Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Nothing but a business plan could stop him: Carl Eller in his glory years
Minnesota Historical Society

In April 2003, Progressive Architecture agreed to design a new upscale restaurant at the Mall of America that was to be called the Purple People Eatery. The project was spearheaded by a trio of investors: Gary Carlson, Richard Ivance, and--most notably--former Vikings great and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Carl Eller. It was envisioned as both a football shrine and an upscale restaurant, sort of a Hard Rock Cafe for local gridiron fans.

In the ensuing weeks, as the original three investors clamored to get the business rolling, the project overwhelmed the four-person architecture firm. "We were originally just supposed to come up with a quick sketch," says Scott Mower, the owner of St. Paul-based Progressive Architecture. "Then all of a sudden they wanted it finished. We just sort of wiped our boards clean and started working on the project."

Mower and his employees drafted dozens of drawings laying out the framework for the 11,000-square-foot, million-dollar restaurant, from slate floors to a waiting area with stadium seating and a super-sized TV screen. "We specify everything right down to the type of doorknobs that are going to be used," he says.

Over a three-month period, Mower says, the firm racked up more than $100,000 of work on the restaurant. On June 13 of 2003, Carlson delivered the first substantial down payment, a check for $18,000 from Shawn Properties, his development company. But before Progressive Architecture could deposit the funds, Mower reports, payment on the check was stopped.

"I can't remember what excuse he used at that time," says Mower. "Of course he reassured me that [it was] all going to be taken care of in a matter of days."

But when weeks went by without payment, Mower says, Progressive Architecture retained a lawyer and drafted a lawsuit. As the architect retells it, the trio of Purple People Eatery investors initially agreed to make good on the bill, and Mower held off filing the case in court. Weeks--and then months--passed without payment. Mower says that another bad check, this time for $5,000, was given to the firm in January 2004. "It was supposed to be a series of payments and nothing came through," recalls Mower. "It was just a series of broken promises."

In the meantime Progressive Architecture nearly went bankrupt. Mower had to lay off every employee but himself in order to stay solvent. "We went through a year of hell," he says.

Finally last month, Progressive Architecture sued the Purple People Eatery and its trio of investors in Ramsey County District Court. The firm is seeking more than $130,000 in damages. "I don't have any idea what resources they may have," says Peter Tiede, the attorney handling the case.

The Purple People Eatery did eventually open--but not in the Mall of America. The upscale, Vikings-themed restaurant debuted in Woodbury in November, serving such dishes as Fran Tarkenton's Lobster Medallions and Jerry Burns's Five Cheese Cavitapi. Perhaps most notably, Bud Grant's Pheasant Breast sold for a whopping $45. A two-star review last month in the Star Tribune disparaged several dishes, as well as the service.

But the restaurant abruptly closed soon after. "We're checking some of the [menu] items," Eller explained to the Pioneer Press. "Some didn't have appeal." The restaurant's phone is no longer in service, and a visit to the building reveals only a sign stating that the eatery is "closed for remodeling"--a strange assertion given that it opened less than three months ago.

It's unknown what Eller and the other principals involved in the Purple People Eatery think about the lawsuit. The defendants have yet to respond to the civil complaint in court. None of the three--Eller, Carlson, or Ivance (a St. Paul-based orthopedist)--returned calls seeking comment.

Their attorneys were just as elusive. "I just don't have any comment at this time," says lawyer Stephen Orphein, who represents Carlson and the Purple People Eatery. Attorneys for Eller and Ivance also declined to discuss the lawsuit or the restaurant.

Vikings players have a long history of association with allegedly dubious financial practices (see "Purple Stain," City Pages, 4/5/2000). Fran Tarkenton, the storied Minnesota quarterback, once started a fast-food breakfast chain called Scramblers that went belly-up. More significantly, as the top executive of a software company called Shareware, he was party to an enterprise accused of perpetrating a "financial fraud scheme" in chasing after investors. (The matter was settled in 1999 with an agreement under which Tarkenton made no formal admission of wrongdoing but agreed to cough up a $100,000 fine and $54,000 in bonuses.) Chuck Foreman, the team's five-time Pro Bowl running back, pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud in 2000 for his purported connection to a series of bogus real-estate transactions.

As for Eller's current predicament, there are some indications that Progressive Architecture isn't the only creditor seeking money from the Purple People Eatery. Los Gallos VIII, a wire-service business on the East Side of St. Paul that primarily serves Hispanic immigrants, has filed a claim in Ramsey County District Court seeking $1,281 in damages. According to the civil complaint, the dispute is over bad payroll checks. Another recent claim, filed last month by a Lake Elmo resident in Washington County District Court, seeks $540 from the business. The details of that dispute, however, are not public.

Progressive Architecture has since rebounded from near bankruptcy. The firm now has a staff of five and a steady workload designing restaurants, dental offices, and other businesses. But Mower is still rankled by his brush with the Purple People Eatery. "The worst part is I'm a Packers fan," he says. "Now I am even more."

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