This is the last week for diners to enjoy Chef Daniel Wright’s creative comfort food at the Tomato Jam Café; the Biltmore Avenue breakfast and lunch spot closes on Friday, Dec. 20.
According to Wright, it was business as usual until about six months ago when he got a phone call from owner Deb Maddox, who informed him that the three-year mark was approaching on his lease-to-own agreement, and they needed to renegotiate. “It was a complete surprise to me,” Wright says. “Deb said they had forgotten to put it in the contract.”
“I will be happy to have this chapter close and move on,” says Maddox. “It’s a sad situation all around, and I’ve been surprised at the anger from someone who had choices to make.”
Deb and Cory Maddox originally purchased Tomato Jam from former owners Charlie Widner and Rebecca Daun-Widner, and hired Wright as head chef. Wright’s recollection of this arrangement sounds like an episode of “Kitchen Nightmares.” “I can’t tell you how many times they left me with no checks for deliveries and no way to contact them,” Wright explains. “Professionally they were just uninvolved in this place.”
After a few months at the helm of Tomato Jam, the Maddoxes presented Wright with a lease-to-own contract. “They begged me to take over this business for them,” Wright says. “It was hemorrhaging money.” According to Wright, the restaurant was making about $6,000 a month when he took it over, and now it’s making about $16,000 a month.
Despite Tomato Jam’s success, securing a purchase loan is not feasible for Wright, a young father with a family trying to work his way out of debt. But he also believes it doesn’t make good business sense. “It was reported that Deb and Cory own this building. Dr. Bob Owens owns this building. If he sold this place, I would own a name and a few pieces of equipment.”
Maddox is currently negotiating a new contract with a graduate of A-B Tech’s Culinary Institute, “He’s a former student of mine. He was in a public speaking course I taught at A-B Tech about five years ago, and I was so impressed with him we kept in contact.” They are aiming to open after the first of the year, but she is uncertain if he will keep the name Tomato Jam.
After winning the 2013 WNC Chef’s Challenge and being featured on “Chuck’s Eat the Street” on the Cooking Channel, Wright is exploring new opportunities without regret. “I’ve taken Tomato Jam as high as it can go,” he says. “I’ve taken it places it never would have gone.”
Tomato Jam is at 375 Biltmore Ave. Wright can be reached at Deebrewdude@aol.com