.

UPDATE: Former Boocoo Directors Express Culture of Financial Woes

Two of the Boocoo's former directors said the center was never financially stable.

UPDATE:

“I think facts will stand as they are” Cheifetz said. "People who care about Boocoo and city understand the investment that has been made in Boocoo and we welcome them to get to know the place better and support it and give us their constructive feedback.”

Earlier:

Two former directors of the say that the center’s Oct. 2 fundraising event will do little to help the financially strapped business and that the real problem is mismanagement.

Ted Sirota and Debi Chess Mabie, directors from December 2007 to August 2008 and September 2008 to spring 2009 respectively, both independently said that the center failed to create a financially viable business model and that the owner did not seek out grants and alternative forms of funding, would routinely ignore employee phone calls and emails, and often failed to pay vendors and other contractors on time.

Daniel Cheifetz, director of Enterprise Development Foundation, the Evanston-based nonprofit that owns Boocoo, did not return calls and emails for comment for this story.

Located at the intersection of Church Street and Dodge Avenue, across the street from Evanston Township High School, Boocoo is a combination coffeehouse, eatery, recording studio, meeting space, live-performance stage, garden, art gallery and music school that opened in July 2007 and lists its mission as “[providing] a safe and nurturing environment in which individuals can explore and express their creative passions.”

But Sirota said that financial problems were part of Boocoo almost from day one, and that the business was already running a substantial deficit when he took the reigns as co-director after the center was open for only four months.

Boocoo’s first director, Carolina Pfister, said she left the center after she “found [her] efforts were not sufficient to guarantee Boocoo's continuity.”

While Sirota acknowledged that Pfister may have made some poor decisions early on, he maintains that the center’s business strategy made self sustainability a near impossibility.

Boocoo had two main sources of income: sales from the café and revenue from music and dance classes. But business continued to be slow on both ends.

Mabie said that the café always underperformed. While Cheifetz had imagined it as someplace that would sell not only coffee, but food and smoothies, Mabie noted that the eatery often sold fewer than 10 sandwiches and 20 slices of pizza a day, barely enough to pay employee salaries, let alone ingredients and overhead.

The place was simply never full.

“They banked on this café being the cash cow thinking ETHS students would come here to eat the food,” Sirota said, “but that just never happened. So instead of being this big bread winner for the place, it became this big blood sucker.”

On the other side, music and dance classes were more successful. Sirota, a professional musician and drum teacher, had brought his music students’ business to Boocoo when he was hired and had even convinced several other music instructors to make the center their studio, as well.

But the students didn’t come in droves either. And it wasn’t for lack of promotion.

Mabie said that when she was director (Sirota had been demoted to music director during this time), she worked with Northwestern University marketing students, created a community advisory board, attended monthly ward meetings, put up fliers, spoke to ETHS students, invited youth to take internships at Boocoo, met with Evanston Art Center representatives, put handouts in District 65 “Friday folder” send-home materials, sent out regular emails, communicated with both the Evanston Community Foundation and the Evanston Community Development Corporation, and talked to neighbors in local barber shops.

Still, business remained stagnant.

Part of the problem, Sirota said, was Boocoo’s location. Parents from higher-income areas of town were sometime hesitant to sign their children up for music lessons at a location they viewed as dangerous. Parents from the lower-income neighborhood surrounding the center often could not afford the $25 per half hour, $50 per hour music lessons.

Both Mabie and Sirota said that they attempted to tackle the latter problem by asking Cheifetz to apply for grants so they could create scholarships and free classes for whoever could not afford the fees.

However, according to both, Cheifetz expressed leeriness for grants, saying that he feared the funding would come with strings attached that would alter Boocoo from his vision of what the center should be.

Further, Mabie and Sirota said Cheifetz would not allow them to file their own grants requests on behalf of Enterprise Development Foundation or to alter Boocoo from a limited liability company to a nonprofit so that they might apply for grants on their own.

“Daniel was not providing us with the information that we needed to apply for grants,” Mabie said. “He wouldn’t divulge financial information, he wouldn’t divulge board structure. I put together an [application for Boocoo to become a nonprofit] and all he had to do was sign it. He wouldn’t agree to sign it and never gave me a reason why."

