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New York City Food Businesses And Nonprofit Accuse ‘Free Meals Power Broker’ Of Upcharging Rent

By News Creatives Authors , in Small Business , at October 21, 2021

Two years into working with commissary kitchen BonBite NYC, food insecurity nonprofit ReThink Food had become accustomed to weird, unexplained charges on their rent checks.

But on June 10th, 2020, they received what should have been a surprising invoice. The nonprofit was working with Eleven Madison Park’s fast-casual concept Made Nice, but that didn’t explain why BonBite was suddenly charging them as much as $8,800 a month for a curious “Eleven Madison Park labor reimbursement.” 

BonBite’s owner, Winston Chiu, kept charging them similar fees every month until they finally left his space in December of that year. An anonymous source close to ReThink isn’t even positive what these charges were supposed to be for. 

According to documents obtained by me and reports from sources close to BonBite, Chiu, a prominent food insecurity activist included in the Hunter College New York Food Policy Center’s 40 Under 40 2021 and described by The New York Times in August 2020 as a “free meals power broker,” routinely adds extraneous additional charges to rent checks for tenants in his commissary kitchen at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. 

I reached out to Chiu in an email, and he categorically denied these claims, saying that: “I write this email in response to your email that I received earlier this morning and I am only addressing your specific questions regarding ‘spurious charges’ and ‘negligent maintenance’…We are disappointed that someone made these false allegations. We can make available current tenants for your investigation. We know you that you want to be accurate in your reporting.” He has declined a follow-up interview.

Chiu is a former co-founder of ReThink Food along with current founders Matt Jozwiak and Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm. Chiu has worked with high-profile chefs like René Redzepi, runs the for-profit “impact agency” Feed Forward, and was an investor in celebrated restaurant Little Tong Noodle Shop before its closure. 

Since he stepped down from his co-founder position at ReThink Food in mid-2020, those charges, and the recklessness of his business practices more generally, seem to have escalated significantly. 

Chiu provided kitchen space to Rethink Food from 2018 through December 2020 through his company. A source close to the situation says that from the beginning of their association with ReThink, BonBite, “would never sign a rental agreement…We kept going back and forth, like, ‘Why won’t you sign something?”’ 

Unconventional rental agreements that vary wildly in price from month to month seem to be a theme with BonBite. Several sources connected to current and former tenants in the kitchen space report being pressured to sign contracts and even NDAs without the presence or approval of a lawyer, state that Chiu tricked them into moving into the space before signing a lease, and say that he refuses to show tenants utility bills. These businesses originally agreed to be named for this piece but have all pulled their names since in the interest of protecting their livelihoods.

In one case, a business was informed that they would have to give Chiu equity to stay in his space without being subjected to rent increases from $1,900 to $7,000 over a three-year period for a 450 square foot space.

I have also obtained invoices from another small business tenant that show a rent increase from $1,400 to as much as $4,300 over only five months for a small kitchen space.

According to an employee of ReThink Food, Chiu’s lackadaisical maintenance of the facility led the nonprofit to eventually pay BonBite to renovate the kitchen space. Multiple tenants have described the facility as unsafe. These same tenants told me that BonBite has been known to charge for equipment and even office space that either does not exist, belongs to another tenant, or is nonfunctional, and two current tenants report suffering electrocution from shoddy kitchen equipment. In the midst of that 2019 remodel, ReThink’s prices increased exponentially. At one point, $500,000—thirty percent of the nonprofit’s total $1.6 million budget—was going directly to BonBite.

ReThink Food exploded in size during 2020, quickly scaling up to a $20 million budget and going national, according to the source. I have obtained invoices from January through November of 2020 that corroborate their claim that rent checks during that period would often include mysterious charges labeled “labor,” or even simply “fee.” Depending on the month, these documents detail widely variable rent checks ranging from $22,000 to $30,000. These documents bare out the source’s claim that when the ReThink team questioned these charges, they would disappear and then come back randomly. 

A spokesperson for ReThink Food provided the following statement about their association with BonBite: “BonBite provided kitchen space and other facilities to ReThink Food until December 2020. We no longer do any business with BonBite.”    

We reached out to Winston Chiu, and he provided the following statement:

“BonBite NYC Inc. supports small business startups by offering production space. Our shared kitchen facility is offered at discounted rates by as much as 30-50% compared to industry standard rates for the same or similar space. All fees are agreed to contractually prior to the commencement of any usage of our facility. BonBite NYC categorically disputes any negligent maintenance of its facilities. The Department of Health has inspected the facility. Further, we perform periodic facility maintenance and we have a consultant that advises us on safety and compliance.”

We also reached out to his former business partner Kyley Cheever, who declined to speak with us for this piece.

Many of Chiu’s tenants have come to him because of his disarming personality and his claimed connections to the Eleven Madison Park network. That name means something in not only the New York restaurant community but around the world. 

But sometimes, a name is just a name.


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