After being open for less than two months, Guyra’s stylish new café, Little Black Duck Food Company, has suddenly closed its doors, reportedly leaving staff, suppliers and local property owners out of pocket.
After opening with much fanfare on the 12th of December 2022, the cafe’s untimely closure and alleged financial misconduct by the owner, Heidi Harper, has surprised many.
Situated in the historically popular old Rafter’s restaurant site, locals were convinced that Little Black Duck would be the one to reinvigorate the site. Rafters has very fond memories for many Guyra locals and, after a number of failed culinary ventures at the address, Little Black Duck seemed to promise it all: café by day, restaurant by night and catering provided for local events. Matched with a slick interior and many very public promises to make this venue one to put on the map, the local community was very much behind the establishment.
By the majority of accounts, the café to date has been a success. Comments on the business’s Facebook page reflected a buzz of excitement leading up to the opening, and a raft of compliments once trading commenced. But, somewhere along the lines, things seem to have gone horribly wrong.
The last post on their previously very active social media page was on the 15th of January. It was around this time that ex-employee Amelia Kirk reported that things started to feel really off.
Ms Kirk told the New England Times that she was somewhat concerned initially by Ms Harper’s payment terms. She had been told that all casual staff would be paid on a fortnightly basis, as opposed to the industry norm of weekly pay. When after a few weeks of work Ms Kirk was still yet to be paid, she raised this issue with the business owner, only to be provided with a barrage of excuses, ranging from incorrect banking codes to delays in processing.
Ms Harper provided employees with hastily handwritten pay slips and also went to the extent of showing team members screenshots of transfers that she claimed to have made to their bank accounts. These transfers to date have not actually landed in many employees’ accounts.
Ms Harper sent text messages to her staff in a team Facebook group, in which she claimed she overpaid her staff because she wanted to “beat the rumours” so things wouldn’t “get out to the public”. She went on to state that she believes she paid staff up to double or quadruple what they were owed, pulling these funds back as another excuse for delayed payment.
Ms Harper even went so far as to state tell her young team that paying staff is a “major stress” and that staff “hounding” her wouldn’t make them get paid any faster.
“Most of Little Black Duck’s staff were very young and very inexperienced, and many would have had little or no knowledge of what they should have been paid,” Ms Kirk said.
In the week leading up to the business’s closure, Ms Kirk noted that opening hours became very erratic and it became increasingly difficult to get straight answers from her employer. Ms Harper reportedly told some staff that they could get their earnings out of the till, but the till was empty.
In Ms Harper’s last known communication to her staff in the Facebook group, on the 20th of January, she launches into a lengthy tirade, accusing “offenders in Guyra” of “stirring up this s**t storm”.
Harper claimed that fellow business owner David Murphy would be in total control of the business while she has a “tumour near her heart” removed in Brisbane. This was later contradicted on the 22nd by Mr Murphy himself who claimed that Ms Harper has “played every one of us”. He believes the claim of a tumour to be “an excuse to do a runner….and to do us all over”.
Mr Murphy expressed his deepest sorrow at the whole scenario and says that he is “left to pick up the pieces”.
Both Mr Murphy and owner of the Rafters building Toni Fuller have alluded to potential police involvement, with Mr Murphy explicitly discussing the police in his messages and Ms Fuller stating in a social media post that she “can’t share details” but that the business has “not closed because it folded” and had been making a good trade.
Multiple staff have been affected as well as multiple suppliers have been affected, including Synergy Coffee owner Grant Feenstra. The Newcastle-based coffee professional is well known in the New England area, supplying many local cafes with beans, equipment and training.
“I was completely blindsided,” Mr Feenstra said.
When he first met her in late 2022, he believed Ms Harper to have good intentions and a brilliant business model to bring to the region. He assisted her in procuring supplies for the business and aided in some of the initial staff training for the café. When Ms Harper kept ordering and continually neglected to pay her bills, however, he knew something wasn’t right.
“She now owes a significant amount of money but we can’t contact her.”
“This is just not how people in the country do business,” Mr Feenstra said.
One short-term light at the end of the tunnel is how well the local business community have pulled together to support those affected. Businesses such as the Guyra Royal Hotel have already begun offering positions to those interested in applying to work with them.