Vive ZenKitchen!

When the Ottawa Citizen ran a story detailing the sequence of events leading to ZenKitchen’s sudden closure,  I wanted to publicly support its owner, my friend and longtime supporter of the vegan community, David Loan, so I commented:

David Loan is a compassionate and ethical business person who was doing his very best to live up to all of his values through ZenKitchen. I’m sick to see something like this happen to him, and I’m hoping the community that has formed around ZenKitchen will offer him the support he needs through this difficult period.

(If you haven’t heard about the unfortunate CRA situation that has resulted in ZenKitchen closing, you can read about it here and here.)

One of the responses to my comment made me laugh out loud. (I actually did respond to it with LOL.)

Your definition of ethical is very different from others. Keeping the HST that the customers paid is a form of theft.

Yes, I’d say my definition of ethics definitely is different than others. The ethical code to which I hold myself is high. It goes beyond what’s merely legal or illegal, and encompasses how others should be treated, consideration for animals and the environment, with an overarching goal of limiting the harm that I cause to others.  Ethics aren’t just about what the law says.

And, while I encourage others to consider the impact of their own actions, I don’t throw individuals under the bus for not meeting my personal ethical code, unlike many of the armchair commentators I’ve seen piping up in judgment of this situation.

Let’s be clear: It is not a good business practice to use the money you’ve set aside for HST to cover your business expenses. Nobody, ever, has said that this is the case. In an ideal world, this would not happen.

That it did is not something that I think it’s worth throwing David Loan under the bus for, when you consider it in the context of his intentions, and the good he has done as an employer, a business owner, and a citizen.

Some of my friends and I with David and Caroline during ZenKitchen's pre-launch dinner event.  ZenKitchen has supported the National Capital Vegetarian Association since the moment the restaurant opened.

Some of my friends and I with David and Caroline not long after ZenKitchen opened. ZenKitchen has supported the National Capital Vegetarian Association since the moment the restaurant opened.

ZenKitchen by its very nature – a vegan restaurant – has reducing harm to animals and the environment, and improving the social fabric of our community, built into its core. This incredible restaurant – focused on fresh produce and whole food ingredients – has changed the hearts and minds of countless people about the potential of vegan food, a win for anyone who cares about animals. David, along with chefs Kyle and Caroline, deserve major props for their contributions in this area.

But the restaurant industry is hard, really hard. David fell upon a difficult time. He endured the break up of a business and life partnership, and the inevitable financial set backs that accompany that. Sales slowed, particularly last fall. (Another local gourmet restaurant, Domus, also closed this week stating the same cause, indicating that this isn’t a problem specific to ZenKitchen.)

He put all of his time and money into the business, trying to weather the storm. In trying to stay open and keep his team employed, he ran afoul of the CRA.

To me, it seems counterproductive to choose this moment to get onto a high horse and pass scathing judgment of David Loan, a person who every single step of the way has tried to do the right thing.

In an economy of McJobs, squeezing employees and suppliers, and producing worthless crap that people don’t need that also pollutes our environment and harms other people and animals, David Loan is not the villain. He does not deserve our hostility.

It is each individual’s prerogative whether or not they will support the campaign that’s underway to save ZenKitchen. I don’t pass judgment on those who choose not to, as there are so many worthy causes and initiatives to which one may contribute.

I just plead with people to keep their judgment in check, and remember the old adage “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Most of us will experience a fall from grace at some point in our lives (mine was six years ago, and it changed me forever), and I’m sure we all hope that when our time comes we’ll be met with kindness and empathy, rather than haughty indignance.

Many of us have done far worse than this. We aren’t that different from David Loan; none of us are perfect, and if you are, please accept my hearty congratulations.

I wish nothing but the best for David, Kyle, and the rest of the ZenKitchen team as they seek to rebuild and repay. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to build many more memories in your company. Thank you for everything you’ve done to make Ottawa a more compassionate and delicious place.

With Caroline and Dave at Veg Fest, which they sponsored for several years.

With Caroline and Dave at Veg Fest, which they sponsored for several years.

 

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16 thoughts on “Vive ZenKitchen!

  1. Hans Gutbrod says:

    I am no longer in Canada, but have to say that Zen Kitchen was an absolute highlight for eating in Ottawa. I agree with everything you say, first and foremost it’s deeply regrettable that this great place is no more. I hope some version of it will be recreated, and hope to go to it next time I am in Ottawa. To the entire Zen Kitchen team, thanks for creating so many great experiences.

