Richard acknowledged she and her husband face a mountain of debt. But she said their extensive unpaid bills are the result of a bad economy, bad luck and a string of ongoing family health problems. She insisted she and her husband want to repay the loans they’ve been given. “To survive, I borrowed money,” an emotional Richard told The Pine Cone. “I promised to pay people back. I did it in good faith, and every time, something went wrong.”

According to some of the people they owe money to, however, the couple has done little to make amends.

Some of those who helped the Richards told The Pine Cone they were captivated by Christine Richard’s charm and soft French accent. Often, Christine would sit with patrons and chat. She also lamented about her family’s financial woes.

“She’s a sweetheart,” said one creditor. “She’s somebody you want to help.”

“She is masterful at her stories,” said another person who lent them money. Both didn’t want to be identified for this story because they’re still hoping to be repaid.

Carmel resident Charles Brauer said he helped the Richards after hearing of their hardships in running Chez Christine, the Carmel restaurant on Junipero Street the Richards owned until December 2008.

“I was in there having a late lunch, and Christine came up in tears and explained some story,” Brauer said. “She begged me to help, and I did.”

When the Richards didn’t pay him back the $6,200 he loaned them, he filed a small claims lawsuit against the couple in Monterey County. The judge awarded Brauer the money. So far, Brauer said he’s only received two small payments.

“She promised she would start paying things back in February,” he said.


Problems go way back

A frequent patron of another restaurant operated by the Richards, 427 Bistro, which opened in 2005 on San Benito Street in Hollister, experienced a similar situation.

“She always had these stories about how sick her husband was,” said the man, who declined to be identified.

Feeling sorry for the Richards, the customer said he gave Christine several loans, which added up to about $10,000.

“She came to me and asked if I could loan her money and she would pay me back,” he said. “She’s very convincing.”

Though the man said Christine sent him an email message indicating she would pay him back, he told The Pine Cone he hasn’t seen a cent.

Atherton couple Carolyn and Richard Dewey sued the Richards last summer for $4,149.65 after they loaned the restaurateurs money. A judge ruled in the Deweys’ favor, but Richard Dewey told The Pine Cone he hasn’t been paid.

In June 2008, Carmel Valley winery Joyce Vineyards sued the Richards for $2,418 for wine it supplied. A Monterey County judge ruled in the winery’s favor.

Some bills are much higher

Oakland private investigator Mike Spencer told The Pine Cone he was hired by a San Francisco Bay Area man who is trying to collect at least $100,000 from the Richards.

Spencer said he spoke to people in Monterey and San Benito counties who had business ties with the French couple to determine the likelihood his client could recover the money. “Very sadly, I tried to tell him it doesn’t look too good,” Spencer said. “You start to see that they have left a lot of victims in their wake.”

Others told The Pine Cone they also had loaned the Richards money but didn’t want to be identified in a news story.

Christine Richard agreed that she and her husband are overwhelmed with bills, which she said have even prevented them from owning a cell phone.

But their new gig at Le Normandie, Christine hopes, will give them another chance to repay the money they owe.

“We are having a hard time,” she said. “When you borrow from Peter, Paul and Jack, and something goes wrong, it’s worse.”

Though the Richards could have filed for bankruptcy to wipe away much of their debt, Christine said they didn’t want to do that. They had borrowed money in good faith with the intent to repay her lenders, she insisted.

“I can’t go and rob a bank,” she said. “I do want to pay people back.”

To pay bills, the couple even considered selling a house Richard said they own in Normandy, but decided against it because of the poor housing market.

“We have nothing left,” she said, crying.

Richard said she and her husband are in the process of trying to find a lawyer to consolidate their finances.

Meanwhile, Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Megan Carter confirmed her office is investigating the Richards’ business practices.

“All I can tell you is that we have received inquiries into our office, and we are looking into the matter,” Carter said. “We are currently in the initial investigation stage.”

Wrong from the start?

The Richard couple’s first attempt at running a restaurant on the Monterey Peninsula was in Carmel, when they took over Buon Giorno Bakery and Cafe, a restaurant owned by Judie and Bob Profeta, who own Alain Pinel Realtors.

Judie Profeta said she and her husband rented the Richards the restaurant space for a monthly rent of $2,000, and an upstairs apartment for $2,100. The restaurant was renamed Chez Christine.

“We gave her below-market rents,” Profeta said. “And when we sold her the business, we did not charge her for it. We tried very hard to be helpful, and still we did not get paid rent.”

Profeta said the Richards owe her about $30,000 and that she has only received four small payments.

After Chez Christine closed, the Richards rented a space on Alvarado Street in Monterey and opened Bistro Christine.

The Monterey County Weekly last summer gave restaurant a gushing review, calling the duck confit “supremely moist and tender, its gently browned skin both beautiful and tasty.” In the same review, the Weekly quoted Christine as saying her “grandmother cooked for Charles de Gaulle” and that her relatives served “Russian cosmonauts, American astronauts and political VIPs.”

But that didn’t matter to the Richards’ Monterey landlord, who merely wanted to the couple to pay their rent. He eventually gave them a three-day notice and they vacated the building.

“They never paid the full rent, not one month,” said the landlord, who did not want to be named. “They were there about six months. Then I saw the writing on the wall, and I gave notice.”

