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Lowell restaurant closes, employees say without notice

The former manager of the Backwater Café said she had a verbal agreement to purchase it. The business is now closed, and the owner says it will be leased out.

LOWELL, Mich. — The Lowell restaurant, Backwater Cafe, has closed its doors. Its owner, Jeff Altoft, said the building will be leased out to a local Mexican restaurant. 

However, former employees said they were not given notice of the closure, and one had a verbal agreement to purchase the business.

"The betrayal is unreal right now," said Jodie Kennedy, the former manager who had the verbal agreement. 

Kennedy said she found out about the closure via social media. She has not been able to reach Altoft since hearing about the closure on Monday. 

"He never even came to me first saying, 'Hey, I need to be doing this now,'" said Kennedy. 

Altoft told 13 ON YOUR SIDE the news spreading of the closure on social media was "not my fault." He had not had the chance to tell his employees yet. 

Kennedy said it was a video of the new tenants sharing their excitement over the new location, and another of Altoft locking the doors for the last time that she saw on social media. 

As for the verbal agreement, Altoft said, "There was sort of a verbal agreement that I would sell to them. I give them a year, and the restaurant was in the red the whole time, and that's all I want to say." 

He later said of the closure, "I'm sorry that it happened this way. I tried to make it work, but it didn't work. And that's all there is."

Kennedy said she wants some answers, and called the situation "devastating."

"It's done like that," said Kennedy. "I didn't get to tell anybody, 'Hey, I'm sorry. I failed you. It's not going to happen.' They just did it." 

She said she plans to move forward with opening a restaurant, but it will not be at the location of the former Backwater Café. She has not ruled out legal action. 

The verbal agreement was made in November of 2019, according to Kennedy. She said the COVID-19 pandemic and correlating restaurant shut downs delayed the plan. During that time, she and other employees renovated the inside. 

"Under the understanding we were doing it as an investment toward what we were going to be doing," said Kennedy. 

Other employees have concerns too, such as personal items left inside and last paychecks. 

"Now that he has closed the doors, changed the locks, and moved on with his life, there’s concern about that," said Shannon Wilcox, a former server. "He won’t talk to anyone, so how are we supposed to get checks from him?"

Altoft said all employees will be paid Tuesday or Wednesday, with some severance. 

He also alleges someone was stealing from the till of the restaurant, also contributing to the closure. 

Gina Nye, a former server, said she was the only person Altoft had called Monday about the closure. However, she said he was very vague about it. 

"I asked, 'Am I supposed to open Wednesday morning?'" said Nye. "He said to me, 'I'll let you know. I’d like all of you girls to tell your customers goodbye.' However, when we talked, the video was already posted on social media of him locking the door for the last time. And couldn’t even tell me that. Where is the loyalty?"

It's not clear when the new restaurant will move in and open. Wilcox said there is a lot of community support for the new restaurant, and she doesn't wish them failure. It is a business that has been in the community of Lowell for some time and is well liked. However, she gave a warning: 

"I wish you luck on this bad karma deal," said Wilcox, "and I give you warning on your new landlord."

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