Downtown Eastside social enterprise Save on Meats faces multiple lawsuits

The owner of Save On Meats says that despite facing several lawsuits and a tumultuous two years in which several of his businesses were closed, sold or relocated, it’s business as usual at his well-known Downtown Eastside diner and butcher shop.

Mark Brand behind the counter of Save On Meats butcher shop. The social enterprise business is facing several lawsuits alleging unpaid bills 

The owner of Save On Meats says that despite facing several lawsuits and a tumultuous two years in which several of his businesses were closed, sold or relocated, it’s business as usual at his well-known Downtown Eastside diner and butcher shop.

Court documents show Mark Brand is being sued for $324,000 by restaurant supplier Sysco Canada for allegedly failing to pay invoices between May 2011 and April 2013.

In a response, Brand says Sysco did not honour an agreement to give a discount to Save On Meats. Brand claims Sysco had agreed to charge him less because Save On Meats hires people with barriers to employment and operates a meals program for Downtown Eastside residents.

Court documents also show Save On Meats has made arrangements to pay back a total of $407,495 in taxes in arrears.

Brand has filed a counter suit, claiming damages for misrepresentation and unlawful interference with contractual relations. 

In a separate lawsuit, Cintas Canada, a uniform supplier, alleges Brand owes the company $21,077. Brand counters in his court filings that the contract was signed by an unauthorized staff member and is therefore invalid.

Brand is also named in two small claims cases. Joanne Griffiths, who partnered to buy and run a charity with Brand in 2012, filed a case in April 2014 claiming Brand owes her $3,000 after she decided she no longer wanted to be involved in the charity and agreed to be bought out in February 2013.

In documents filed with the court, Brand wrote that A Better Life Foundation is not in a position to pay Griffiths now, but that Griffiths is welcome to donate the $3,000 and get a tax receipt. The case is due to go before a mediator in November.

Calen Knauf, a graphic designer, started a small claims case against Brand in 2012, claiming Brand owes him $6,000 for a website. According to a counterclaim Brand filed, the restaurateur claimed that missed “deliverables” on the project had caused him to lose $150,000 worth of business.

Court documents show that Brand's counterclaim was dismissed after Brand failed to attend a mediation session in June.  

None of the allegations in these lawsuits have been proven in court. Brand nevertheless says all the lawsuits are without merit and he is confident he will win.

“We’re really good operators and we’re really honest, but we also won’t be bullied,” Brand said. “So I will never back down from a legal position.”

Brand became well-known in Vancouver after being featured in a Vancity Credit Union advertisement in 2012 and starring in two reality television shows: The Big Decision, hosted by Dragons’ Den panelist Arlene Dickinson, and Gastown Gamble, which aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

The Vancity video tells the compelling story of how Brand bought Save On Meats in 2011. The butcher shop at 43 West Hastings had been a fixture in the neighbourhood from 1957 to 2009, and Brand planned to carry on the community-focused spirit of the business. He renovated and split the space into a restaurant, butcher shop and commissary kitchen.

Brand received financing from Vancity and the Resiliant Capital Program, which is funded by Vancity and the Vancouver Foundation.

On The Big Decision, host Arlene Dickinson agreed to invest $250,000 in Save On Meats. However, that investment never came to “fruition,” Brand said.

Save On Meats has a contract with Atira Women’s Resource Society to provide 657 meals a day to residents in single occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside. Save On Meats is paid $2.65 per meal. Brand said that the restaurant has at times paid for extras like cake.

In November 2012, Brand told BIV he believed starting a charity would help him expand the community programs and help the Save on Meat’s struggling bottom line, since at the time the business was bearing the full cost of the programs.

According to court filings, in April 2012 Brand had partnered with Griffiths, a co-founder of Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, to buy a charity called A Better Life Foundation from Sarah and Daryl Davies. Brand and Griffiths each chipped in $3,000. The charity officially launched in May 2013. Canada Revenue Agency filings show that in 2013, the new foundation’s total fundraised revenue was $5,135; it spent $1,046 on charitable programs and nothing on management or administration.

Today, A Better Life Foundation operates two programs, said Brand. Save On Meats provides the space for two-week cooking classes attended by between eight to 12 DTES residents, and ABLF provides funds for ingredients and an honorarium for an instructor. ABLF has also partnered with the Rainier Hotel, which offers supportive housing for women in the Downtown Eastside, to fund 16 hours of job shadowing experience per participant with businesses in the DTES neighbourhood.

It’s a more modest start than what Brand originally envisioned, he says, but he has big plans for the future, including more aggressive fundraising.

“Partners usually seek us out … we don’t take everybody who approaches us,” Brand said.

Save On Meats also operates an incubator kitchen, in partnership with Vancouver Community College, which is made available to community groups. The City of Vancouveris a supporter of the project.

In early 2013, Brand owned or was a partner in six businesses, all in the Gastown area. He’s since closed his longest-running restaurant, Boneta, and recently closed Sea Monstr Sushi and clothing store Sharks and Hammers. Brand says a combination of factors led to the closures: the businesses had run their course, the rent was rising and he wants to focus on Save On Meats.

In 2013, Brand had to temporarily relocate Save On Meats for six months when Anthem Properties bought and renovated the historic building. But Brand says his relationship with Anthem is good and he has signed a 20-year lease with the new owner.

Brand also tried his hand at running a pub, opening the Portside Pub in January 2013. The Donnelly Group owned the pub while Brand had a contract to manage the venue, said Reid Ogden, vice president with the Donnelly Group. This summer, the Donnelly Group sold the Portside to the owners of Joe’s Apartment, a nightclub on Granville Street.

“It just wasn’t working out as a partnership,” Ogden said. “It wasn’t great for our brand, it wasn’t great for [Brand’s] brand. It was a lot of work and he’s used to running restaurants.”

Brand says that a brewery he operates in Gibsons, B.C. is still going strong. Persephone Brewery is also operated as a social venture, and employs people with developmental disabilities.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to achieve,” Brand said. “We’ve taken a business that blends business and social and it’s next to impossible: that’s why people don’t do it.”

- With files from Darryl Greer
 
jstdenis@biv.com

@jenstden

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story stated that Arlene Dickinson had invested $250,000 in Save On Meats. Dickinson did not invest in the business.

An earlier version of this story stated that a default order had been issued in a small claims case involving Mark Brand and Calen Knauf. At time of writing, the latest judgment on file states that Brand's counterclaim has been dismissed and Knauf can now apply for a default order.