Mabie also blamed the lack of business on the “schizophrenic” character of the center. She said it was hard to market Boocoo because it was trying to be so many things at once.

Sirota said that the center tried to do too much, too early on.

“To me, the vision was the problem,” Sirota said. “There was west African dance and belly dance and hip hop dance and story time for children and group guitar and just a lot of stuff going on there…I was involved from the beginning and sometimes I’d walk in there and say, ‘what is this place?’ It was just too broad..I would have started with a handful of targeted classes and try to build those up, and then buy the equipment and the expensive gear as you’re going along rather than dumping all that money on it at first and then expecting the people to come in droves.”

But the kicker came when the center stopped paying bills, Sirota said.

According to both Sirota and Mabie, Boocoo was perpetually behind in payments to vendors and contractors. Mabie recalled the business owing money to a web designer for a period of time, while Sirota talked about Boocoo's failure to pay coffee providers, produce distributors and a security system company.

An accountant for Stonecreek Coffee Roasters, Boocoo’s former coffee supplier, confirmed that company records showed that Boocoo made late payments sometime in the past but would not provide further information on the frequency with which this happened, the amount of money involved or whether this was the cause of the two sides severing business ties. Representatives from other vendors contacted either refused comment or stated it went against company policy to divulge business dealings to a third party.

Soon, the directors decided to scale back, cutting deals with cheaper vendors and eventually resorting to buying café supplies from Costco Wholesale stores. To pay for operating costs, Sirota said he began selling excess equipment from classes that never got off the ground, including dance instructor headsets, kickboxing gear and yoga mats. The limited funding was kept in cash, and operations were dependent upon however much was available day to day.

Ultimately, Sirota was let go from Boocoo after they informed him they could no longer afford to pay his salary. Since then, he has moved his drum lessons into a makeshift studio in his Rogers Park apartment. Mabie quit out of frustration and moved to Toussaint, Arizona with her husband.

Looking back at their tenures, both expressed a fondness for the neighborhood and the people who came into the center.

“There were some kids who had been waiting for something like this, and they basically lived there,” Sirota said. “It became like a second home. It definitely had an impact. We were part of the fabric of the community, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars.”

Mabie even expressed some fleeting admiration for Cheifetz and his vision.

“Daniel had a wonderful idea and I think his heart was in the right place in wanting to contribute to the economic and social viability of that part of Evanston,” Mabie said. “He was really good at getting people excited about that and buy into the idea. But he did not provide.”

“There was something in his thought process that made it really difficult to let go of Boocoo and let it become what it needed to become,” Mabie continued, “which is a community-run space…[with] stakeholders. The aldermen, the kids that came to Boocoo, the instructors having an active say in the direction of it. And he could not allow us to develop the means to let that happen.”

Sirota said he would like to see Boocoo survive and thinks it could be a valuable part of the community. But he also said he believes that unless there is a change in ownership, the cultural center will be doomed to fail again and that any donation will merely be a small plug in a sinking ship.

 “I would love to see a place like that survive and exist in the community,” Sirota said. “I was just thinking about these people handing money over and I didn’t think that was right…If they’re honestly in that kind of trouble, they’re not going to last. I think people should just ask questions, that’s all. The crisis is going to come up again. I mean, it was constant crisis there.”

The Boocoo Cultural Center and Café is hosting an Oct. 2, Boocoo fundraising event from 2 to 8 p.m. that reportedly will include an address from Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, an open forum to discuss the role of Boocoo in the surrounding community and a live Jazz band. In a mass email sent out Sept. 8, the community center asked residents for monetary donations, but said contributions of time, ideas and event equipment would be welcome, as well.

Cheifetz is also CEO at Indie Energy Systems Company, an Evanston-based company which develops energy-efficient building technology. In the 80s and 90s, Cheifetz was a technology entrepreneur and founded a software development company.

Enterprise Development Foundation also owns the Community Builders of Evanston, a program aimed at educating Evanston's young adults as construction workers and employing those who have trouble finding work due to criminal records and incomplete education.

Enterprise Development Foundation's 990 PF tax form for April 1, 2008 through Marc 31, 2009 (a period of time comprising portions of both Sirota's and Mabie's tenures) shows that the nonprofit claimed $66,522 in cafe sales, $32,332 in cafe expenses, $32,695 in adjusted net income payroll expenses, near $7000 in sales tax expenses, an average monthly cash balance as $266,837, a yearly loss of $354,424, total assets of $1.63 million and total liabilities of $2.62 million.

