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They weren't a licensed food establishment. "This was all under the radar of the IRS," Van Pelt adds. "This was free cash."
The couple was also making a killing on the stock market. In 2003, Van Pelt got a tip from an environmentally savvy friend about Save the World Air, a sure-bet company that manufactured clean-air technology for cars. That year, Smith bought 600,000 shares and 600,000 options at 50 cents each. The stock peaked at $3. Smith says the couple netted more than a million dollars.
"It was a party house every night of the week," Van Pelt says. "And I don't just mean dinner — I mean party. We had poles in our house for people to play on. Half of my friends were strippers."
"It was like Burt Reynolds' house in Boogie Nights," confirms Whinery, who sometimes visited.
But being back in Los Angeles accentuated the couple's age difference. Van Pelt started to resent her still-teenage husband. During the restaurant parties, he got to play host, having all the fun in the front of the house. "Taran just enjoyed being a party monster all the time while I was sweeping and cleaning," she says. "It was pretty much a nightmare. Like Cinderella and the stepsisters — I always felt like I was trapped by the evil stepsisters in L.A."
The Playfood buzz kept them together longer than their affection lasted, Smith says. In mid-2005 he suggested that they break up. When she refused, he proposed an open relationship. A week before Van Pelt's 37th birthday, he came back to Missouri to spend the weekend with Whinery. And another woman.
He remembers Van Pelt's words as he left for Kansas City: "Make sure she's pretty and use a condom."
When she heard that Smith had spent the weekend decked out in costumes and wigs, partying in Westport with another woman, she says, "Basically, I broke every dish in the house."
Meanwhile, their restaurant patrons were eager to see Van Pelt's cashew cheese in grocery stores. Though they were sleeping in different beds, the couple tried to reconcile. After all, they'd just secured a storefront in the up-and-coming Studio City neighborhood, with plans to turn it into a Playfood restaurant. The space wasn't big enough to produce commercial volumes of cheese, so they hoped to find a manufacturing facility in Kansas City and divide their time between Sherman Oaks and Westport.
Then Smith went to Burning Man, an annual festival of art, music and drugs in the middle of the Nevada desert, with one of Van Pelt's good friends.
For Van Pelt, that was the end. "I said, 'That's it. We're done. I'm definitely moving to Kansas City. Period.'"
When Marsha Duncan visited her daughter in Los Angeles, she felt out of place. Duncan says it was surprising to see Van Pelt in the Hollywood crowd.
"Her husband and those people were extremely creative, intelligent, but different, you know?" she says. "She lived that lifestyle where there wasn't any kind of set schedule going on."
When Van Pelt called in 2005 to say that she and Smith were thinking about a production plant in Kansas City, Duncan found a warehouse-type space in the commercial caves under Park University.
Smith shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to install electricity, put up walls and paint the interior striking shades of orange and green.