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  2. Marie Roxanne says:

    Thank you for this article. I haven’t been to Zen kitchen because of my my low income. I am shocked at all the judgement that is passed instead of trying to understand the situation. There are not many vegan places in Ottawa and I hope they can re-open.

    Like

  3. TH says:

    PS to my previous comment –
    “Let’s be clear: It is not a good business practice to use the money you’ve set aside for HST to cover your business expenses. Nobody, ever, has said that this is the case. In an ideal world, this would not happen.

    That it did is not something that I think it’s worth throwing David Loan under the bus for, when you consider it in the context of his intentions, and the good he has done as an employer, a business owner, and a citizen.”

    I also have a problem with your undercutting the seriousness of faililng to remit HST as “not a good business practice” that “in an ideal world, would not happen”. Doing so is illegal and a breach of trust. It is far more severe than “a bad business practice”.

    Finally, while you may argue that it’s not so bad when you consider the context of his intentions (which I guess was to make good food and not screw over his employees or suppliers) I can understand your position even though I disagree. But to add that “as a citizen” to that — his failure to remit HST is a massive failure as a citizen and has impact on his fellow citizens. To me he chose people he knows (his employees) over people he doesn’t (the other taxpaying citizens of this country). It’s an easy choice, but that doesn’t make it right or “good”

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  4. pamelatourigny says:

    You make good points TH, but I would agree with you more if David hadn’t been actively trying to remedy the situation.

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    • TH says:

      I do appreciate that, Pamela, and I’m sorry my first half of my comment didn’t go through. As you may note from it, I acknowledge that he tried to make it right, and I don’t judge him as a person.

      He made a mistake that he tried to fix. But that doesn’t delete the mistake from history. I don’t disagree with you that people may be seeing the one HST fact and deciding he’s a horrible terrible person and being critical on that one fact instead of the big picture, but I think in responding to that, you can’t whitewash away that he did something serious and wrong. The stronger argument is that even though he DID do something wrong, he’s not a bad person and he’s tried to resolve the HST situation by repaying CRA.

      Some people will say “yeah, once they caught him, he agreed to repay so they wouldn’t shut him down” while others will say “he made a mistake, but I see that he wanted to make it right”. That’s in the eyes of the beholder.

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      • pamelatourigny says:

        Yes, and that’s fair enough. I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to articulate a reasoned and balanced opinion. It was terribly discouraging to see all of the snide, ill-informed commentary amongst those who isolate the one piece of information in forming their opinion. Granted, yes, David’s transgression is absolutely not “ok” I just think it’s a lot more complex than people who base their morality purely on law and order are characterizing it.

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      • TH says:

        Agreed. Snapping to judgment based on one fact is rarely going to lead to the right conclusion, and I appreciate that you obviously have a connection to David and this post was made in frustration with some extreme commenters.

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      • pamelatourigny says:

        There was a time when I would have been on my high horse, issuing my judgement from on high. Life happened and I made my own mistakes, so I try to keep that in check now. I think it is more productive to try to understand where others are coming from, and work with them if possible, rather than condemn them outright.

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  5. TH says:

    Not sure if my first comment actually got posted since the browser crashed, so I’ll rebuild it briefly:

    I don’t know David. I’ve never been to his restaurant and I have no particular judgment about him as a person. But I have a big problem with you statement that he is “a person who every single step of the way has tried to do the right thing.”

    You choose to minimize or ignore his failure to remit HST. In my work, I deal with others who have failed to remit to CRA. What people fail to realize is that when you collect HST, it’s not your money. Not just “you owe it to the govenment” – it literally is not your money. It’s held in trust for the govenment. The customer effectively is saying “this money is tax – it’s for the govenment, and I trust you to give it to them” and the Govenment similarly allows you to collect it trusting you will turn it over.

    This is not “he chose to pay suppliers or employees before paying CRA. This is “he chose to take CRA’s money and use it to pay his employes and suppliers in the hopes he could keep running his business, because he needs those people to be happy with him to keep operating.” That money was property of CRA, and indirectly the rest of the citizens of Canada as taxpayers. We are paying more in taxes because people like this don’t turn over money that is CRA’s. I don’t see how you can argue this is not morally wrong.

    I have no doubt David is a nice guy and 90% of his actions have been positive and with good intentions. I’m sure he never set out to harm anyone, and his goals have always been admirable, but don’t make statements that nothing he’s done is wrong when it’s not true.

    He had a choice. Had he turned the money over to CRA as the law required, he could have tried to find interim funding somewhere else. He could have realized that the business was not sustaining itself and closed shop or made cost cuts. He chose to misappropriate CRA funds.

    i recognize that in the articles I read, it suggests that David tried to make it right with CRA and agreed to a payment plan which CRA backed out of all of a sudden. That is a seperate issue, and something that may also be morally problematic from CRA’s side, but that doesn’t erase his misappropriation of CRA funds.

    I understand you care about this person/business but you should not criticize others who are looking objectively at this from having objective opinions.

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    • pamelatourigny says:

      Your comment wasn’t successfully posted the first time, no.

      I am not criticizing individuals, as much as the inclination to have knee-jerk reactions towards those who are struggling or who have made (well-intentioned) mistakes or errors in judgement. I would definitely agree that David probably had a few other options, but perhaps as he felt the walls closing in they did not occur to him, or seemed impossible. That’s my whole point: We just don’t know. Also, I don’t believe I have at any point said that he has done nothing wrong. That is a mischaracterization.

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      • TH says:

        I appreciate that this exchanged has been respectful and I have no intention of turning it adversarial, so thank you for that.

        In your article you describe David as “a person who every single step of the way has tried to do the right thing.” While this doesn’t explicitly say he’s never done anything wrong, it suggests that he at least (if not you) considered what he did (including taking the HST) to be “the right thing”.

        Further, in your opening, you discuss a comment exchange in which your definition of ethics is challenged. Your response suggests (in my reading, I stand to be corrected) that you don’t consider his taking the HST to be unethical, even if it was illegal. I consider ethics to be a code of “right” vs. “wrong”, so to suggest that what he did was ethical, to me equates it “right” and “not wrong”. Again, I’m not talking about his ethics on the whole, but the ethics of this one action.

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      • pamelatourigny says:

        I have worked with ZK with the NCVA for a number of years, and what I noticed is that over the past year in particular he took very concrete steps to improve his business, and increase cash-flow to ZK. When I say he has tried to do the right thing, it’s not so much about saying that using the HST is “the right thing,” as much as commentary that I think he was making a very strong effort to improve his revenues so that the HST would not be an issue. I believe he had every reason to believe that he could turn it around, but that ultimately he was in over his head.

        In my opening, I am challenging the broad sense that ethics can be defined strictly by legality. Perhaps this isn’t even possible, but while I can’t say that I consider David to be “unethical”, I also don’t consider this particular action to be “ethical” either. I think that given the challenges of his situation, it’s incredibly grey. I think I would feel differently if the money had been misappropriated and used for outright personal enrichment. And if I were to find out that was the case, I would have to revise my position.

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  6. Paul Whissell says:

    Actually, you didn’t just reply to the comment with “LOL”, but rather “LOL ok whatever.” A bit condescending, no?

    Many many people agreed that it is not ethical to use the collected HST as restaurant income (including other restaurant owners that offered advice as to how they keep it separate in a holding account).

    Perhaps because you know David and you like the restaurant that it is YOUR judgement that is clouded? He’s likely a wonderful guy with a great restaurant. But it is closed now. Blog about that perhaps.

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    • pamelatourigny says:

      Hi Paul, i’ve been ignoring what i have assumed are your attempts to debate on the Citizen article (I get notifications but haven’t checked back) as I’m not interested debating. You know that nobody owes you a debate, right? I stated my support for someone who yes, i consider a friend, and that support isn’t up for debate. I’m not interested in being part of an internet peanut gallery.

      To be clear, I’ve never said it was ok or ethical to avoid making one’s HST payments, nor is that the position i hold. That is something you think I believe, despite my not having stated so. It isn’t. That said, Dave also wasn’t trying to avoid it, but rather, was overwhelmed by a number of setbacks.

      My point, which you continue to miss, is that we don’t know all the circumstances that affect situations like this, which puts all of us in a poor position to judge and pile on someone. And the point I make here is that I personally derive my moral and ethical drivers from things beyond the law. The law is a tool, and yes very important, but not a be all and end all in terms of prescribing what is ethical. By stating this, I am not speaking specifically to HST and taxation law, just in general. A lot of people use the law as their moral code, and do not develop past that. There are plenty of things that are perfectly legal, but by my personal moral compass are considered unethical.

      I have written about ZenKitchen since, you just haven’t read it.

      i won’t be engaging with you any further on this. Thanks in advance for respecting that.

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      • Paul Whissell says:

        I certainly agree that no debate is owed to me or others. But inherently, when you comment – as you have several times in response to others’ posts – that in itself is you engaging in debate. Have a nice day, and an even better weekend. 🙂

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