A Short-Order War

For years Harry Rogers ran the eccentric Malibu East diner. Now that he's gone, three former employees are waging an ownership battle that may destroy his legacy.

Like Rogers -- his partner for 54 years -- Gonzalez pined for stardom. When he was a kid, his family performed as acrobats, first in South America and later with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Gonzalez's mother was renowned for catapulting from a springboard, executing a midair somersault, then landing atop three men perched on each other's shoulders. Despite Gonzalez's absence, circus posters touting the Gonzalez family's acrobatic prowess still adorn the back wall of the Malibu East.

In the late '30s and early '40s, Carlos toured the vaudeville circuit with his two sisters as the Gonzalez Family. The act included dog tricks and conga dancing. But a stint in the Coast Guard during World War II cut short Gonzalez's performing career, and afterward his involvement with the Malibu restaurants prevented him from pursuing show biz full-time. In recent years, however, Gonzalez has scratched together bit parts in quickly forgotten films: a janitor in 1988's Cocoon: The Return; a bouncer in the 1991 movie Pure Luck, starring Martin Short and Danny Glover.

When Gonzalez speaks of Rogers, the muscles in his face sag. "He had such a beautiful smile, and he was so good-looking," he says wistfully. His square jaw trembles, and tears well up in his bloodshot eyes. "I sat with Harry an hour before he died," Gonzalez whispers, lamenting that he had to leave Rogers to work the grill at the Malibu East. "I left the house at six o'clock. I kissed him. I said, 'I'll be back.'" An hour later, Rogers died.

When Harry Rogers (pictured with an unidentified woman) died in June, he left behind a financially troubled Fort Lauderdale institution
When Harry Rogers (pictured with an unidentified woman) died in June, he left behind a financially troubled Fort Lauderdale institution
Hairstylist Joseph Dixey used to recommend the Malibu East to his customers, but now he won't set foot in the diner
Melissa Jones
Hairstylist Joseph Dixey used to recommend the Malibu East to his customers, but now he won't set foot in the diner

"That was the end," Gonzalez says, "the end of Harry and Carlos."

Even before Rogers' death, the Malibu East he'd created with Gonzalez was in trouble. On May 18 at about 11 a.m., two agents from the Florida Department of Revenue entered the diner looking for money -- $7881.25 to be exact, the amount owed by the diner for unpaid sales taxes. Gonzalez was behind the grill, Godfrey was waiting on tables. DeForest was in Texas on vacation, and Rogers was at home in bed. When no one stepped forward to offer to pay the bill, the Malibu East was effectively shut down.

Until he became very sick, Rogers had always taken care of the business side of the operation. The exact nature of his illness remains unclear. Public records do not specify cause of death, and those close to Rogers either can't or won't share that information. But one thing is for sure: Rogers appeared to be in desperate financial straits.

On February 1, spurred by illness and rising debts, Rogers signed a contract to sell the Malibu East to Godfrey. According to documents provided by Godfrey, the 42-year-old waiter paid $2500 upfront and planned to put up an additional $52,500 over the next three months. In return for the $55,000, Godfrey would take over the Malibu East lease and gain control of everything in the restaurant, from frying pans to the sign behind the counter that reads, "Don't criticize the coffee, you may be old and weak yourself someday." Although Godfrey didn't actually have the remaining $52,500, he says he'd lined up a handful of potential investors to help cover the costs.

Before signing the contract, however, he'd failed to investigate the solvency of the business he was about to purchase. In March, as he prepared to take over the Malibu East, Godfrey discovered that the diner had substantial outstanding debts. In an attempt to salvage the deal and free himself from responsibility for existing bills, he drew up a second contract. Rogers refused to sign it, and Godfrey never paid the $52,500.

Although the transaction was aborted, Godfrey continues to proceed as if he's the owner of the Malibu East Restaurant and Coffee Shop. As required by law, he published a notice in the Sun-Sentinel on June 19 declaring his intention to operate a business under the name. A certificate of registration and tax identification number were issued to him by the Florida Department of Revenue. Godfrey even obtained a license to provide food and drink.

Despite these steps, Godfrey does not have much to back up his claims of ownership of the business -- or even the name. According to the Florida Division of Corporations, any number of people can register and operate a business under identical names. "When it comes to fictitious names, there is no presumption of ownership," says Jay Kassees, assistant division director. "Fifteen thousand people could use the same name." The same holds true for registering with the Department of Revenue. "There is nothing in tax law that precludes two businesses from using the same name and the same address," says Dave Bruns, a spokesperson for the agency.

When DeForest returned from Texas a few days after the visit by the revenue agents, the diner was still closed, and no one was taking steps to pay off the debt. Within a week the 50-year-old waitress scraped up enough money to cover the back taxes owed the revenue service. She also squared up the rent with the landlord and began making arrangements to pay off the restaurant's other debts. (Where she got the money from, DeForest says, is nobody else's business.) On Thursday, May 27, nine days after the Malibu East had been shut down, it reopened for business with DeForest at the helm.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help