Slapping the hand that feeds
Owner of La Petite Cuisine looks to re-open this weekend after state tax agents close popular eatery
Photo by Vicki Botta An agent from the New York State Department of Taxation attaches a its sign to the window of Le Petit Cuisine.
Photo by Vicki Botta State Tax agent Lisa Hirschfeld talks with a Warwick Town Police officer inside the restaurant as another tax agent attaches ìseizedî and ìclosureî notices on the door. The agents also changed the locks.
Photo by Vicki Botta Jen Haesche, owner of Le Petite Cuisine, explains to a patron why state tax agents were swarming her business, changing the locks and shutting her down.
Photo by Vicki Botta An state tax agent exits La Petite Cuisine last Wednesday as a member of the staff waits to enter the popular eatery.
WARWICK — It was a scene out of a local crime show.
As patrons savored crepes, homemade soups and salad specials at outdoor tables in front of La Petite Cuisine last Wednesday, four New York State Tax Department agents, accompanied by several Warwick police officers, stormed the popular downtown Warwick restaurant.
The look on the faces of lunchtime patrons ranged from stunned to concerned.
Was it a bomb?
“Was it really necessary?” asked Jen Haesche, owner of the establishment, who hastily explained to customers that she was behind in paying her sales tax as locks were changed and a bright orange “seized” poster was affixed to her window.
“I’m woman enough to say I owe money,” said Haesche, who has owned the restaurant for the past three years and who tried to do her own books in order to save money. “I was working with (state tax officials) to pay it off but I guess I wasn’t quick enough.”
She said she had been responding to notices from the tax department but the problem snowballed. “I’m a little business and I was treated like a drug lord.”
She and her husband moved to Warwick to raise a family. She had been an employee of the cafe for four years before buying the Railroad Avenue business in 2010. It wasn’t easy and some days were so exhausting, she said, that it was difficult to even look at the books.
She has since been working with an accountant and a lawyer, but the economy has not been good. The restaurant employs two chefs and two waitresses who work for tips alone.
‘I am humble’ by the response
Nearby neighbors at the Grappa Restaurant were shocked to see what was happening to their neighbor.
“I have only known her to be a very hard working person,” said a waitress there who did not want her name mentioned. “It is very sad to see this happen to her.”
Other neighboring businesses reached out to Haesche, offering her money or the names of lawyers.
“If I could tell you how much how many offered money that I will not take,” she said. “I am humbled.”
She is a member of the Merchant’s Guild who, she says, is like a family planning events together such as “Ladies Night” or “Christmas in the Village.”
“I never wanted to be a millionaire, I’m not driving a Porsche or vacationing in the Bahamas,” she said.
Her goal after paying the sales tax that she says she owes and reopening the business is to make sure nothing like this happens to anyone else.
“And if I have to be the sacrificial lamb that sends the message to other businesses who are struggling in similar situations, then so be it,” Haesche said. “We are not out of the ordinary.”
She said she believed that some of the agent’s actions were unnecessary, such as asking her in front of her patrons and employees who else she owed money to and asking her to resign her name more clearly.
“They humiliated me in front of all my customers and even warned me that if I had any of my friends write about this in the paper that it was against the law.”
One of the agents who had been working with her looked clearly distraught as did the local police who Haesche said ate there as often as twice a week with their families.
Attempts to ask the agents for details surrounding their actions were met with a response to call their public relations number, but a recording said that it was not a working number. After calling the directory, the operator gave the same phone number.
“I failed to pay my sales tax,” said Haesche. “If I had it I wouldn’t be here.”
She said she hopes to reopen the restaurant as early as this Saturday after paying her debt and having the checks clear. She had to take money out of her 401K plan in order to pay the undisclosed debt which she said was negotiated down from penalties and interest.
Since her business was closed, many notes showing support from the surrounding community and her patrons were taped to the front of her restaurant. Several people told her that the community supported her because she has supported the community anytime there was a fund raiser or event and that her good will was coming back to her. (A sampling of comments can be found on page 12.)
Haesche also said that the Mayor Michael Newhard told her to have plenty of food on hand for when she opens because he is sure she will have a lot of people to serve when she reopens.
She estimates that she lost between$5,000 and $6,000, maybe more because it was Jazz Weekend. Since her restaurant was closed she was told that other businesses such as the Hidden Valley Tavern and Adams in New Jersey were closed for similar reasons.
Advocate for small business
While she is quick to say that she owed money and is responsible for her debt, she believes that the aggressive way with which she was treated was “over the top” and humiliating. She is also going to have to pay the locksmith bill for the locks which were changed.
She wants to become an advocate for other small businesses who worry about similar situations by meeting with legislators and local politicians.
“Large corporations have expensive lawyers and accountants to keep them out of trouble,” she said, “but the middle class is treated like a dog.’’
By Vicki Botta
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