Evanston Patch will continue to report on this story as it develops.

Christine Wolf September 30, 2011 at 01:12 PM
For the record, I know Debbie Mabie (I used to teach two of her children) and I recntly spoke with Ted Sirota for two hours on the phone regarding this issue; they are both thriving in their own business ventures and they are not disgruntled employees. As Ted said, "I think the people in the community who are being asked to donate funds to 'save' Boocoo ought to know how it got to this point in the first place."
Noreen Edwards Metz September 30, 2011 at 02:14 PM
I have been wondering what's going on there. The garden is amazing, the music classes are such a needed opportunity for the neighborhood and other students, and what a great meeting place... But this article is very confusing. Directors? Do you mean, Executive Director, Board of Directors? What is Enterprise Development Foundation? LLC? Is it a 501c3? If it's a non-profit, it has to have a board with financial statements. And that does not jibe with part of the article... I do not doubt mismanagement, but when you're slinging around accusations like these, you must be more diligent in doing research and getting the whole picture.
Lonson Williams September 30, 2011 at 04:39 PM
Noreen, You can find Enterprise Development Foundation's IRS 790 form online pretty easily. BooCoo was bundled with a contracting firm under the foundation. Most of the income generated and revenues expended seem to be related to the construction arm of EDF. Probably what was happening was that the contracting biz was supposed to support the whole endeavor and the real estate market tanking disrupted the plans. Part of the problem with running this type of cafe business in the area is that the disposable income necessary to keep the cafe afloat isn't there in that neighborhood. Had the real estate market continued to flourish, you would see more gentrification in that neighborhood, greater safety, and more disposable income. A cafe like BooCoo is the type of business that is needed to draw positive attention to the area and can spur gentrification; but unfortunately, the larger economy stepped in and now we see that this type of venture is unsustainable under the current circumstances. It is too bad. Although I never visited the cafe, I think that the neighborhood was ripe for redevelopment given its proximity to downtown and relatively low real estate prices. When the bubble burst, however, the promise of improving the neighborhood through a gentrification strategy becomes more difficult.
jim September 30, 2011 at 06:18 PM
More proof Evanston is the most superficially progressive city in the midwest. Only in Evanston could such a place exist but fail because all the rich white folks here are afraid of black people. There is a freakin high school across the street from Boocoo. Its safe. I jog at night, after work, all year and have never had an issue. Sort of like how the farmers market near the movie theatres has tons of patrons and advertizing by the city, but no one seems to know about the farmers market next to Boocoo. Or how the genius leaders of Evanston spent a ton of money on much needed bicycle lanes around town, but refuse to build any more bicycle lock up areas despite saying they will start taking action against bikers who lock up in unofficial spots. Hurray Evanston! Can't wait to graduate and leave this dump.
MVP September 30, 2011 at 07:22 PM
It is truly sad to see a place like this leave the community. Especially in a location where it is very much needed. However, as much as I would love to support their efforts to stay afloat, it is evident that a fundraiser alone will not save this place for more than a few weeks. This cannot remain a privately owned venture. The only way for a concept like BooCoo to survive is to become a community center and rely on public grants AND private funding. However, with Evanston already having several community outlets, it's doubtful sufficient funding is available.
AMOH September 30, 2011 at 07:49 PM
Boocoo has been in business for a little over 4 years. May not have gotten that far if not for dedicated staff and volunteers, past and present. They've learned to keep Boocoo running through adverse situations. There's still a vision that has not yet been fully realized for this community. Regardless of wrong turns or mistakes, there is no denying that the center has and is filling a void. With such public input, it would be impossible for management NOT to make changes...
Lee Roberson September 30, 2011 at 08:30 PM
I've been an Evanston resident for 4 years and I go to many dozen city and local events each year and I've never heard of this place. I also live down the street from it. I guess I should to see what this place is all about before it crumbles apart. Also, with regard to having paid a web designer for their site, whatever they paid, if it was more than 50 cents it was too much -- so I can extrapolate stories of mismanagement from that alone. I'm sure BopNGrill will get out of there soon too with their new and likely successful Rogers Park/Loyola location that opened this fall.
