How sisters’ food business has survived pandemic, $160K scam, winds of change … and continues to persevere

There’s strife, there’s struggle … and then there’s what Monique Hudson and her sister, Monica Semley, have gone through with their family food business.

But, neither the devastating effect of the pandemic on their Coffee & Cornbread restaurant in Montclair, nor the subsequent scam they fell victim to that they say robbed them of $160,000 have been enough to get Hudson to start talking about throwing in the towel.

“You can’t give up,” she said. “No matter what’s in front of you, you have to keep pushin’.”

Monique Hudson, left, and her sister, Monica Semley.

The local restaurateur sisters are busy repositioning their small business, as they have several times before when encountering challenges. Hudson is ardent about keeping the business going (and growing) indefinitely.

She wouldn’t have left a comfortable executive role at the hotel business Marriott International otherwise.

“I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur; I like dictating my own time,” she said. “So, we decided to open up (a restaurant) in 2017 where we could do breakfast differently. We wanted to make everything to order. And we’ve never stopped being passionate about that.”

She and her sister also have remained passionate about giving back to the community. In fact, working with nonprofit partners on grant-funded food insecurity programs is what kept them afloat when their lease came to an end at the start of the pandemic and regular business fell off a cliff.

They had continued doing that until they had saved enough money to renovate a flagship storefront for a grand return to in-person dining.

“We hired another small business that we had met in a business incubator,” she said. “What ended up happening was this: They stole our money.”

An architect that also felt scammed contacted the sisters and let them know that the person doing their project was a million dollars in debt, had been bouncing checks and had probably already run away with their money.

Although they’ve contacted the FBI, they said, there are a lot of other businesses already waiting in line to reclaim lost money. Hudson said they found out too late that the person they contracted for the renovation work had nine liens on their business.

This all transpired at a time when the local business owners were visiting their mother, who was sick in the hospital with a lung disease.

“We had a lot of moving pieces, which is why this was able to happen,” she said.

Ultimately, they had to operate for half a year with no revenue coming in. All their savings went to paying bills.

Hudson said she felt as though this would be the final nail in the coffin for their enterprise.

“I’ve been running this business for five years; I have two kids,” she said. “I have everything in this business. … So, we were stressed. But, you can’t bury your head in the sand. You have to figure it out. And that’s what we did.”

The other business entities and professionals involved in the renovation project, who Hudson said hadn’t been paid and could’ve easily gotten their food business shuttered, decided to help finish the work instead. Hudson, a woman of strong faith, said she believes it was an answered prayer.

The sisters, however, are still in a regroup mode. They’ve temporarily closed their brick-and-mortar location — operating out of a commissary kitchen for the time being — to try to roll out a meal prep and catering business.

“This is what I love to do,” Hudson said. “I love to cook and explore. So (entirely) closing wasn’t an option. We’re doing what we have to to reinvent ourselves.”

What makes family businesses different?

Natalie McVeigh, managing director in EisnerAmper’s Private Client Services Group, has worked with global family businesses with top-notch cybersecurity teams.

She’s just as familiar with family businesses that have “cousin John running their IT … and a lot of holes in their system because of it.”

Natalie McVeigh. (File photo)

How at-risk family businesses are when it comes to cybercriminals and scams depends a lot on the resources they have at hand.

“So, I wouldn’t say family businesses are more vulnerable than other businesses,” McVeigh said. “However, they do need to be thorough in their risk assessments.”

If there is a general observation McVeigh can make about family businesses, it’s that they’ve often been built with a singular focus in mind. That might not always include risks.

“You’re good at what you’re good at, and not necessarily paying attention to the things you don’t want to spend time paying attention to,” she said. “That could be cybersecurity, compliance, finances or anything else.”

That also means that — although there are exceptions — family businesses might not be as involved in testing out the trending tech toys of the day, such as the artificial intelligence-powered ChatGPT.

“As a general rule, family businesses can tend to use more traditional tools, and don’t tend to go in the direction (of advanced technologies) until they’re tried and true,” she said. “I had clients that wouldn’t get into emailing for longer than you’d expect.”

McVeigh added that there are some features of family businesses that tend to make them resilient to certain risks, including downturns in the economy.

“Part of why is that family businesses usually run with little to no debt, and that makes them very agile,” she said. “They’re not as beholden to banks, because they tend to keep more cash in the business.”