James Deibel says he’s been better.
Fewer than three years ago, he was flying high. His Facebook profile photo shows him rolling fresh pasta in a pro kitchen, smiling, one of his young sons playing in the background.
He and his spouse Christine Deibel were opening an imported olive oil business that would expand to a second location. Then a third, this one including a bistro; it became so wildly popular they shuttered the first two locations in order to focus on it. But in short order, things between the Deibels started to go south. “Unfortunately, we did have conflicting ideas about how the business should go,” James told me, speaking from his lawyer’s office.
So conflicting, that on the evening of December 23, the employees of Thomas Reese Olive Oil and Bistro allegedly did not receive their payroll check. They retaliated by closing the restaurant a couple hours early. The staff was heading into a four-day holiday weekend, and naturally, wanted to be paid before Christmas.
According to James’ lawyer, John Chitwood of Full Circle Law in St. Paul, Christine never did pay the 14 employees of the business, and instead proceeded to move furnishings out of the building and completely close the business with no warning. “It was empty by noon of Christmas Eve,” says Chitwood.
While in very lawyerly language Chitwood avoids the terms “illegal” or “stealing,” he does say: “TR Bistro LLC is the owner and she took assets without permission of TR Bistro LLC.”
The real trouble began in mid-November when James was served a restraining order, requiring him to stay away from Christine. “If she’s at the business, then he can’t be at the business,” explained Chitwood. (Christine could not be reached for comment, and Chitwood says he’s had no success contacting her, either. James has been advised not to attempt contact.)
The Anoka County ex parte order for protection filed the case as one of “domestic abuse.”
Chitwood described the allegations as “baseless.”
When times were more flush, James and Christine wanted to start a business for their family. They’re both avid foodies, James tells me, and their company is a mashup of their two son’s first names, Thomas and Reese.
He says people loved the place, and Yelp and Trip Advisor (where they enjoy 4.5 star ratings) seem to agree. James says they’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars jointly into the business, including an extensive remodel in the past year. “We were thriving, we were growing. ... People loved the place, we weren’t in debt.”
Deedre Dorholt got hired at Thomas Reese last April. "You don’t have this kind of concept in Champlin," said Dorholt, who became a regular there for girls night out with friends.
"They had charcuterie boards, wine, right up our alley," she said. Eventually, Christine convinced her to take a job. Dorholt left a steady, secure, nine-year gig at Granite City Food and Brewery to start at Thomas Reese. Dorholt, 40, and with a family to take care of, hesitated, but took the offer. And, at first she was happy.
Dorholt did everything, serving, cooking, even acting as a kind of ad hoc manager. Dorholt claims she was at the business sometimes more than 40 hours a week, well above the 25 hours she'd agreed to.
Some weeks, Dorholt was at Thomas Reese more often than Christine Deibel. Dorholt remembers the couple fighting, but didn’t want to get into their business, and won’t speculate about why they didn’t get along.
However, she says, she was present during the incident that Christine reported as grounds for the domestic abuse allegation. Dorholt says that Christine threw an apron in James’ face, and he then wanted to leave the building, “moving her out of the way.”
The order for protection said Deibel struck his wife, a claim Dorholt denies.
“That never happened,” Dorholt says. "It didn’t happen that way."
She says she’s doubly shocked by Christine’s actions, because Dorholt considered her a friend. She said there was no warning for the strange behavior.
“I just want my money. Whatever is going on between them is their drama.”
Dorholt says that she and the other 13 employees are owed two paychecks plus a week’s worth of tips. Despite frequent calls and text messages to Christine, she hasn’t received any response, except asking her to stop texting. She says she’ll stop when she gets her money. Though it’s not likely. She said she’s seen the building since Christine cleared it out, and she even “took the nails out of the wall.”
James says he “never” wanted to see the restaurant shutter, and that it’s his “emphatic desire” to get the business back up and running for the employees and for the people of Champlin.
He adds he does not want to speak ill of Christine in print -- they still share two children -- but believes she closed the business “out of spite.”
In December, local businesses Nadia Cakes Cupcake Shop and Maverick’s Wood Grill pooled resources and cut checks to all of the employees of Thomas Reese so they would have some cash for the holidays.
“It was so, so very nice,” said Dorholt. “They’re working hard, paying their own employees. I cried.”
The restaurant's website currently reads: "Thomas Reese Olive Oil's Champlin, MN location will be closed until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience."