Kansas City native Heidi Van Pelt met Taran Noah Smith shortly after he finished an eight-year stint as Mark Taylor on the hit TV sitcom Home Improvement. Because of their age difference — she was 32; he was 17 — their marriage made the pages of Hollywood tabloids and gossip shows.
Long before their courtship, Van Pelt had created a recipe for vegan cheese made from cashew nuts. During the course of their five-year relationship, the couple decided to call that cheese Playfood and start a company to sell it.
When the two broke up in 2005, Van Pelt moved back to Kansas City and started to manufacture Playfood in a commercial cave in Parkville. She claimed that Smith said he wanted nothing to do with the company. In January, Smith filed a lawsuit alleging that Van Pelt had unfairly cut him out of a business in which he had a sizable investment.
For months, the case has been a series of claims and counterclaims. Van Pelt has argued that the vegan cheese is her intellectual property and Smith was a reckless business associate. Smith has fired back that he gave her much of the money for the operation and is entitled to continuing ownership. Nothing seemed to be getting resolved until this month, when Platte County District Judge Abe Shafer ruled on a motion for a provisional director.
Van Pelt says she has wanted a third-party manager from the start. In March, her attorney filed for a provisional director, noting that “the directors of the corporation are equally divided and cannot agree as to the management of corporate affairs and the business can no longer be conducted to the advantage of its shareholders.”
At a hearing this month, Shafer took up Van Pelt’s motion and appointed Keith Hicklin of the law firm Witt, Hicklin and Snider in Platte City. According to court filings, Hicklin would “exercise all authority of a director of general business” and be compensated at a rate of $250 per hour for his services. Van Pelt says she’s confident that Hicklin will uncover objectionable financial practices by the current management.
“It’s just what Playfood needs,” she says.
But there’s one catch. In order for the director to take control, Smith and Van Pelt have to fork over a $10,000 deposit. Van Pelt says she doesn’t have $5,000 lying around.
Since June, Van Pelt has been operating a raw-vegan-food restaurant out of The Bad Seed, a warehouse-like space in the Crossroads that houses a Friday-evening farmers' market. Despite the fact that FuD has been packed for weekend dinners and Sunday brunch, Van Pelt says her venture there is not yet a moneymaker.
“People are coming. We have good clientele,” she said, as volunteer cooks prepared for the dinner rush last Friday. “But we’re just breaking even.”
Of course, even if Van Pelt can’t come up with the cash, the July hearing gave the two parties another option for ending their corporate conflict. The judge set a jury trial for December 3. – Carolyn Szczepanski