Little John’s founder addresses food quality, lateness concerns, after major cutback on operations

At first, Maegan Cassel was sold on Little John’s big mission.
Updated: Mar. 27, 2023 at 9:45 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - At first, Maegan Cassel was sold on Little John’s big mission.

“That all sounded like a dream to me,” she said about her former employer. “You bring in food that is otherwise going to be tossed out by grocers, by farmers, and you turn it into chef-quality meals. You get it out into the community for people who either don’t have a nutritious meal or don’t have a meal at all.”

But now, she’s among multiple former employees who allege the Fitchburg nonprofit struggled for months to meet basic consumer needs, like delivering quality food on time.

On January 23, founding chef Dave Heide announced on Facebook that his organization would suspend most of its operations. He explained, food and labor costs went up. Also plans for a new kitchen unexpectedly fell through just as the lease at the time was about to end.

Chef Dave Heide is the founder of Little John's
Chef Dave Heide is the founder of Little John's(WMTV/Jason Rice)

“I wish that we didn’t have to do what we did,” Heide told NBC15 Investigates weeks after the news. “I wish that we had had more notice, but I think a lot of the narrative about what we did was really negatively focused about Little John’s, and I would say we literally tried our hardest.”

“No notice is no notice”

Heide’s announcement marked the end of multiple contracts, including a million-dollar one with Dane County. That one was supposed to be a yearlong job cooking for seniors in the area. But it was over, just 21 days later, according to Tanya Buckingham, a spokesperson for the county’s human services department.

“That completely ended for everybody with less than a day’s notice,” Angie Markhardt said about the January announcement on social media. She described the scramble that followed for senior center directors like her, whose task was to deliver the food prepped by Little John’s to community members.

The first page of a letter Dane Co. officials wrote to Dave Heide, the day after his...
The first page of a letter Dane Co. officials wrote to Dave Heide, the day after his announcement about suspending most operations(WMTV)

The day after the announcement, Dane Co. officials wrote to Heide. That letter, which Buckingham shared with NBC15, shows that officials also learned of the nonprofit’s decision to cut back through social media. The county called that decision “unilateral.” However, Heide said officials had known about his rush to find a new space to keep the work going.

“Regardless of what situation you’re in, no notice is no notice,” Markhardt said. At Belleville’s Sugar River Senior Center, Markhardt says she saw first-hand what the county letter also reveals, about “deficiencies in... preparation, handling and delivery” of meals.

“Every day. I would go back to Little John’s and to the county and say, ‘This is what went right. This is what went wrong,’ trying to improve the situation,” Markhardt said.

Midway through the county job, Human Services Interim Director Astra Iheukumere wrote about a meeting that included herself, Heide and another county representative. The conversation was about “the serious contract compliance issues impacting the safety and quality of the meals,” she wrote.

Concerns included food temperatures, delivery window and menus condoning “desserts that look broken, old, crumbly, or cut in half.” Feedback on food quality also called on Little John’s to avoid using multiple types of pasta to complete a dish. “Doing this makes the dish look haphazardly thrown together and as if we’ve run out of ingredients to service our meal recipients,” the letter stated.

Markhardt attests to issues with Little John’s delivery times. Ideally, she said, meals would stay at or above safe temperature at the senior center until they go out to seniors. “With Little John’s, we were never able to get them into the oven because they always came too late.”

Markhardt recalled her worst day as a time when the nonprofit gave her 11 fewer meals than the number of meals that were needed. That meant about half the requested meals were missing.

Former employees allege issues went further back

NBC15 spoke with multiple former employees who described the kitchen’s issues going further back months before January.

“Just about every single day, I was putting out a new fire,” Cassel, the former customer relations director, said. She kept texts from a local school administrator, who across multiple days wrote that food did not arrive on time or were missing lunches.

Maegan Cassel was a customer relations director at Little John's before she left in November...
Maegan Cassel was a customer relations director at Little John's before she left in November 2022.(Courtesy of Maegan Cassel)

“Our mission and our truth are not reflective of one another,” she wrote in her first resignation letter in July, around the time Heide’s new pay-what-you-can café was about to make headlines.

“Any time he wanted to tell the world about something that happened, there was something that was falling apart in the background,” Cassel said. “Knowing the behind-the-scenes, it was very hard to believe anything, anything that you heard.”

Until early January when he quit, Miles Allen also worked directly with customers.

Among the positive reviews were the bad. Allen showed NBC15 photos of what some customers complained about, including curdled milk and beans with a slimy texture.

According to Miles Allen, who formerly worked with Little John's customers, this image of milk...
According to Miles Allen, who formerly worked with Little John's customers, this image of milk was reported on Nov. 2, 2022.(Courtesy of Miles Allen)

“Staff were pulling food and making sure that it was quality before they sent it out usually. I think there were just too many, too many problems,” he said.

Heide attributes some complaints to the seller’s fault, but he also refers to the kitchen Little John’s used to work out of. It was too small to fit a cooler big enough to help with preparing food ahead of time.

“I’ll take full accountability for the fact that at some point we might have had some meals that went out, but is that a consistent? Did every single meal that went out, was it bad? Absolutely not. I take a lot of pride in the quality of food that we put out,” Heide said.

What Allen wants to know is why Heide added to the work by signing a “massive” contract with the county.

“We thought we’d have a kitchen big enough to do it,” Heide said, referring to the lease for a new kitchen that ultimately fell through.

Little John’s finances

Heide also took on the county contract because he wanted to help. “No one else was stepping up to do it,” he said.

He committed to the contract, even though he said his nonprofit was losing up to a dollar for every meal it made.

NBC15: Was Little John’s financially unstable?

Heide: I don’t think any start-up nonprofit is hyper stable... No, I don’t think most startups are that financially stable. I put in about $170,000 of my own money to help make sure we could keep those contracts going and to help make sure we could keep staff going.

NBC15: What do you think it’s like to hear the founder and, really, the face of Little John’s come out and say, ‘Little John’s is not financially stable’?

Heide: I would hope that they would see that as being transparent and not lying to them. I would hope. I mean, we’re trying to build a $10 million project. We’re trying to do it bootstrap. We’re trying to still help the community.

What’s next for Little John’s

The future home of Little John’s is located on Verona Road, off a busy highway south of Madison. The goal is still to raise enough money to build the “pay what you can” concept restaurant. The organization still has yet to add utilities and even own the property, as Heide revealed, rent has been going out for two years.

“Do you feel like that’s money wasted?” we asked him.

“You can say that, but if you don’t have a location, how do you plan on building it out? How do you draw plans? How do you fundraise for it?” Heide replied.

With a big space to itself, the nonprofit can cure any issues it had with delays or quality, Heide told us. “Having the right equipment for the right job is key, and, again, we really wanted to help, and we let that cloud our actual ability.”

In the latest move, Heide announced late last week that Little John’s will be working out of a temporary space at the old Doc’s Smokehouse at the West Towne Mall. The hope is to stay in that space until the Fitchburg property is fully ready, Heide said.

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