Jordan Graham September 30, 2011 at 09:25 PM
Hi Lee. I've spoken to a BopNGrill employee who said that the Rogers Park location is an additional eatery, not a replacement for the current one. Just thought I should let you know.
Lonnie wilson September 30, 2011 at 09:26 PM
Ok I have been silent long enough!! My name is Lonnie Wilson and I am the man who brought Dan to the 5th ward, hoping he could help put life and hope back to church and dodge. Let me give a small history lesson! See Dan and the people who helped raise him Bernice Weissborg Have in one way or another put there money were there mouth is, she in Family Focus , He in his endeavours on Church and Dodge. Whats is the variable? THE ECONOMIC Climate!! Dan has done nothing but put more and more of his dollars in my ignored ward! Yes we made some bad decisions some in our choice of directors and in our outreach to the 5th ward community, but to blame BOOCOOS issues on one man or his make up is not true or fair! BooCoos issue are the same as many Businesses right cost and Income! and Its funny you get interviews from people who were at the heart of the some of its failures! And Ill make it a bit wider so no one misunderstands me!! The drive-by diversity sold in Evanston in its PR brochures wont solve the many issue in the 5th ward BOOCOOS just one of many!! YEA I SAID IT!!
Christine Wolf September 30, 2011 at 09:34 PM
If the cafe at Boocoo is truly the driving financial force behind its success or failure, how can we, as a community, come together to help it thrive? Can someone with connections to foodservice companies like Sodexo (they operate all the Northwestern University dorm cafeterias) or Kraft Foods plead our community's case for keeping such a vital neighborhood fixture alive? Anyone who drives into Evanston on Emerson/Golf passes the corner of Church and Dodge, and it's been an intersection of conflict and debate for years and years. Isn't this the perfect opportunity for us to come together to anchor Boocoo for decades to come?
Lonnie wilson September 30, 2011 at 09:35 PM
Im so hot I cant keep talking but lets say we need all of church and dodge to become strong its were most of you drop off your kids as freshman and pick em up as seniors see a strong community is only as strong as its bottom!! FEEL ME!!
AMOH September 30, 2011 at 09:53 PM
Many like Lee Roberson, have not stopped in to see what is being accomplished in Boocoo, probably because it is more exciting to head to the local hotspots closer to downtown Evanston. That's OK because building something productive in a struggling part of the community isn't for everybody. Just don't cheer as you watch it "crumble."
Jordan Graham September 30, 2011 at 10:13 PM
Lonnie, I very much appreciate what you have to say, but these two former directors did not put 100 percent of the blame on Mr. Cheifetz. They blamed the economic climate, the perception of Boocoo by various Evanstonians, the lack of economic vitality in the neighborhood, and the difficulty for any business to stay afloat and cover overhead. Their accusations only turn toward Cheifetz on a handful of issues: that he prevented them from seeking out grants, that he failed to make payments to certain vendors (an accusation confirmed by the only vendor that would go on record) and that he was difficult to contact. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who would say that they don't want to see business flourish in the 5th Ward. I think most Evanstonians would like to see Boocoo succeed and would like to see the Church and Dodge corridor have a stronghold of some sort. These directors were not accusing Cheifetz of not caring. In fact, both praised him for helping to start Boocoo in the first place. Instead, both wanted to talk because they felt it would open up a more honest dialogue for how Boocoo could be kept afloat by announcing what they thought the center's failings were. Both pointed fingers at Mr. Cheifetz for some of those failings, but not all. Once I got a hold of Mr. Cheifetz, I updated the article to express his point of view, as well, so that he might offer a different account of what happened. I will continue coverage by reporting on the Oct. 2 event.
DUSTY September 30, 2011 at 10:23 PM
Finger pointing is NOT the answer.....Here is an opportunity to do something great than ourselves, The CULTURAL CENTER needs all of us to do their part, be it time or assets donate today and continue to do so. I have been there since Dec. 2010, I have received no financial compensation, yet I still go and give of my time and skills. We all have a responsibility to the center and the neighborhood. I'll be there Oct. 2nd giving garden tours and urban farming tips, because Boocoo Cultural Center and Cafe' matters to me. Dusty New Leaf Urban Gardens