Still some believers

The Richards have their supporters, though. Nancy Lewis of Carmel has known Richards for about 15 years, including when the couple owned Cafe De Paris in Blackhawk Plaza in Danville. Lewis said tales of deceit don’t match the description of the couple she knows.

“The Richards are wonderful people,” said Lewis. “I have known them for quite awhile. I trust them.”

After Christine Richard told Lewis she and her husband might move back to France because of their money problems, Lewis convinced them to stay on the Peninsula and helped them financially.

“If it wasn’t for Nancy, we would have been on the street,” Christine Richard said.

The Richards’ hardships led Lewis, who has never owned a restaurant before, to finance Le Normandie in Pacific Grove. The restaurant opened three weeks ago in the corner of the Holman Building on Lighthouse Avenue.

“Their son recently was recently diagnosed with melanoma stage 4 skin cancer,” Lewis told The Pine Cone. “He wasn’t able to help his parents anymore. That’s why I decided to help open this business.”

Michael Katakis, an author who resides in Carmel and Paris, said he and his wife, Kris Hardin, were frequent patrons of Chez Christine.

One day in 2007, Christine — whom Katakis characterized as an acquaintance — called and asked for a $1,000 loan. “I said, ‘Let’s do an exchange,’” Katakis said. “I’ll pay you in advance for dinners in the future.’”

Over a course of several months, the couple regularly ate at the French restaurant until the loan had been fulfilled with meals.

“Every time we had dinner there, Christine provided me a sheet showing where we were in the account,” Katakis explained. “Every time I looked at it, it was spot on.”

Everyone The Pine Cone interviewed was unequivocal about one thing — the Richards’ food is special.

“He’s probably one of the best chefs,” Judie Profeta said of Francis Richard.

Carmel Valley resident Pete Osborne said he and his wife, Dee Dee, have followed the Richards to their three restaurants on the Peninsula, and they’ve never had a bad meal.

“We have eaten at Chez Christine, Bistro Christine and now Le Normandie,” Osborne said, “and have had wonderful food experiences at all of these.”

In a column in the Jan. 14 issue of the Monterey County Herald, a food writer, in mentioning Le Normandie’s opening, remarked “the food prepared by Francis and Christine has always been stellar, but mismanagement appears to be the bugaboo for this couple.”

Medical claims

Perhaps most disturbing are allegations that the Richards exaggerated or even faked medical conditions to garner sympathy and loans from restaurant patrons and friends.

A series of 2007 fundraisers at Chez Christine in Carmel were staged to raise money for the couple after they said Francis suddenly had a dire diagnosis. The Pine Cone interviewed several people who said Christine Richard frequently claimed that her husband and son, Christophe, were seriously sick with various types of cancer.

Katakis was one of them. “Christine mentioned illness of their son and husband many, many times,” he said. “Her son initially had melanoma, then colon cancer.”

Richard told The Pine Cone last week Le Normandie would be closed for two days because her son was scheduled to have colon cancer surgery at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital. But then she said the surgery had been postponed. “We had complications with the insurance company,” she said.

Asked about Christophe’s cancer, Lewis said the Richards’ son couldn’t be reached on the phone because he had dental problems and couldn’t speak.

But to dispel doubt among skeptics who believe the Richards have feigned cancer to gain sympathy, Christine said she would provide medical records right away to prove that her husband and son had genuine illnesses.

On Tuesday, however, she said she needed another week to come up with the documents. And on Thursday, restaurant owner Nancy Lewis left a stern voicemail message:

“I want this whole harassment to stop,” Lewis said. “We are not going to give anymore interviews or information, and if anything more of this comes of this harassment and this National Enquirer point of view, then I’ll get my lawyer involved. This is it, Kelly. Stop it.”

In a subsequent phone call with Pine Cone publisher Paul Miller, Lewis threatened to sue the newspaper if this story were published. But when asked to provide any evidence that the Richards’ claims of cancer were true, she angrily refused.

“Where do you get the right to ask for that?” she said.

But it was because of the Richards’ medical issues that Carmel residents offered their generosity. Pebble Beach resident Amy Funt helped organize the 2007 fundraisers for the Richards to keep Chez Christine afloat in light of a serious illness Funt and others were told was cancer.

“Christine Richard, the chef/owner, needs patronage and public support,” said publicity for one of the fundraisers. “Since her husband was recently diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, she has been running the restaurant herself.”

The fundraising dinners — each of which cost $50 per person and featured a classic French entrée — brought in substantial sums for the Richards.

At some point, however, sympathy for the couple waned. Doubts about the Richards’ cancer claims surfaced as the couple’s bills mounted.

“Many people in the community acted in good faith,” Funt said. “And I’m deeply troubled about the stories I have heard about non-repayment of loans.”

Last year, while the Richards ran Bistro Christine in Monterey, they held a similar fundraising event for their son’s treatment, according to a woman who knows the family.

“They raised thousands of dollars for Christophe,” she said.

Though Michael Katakis said he has not heard the rumors the Richards’ medical problems have been overstated, he said he would be disheartened if the allegations were true, especially since his wife has cancer.

“If it turned out she were exaggerating illness, I would be surprised,” he said. “I’m not saying I can’t be fooled, but I would be surprised.”