Lonson Williams September 30, 2011 at 11:17 PM
Christine, The cafe at Boocoo is not the "driving force behind its success or failure." Take a look at my comment above--or read the Evanston Development Foundation's 790 form if you don't believe me. EDF is primarily a contracting/real estate management firm. They manage the Church St. Village townhomes and do contracting on new constructurion . A lot of the organization's liabilities were stemming from the start-up costs for renovating the space for BooCoo, but more importantly, they have been losing money for years and with the real estate market in the tank it appears that Cheifetz can't keep subsidizing it. If the place is going to be run by a big food service company like Sodhexo, let me tell you the food quality is going to be mediocre at best. If you analyze how urban neighborhoods change, there are often "pioneers" that go in to an under-valued area with a good idea that lead to more innovative consumptive businesses joining. Take a look at Wicker Park, for instance, in Chicago. Eventually property values rise and the neighborhood does a turn-around. Unfortunately, the real estate market spiraled downwards and the needed economic changes in the neighborhood haven't materialized. BooCoo was a pioneer, but they needed gentrification to stay in the game for the long haul. It is too bad because the neighborhood has a lot of assets--inexpensive real estate and proximity to Downtown Evanston. What they need are stable property owners.
Lonson Williams September 30, 2011 at 11:22 PM
I agree with you about the bikes, but the West End market's weakness is a product of whomever had the idiotic idea to schedule it at the same time as the downtown market! The Downtown market has been going on for 35 years, to start another a mile away at the same time is stupid. None of the decent farmers would go which is why it is a failure. Move it to a Tuesday or Wednesday night and it might have a better shot.
Lonson Williams September 30, 2011 at 11:25 PM
YOUR "ignored ward"?? Come on Lonnie, you don't even live in the 5th ward! Why are YOU ignoring it, my friend?
Lonson Williams September 30, 2011 at 11:28 PM
Jordan, Dan says "I will let the facts stand as they are." I'm still trying to find out what the "facts" are! Is he actually endorsing the fundraiser? Did he say why the organization is losing so much money and what all of his payroll costs are going for? The crazy thing about this whole story is now absent Cheifetz has been from the discussion.
Jordan Graham September 30, 2011 at 11:36 PM
Hi Lonson. What I included in the article was the only official comment that I got from Mr. Cheifetz.
Christine Wolf October 01, 2011 at 02:12 PM
I'm not giving up on Boocoo or the chance to save it, but I'd like to know what sort of management is in place before I put any more money into it. I send two of my children there for music lessons (and they've both thrived with their instructors). The notion of the cafe is complicated. The intersection has a definite need for prepared food, especially across from the high school. If it was run properly, imagine the revenue Boocoo could earn from catering ETHS staff meetings, small group meetings on-site, etc. Lonson, you suggest companies like Sodexo will diminish the food quality...but at least there would be food available, which might drive more business. Anyone who's been there knows the first thing you see when you walk in is a food/beverage counter with an amazing menu. If the expectation is set from the beginning that one can get food here, then serve it, dependably. Otherwise, change the name from Boocoo Cafe to Boocoo Cultural Center. However, with its location near ETHS and music lessons offered to kids, I don't think it's wise to get rid of food. Kids often come to Boocoo before school, during lunch, and after school. Kids can socialize and eat together, a natural combination (better than Taco Bell or other cheap dining options, no?).
Frank October 01, 2011 at 07:51 PM
Christine, I agree with you and many others about Boocoo. I hope it survives as it is an asset to the 5th ward area. I just wanted to point out that the Nutrition department at ETHS not only provides the meals for all four of ETHS cafeterias and the the staff dining area, but they also provide almost all of the meals for District 65 and they provide most of the food for the ETHS staff meetings and award banquets, etc. I didn't want anyone to get their hopes up too high about ETHS being more of an option to help with Boocoo's sales than the students that already go there to eat.
Michelle October 02, 2011 at 04:05 AM
I agree 100 on your very first comment Christine! I'm speechless with all of these comments! TEAMWORK I have been privileged to work for many Nightclubs,(Lounge Ax, Betty's Blue Star Lounge, Sidelines, Crowbar- Restaurants, and many venues in the vicinity!I was the GM for a coffee house in the Evanston area and, the thought of another coffee house was great!!!!! again teamwork- Coffee house's-Artistic venue's and soo000oooooooooooo on,and was a regular on stage with the beer nut's occasionally, Frankly , the first time I ever went in there.... I have never been back. Customer Service is protocol!!!!!!ANYWHERE!!!!!!Everybody is cool!!! I absolutely could help this venue thrive!!!Music-Green_Sustainable-Organized!!Smiling Faces_Rockers_Artists-Teamwork_REGARDLESS OF MONEYYYYYYYY, (not waiting for paperwork to go through is letting our children miss major learning opportunity's, A place for our children to grow and thrive if the Arts are what they choose!!! I would work for free for 2 months!!!! We all need possitive places for ourselves, and our children to thrive!! Peace and Love!!! Rocker Mom
Michelle October 02, 2011 at 05:09 AM
PSS.........let's not forget about some serious musicians that were born right here in Evanston area, proud parents that had children , with names like Grace Slick, Jasun Narducy, Eddy Vedder....ETC,,,,,,,,,....All born and raised with cool parents , Be Yourself!!! Sometimes I feel like I am Talking to Charlie Brown"s Parents!! Rocker Mom I was born 1966-1st son Dustin"
Christine Wolf October 03, 2011 at 08:18 AM
Frank, that's helpful to know. Thanks for sharing. And, I had no idea ETHS has 4 cafeterias. Whoa.
Christine Wolf October 03, 2011 at 08:21 AM
Michelle/Rocker Mom -- I think you've got some residual caffeine running through your veins from your time managing a coffee house :) Are you serious that you'd work for free for 2 months at Boocoo to help set them straight? If so, please contact me at tinywolf@aol.com.
Michelle October 03, 2011 at 03:01 PM
Good Morning Christine, Yes, I am seriously considering this!I will contact you ASAP! The Evanston community is one of the most giving .caring, groups of people that I have had the privileged to live amongst!! People do care!!! Peace and Love, Rocker MOM
Ted Sirota October 04, 2011 at 03:19 AM
No offense, but having my name mentioned in Evanston Patch.com is not the way I go about self promoting myself. That is really funny. REALLY funny. But all jokes aside, if anybody wants to hurl accusations at me please back it up with facts. I would be happy to set the record straight. Ellen, the problem is that Boocoo has never been a "true community effort" and efforts by all of its "Directors" to make it such have been ignored, obstructed, or sabotaged by those with an "ownership stake" in Boocoo. The community "could not afford it" because unfortunately the community is not made up of multi-millionaires like Mr. Cheifetz.
Ted Sirota October 04, 2011 at 03:29 AM
Lonnie, first of all turn your spell check on brother! Second, what were the "failures" that I was at the heart of? Let's be specific. And third, I dare you to tell me to my face that anybody poured their heart, soul, time and energy into Boocoo more than I did when I was there. Nobody tried harder than me to make Boocoo a success and you know that. Thirdly, the Cubs still suck.
Ted Sirota October 04, 2011 at 05:33 PM
Jordan, there were some inaccuracies in your report. The idea that the cafe was "never full" is not true. There were countless times when the cafe was packed, often for private events, however not on a consistent basis. The situation when I was there was more of a "feast or famine", but mostly a famine. Also, Debi and I never asked Daniel to apply for grants, but asked for his cooperation so that we could apply for grants for Boocoo. That cooperation never came. I'm sure I didn't say "the kicker was when Boocoo stopped paying bills". That wasn't a "kicker", that was just a fact of every day life at Boocoo. Also, space rental/private events at Boocoo were a large part of the income, as well as recording studio rental, in addition to private music lessons, and finally the cafe. By no means is my home studio "makeshift". My space is larger and better equipped than it was previously. Any study of Boocoo without the substantial input of Jason Van Hoose is pointless. He has the longest tenure of anybody at Boocoo and could respond in detail to every one of the comments/suggestions/accusations that have been mentioned here. People should understand that a number of people have busted their butts and have already thoroughly explored every idea put forward here in every way imaginable. If people want to help they need to FIRST investigate with the people who have been running Boocoo, and learn from their experiences! Otherwise you are doing more harm than good. Believe me...
Michelle October 05, 2011 at 03:32 PM
Well put Ted, I agree with you fully!!! Rocker Mom

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