Georgia Chopsticks LLC, 102 Brady Road, Americus was closed Thursday just after 2 p.m. when lawyers descended and the company was placed into receivership. A temporary restraining order was also in effect so that records could not be destroyed or removed. The court order was signed on April 18 by a Bleckley County Superior Court judge.
Bobby L. Scott, a Columbus attorney representing Mijeong Kwak and Top Holding Management Group Inc., was on site along with attorneys from Bibb and DeKalb counties.
Deputies with the Sumter County Sheriff's Office were also on site and would remain so, off the County clock, for security later.
Jae Lee, one of the owners of Georgia Chopsticks, was asked by the Times-Recorder for comment. He said, "No comment. This will be straightened out."
Lee was placing luggage and other belongings into a Honda at the plant.
There had been about 10 or 12 employees on site earlier Thursday and they were asked to leave the premises by law enforcement officers.
This newspaper reported in March that Jae Lee allegedly owes Top Holding Management Group Inc., in Overland, Kans., $1.3 million and the company had asked local authorities to intervene for fear that Lee is a “flight risk.”
Top Holding filed a complaint of theft with the Americus Police Department on March 16, stating that Lee owed the company $1.3 million “due to the chopstick factory closing.”
According to the report, the representative of the holding company, Deb Leslie, told police that Lee sent the company a check for $1,341,995.46 dated Feb. 29, 2012, but the check bounced due to insufficient funds in the account. Leslie told police Lee was contacted concerning the bounced check and Lee stated his intention to rectify the situation by sending a cashier’s check; however, the check never arrived.
Leslie told police Top Holding Management Group had spoken to local District Attorney Plez Hardin about the matter. She also said Lee “has done this to others also” and she “is afraid Lee is a flight risk and will go back to China.”
At its April 3 meeting, Americus-Sumter County Payroll Development Authority (PDA) executive director David Garriga provided an update on Georgia Chopsticks. He said there were “a lot of rumors going around,” concerning the status of the business. PDA member Mike Donnelly commented that the business was “making product” as he has seen the production activity going on at the plant.
They just shipped 15 million chopsticks the other day,” Garriga said, adding that he had spoken with the principle of the company, David Hughes, who said there are no plans to close the plant as there are many orders to fulfill.
Garriga explained that the company needs more machinery to complete the orders it currently has.
“Right up front (Hughes) has dispelled any notion of a closure right now,” Garriga continued. Concerning the report in the Times-Recorder that Americus Police are investigating a theft complaint from Top Holding Management Group, Garriga said that he was told the whole thing is a “misunderstanding.” He (Hughes) said it was an error and this situation has been taken care of, but they’re not going to close.”
When contacted Friday, Garriga had no comment on Thursday’s events at the chopsticks plant.
In October 2011, the City of Americus and River Valley Regional Commission were considering loaning and otherwise making available almost a quarter-million dollars to Georgia Chopsticks.
Mandy Young, director of community and economic development for the City, said in October that a loan review committee had met. The $200,000, from the City’s revolving loan program, if approved by Council, would be made to Jae S. Lee and J. David Hughes. River Valley was also considering making a $200,000 loan.
City CEO Charlotte Cotton outlined the conditions of the loan from the City. These conditions include documentation of the number of employees hired since start-up, collateral of a first lien on the building which is owned by the Americus-Sumter County Payroll Development Authority, personal guarantees from Lee and Hughes, copies of contracts with various companies the manufacturer sells to, proof of cash injection of $268,000 since start-up, copies of Lee’s and Hughes’ tax returns and that within 45 days of closing on the loan, the manufacturer will hire a professional plant manager.
In addition, the City of Americus was also considering applying for an EIP grant in the amount of $500,000 from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs for Georgia Chopsticks. The grant must be given to a municipality, Cotton said, and this grant is not yet funded. If it is granted, the River Valley Development Commission will get $30,000 to administer the grant.
All this money was for a proposed expansion at Georgia Chopsticks, the addition of a new natural gas boiler and a building to house it, as well as a new road to the addition.
In May 2011, the announcement by the PDA that Georgia Chopsticks was coming to Americus was met with great fanfare and excitement, especially with the promise of 150 new jobs.
Garriga credited the PDA’s board of directors, Georgia Power and South Georgia Technical College (SGTC) as being instrumental in accommodating the manufacturer and helping with a smooth transition. The Sumter County government and Americus-Sumter County Chamber of Commerce were recognized for their efforts as well.
Garriga also commended the City of Americus, which he said worked closely with the PDA on the project. Mayor Barry Blount was present at the Rees Park Economic Development Center for the announcement and welcomed Lee and his colleagues to the “best city in the state of Georgia.” Blount wished the company success and expressed his hope that many residents of Americus and Sumter County make up the workforce at Georgia Chopsticks.
PDA Chairman Paul Hall also briefly addressed the Lee and his collaborators.
“It’s a great day to be able to come together and hear some good news,” Hall said. “I know why people put their businesses where they do, and it’s because of bottom line potential,” he added.
Vice President for economic development at SGTC, Wally Summers, told the group that the technical college is doing its part to make sure the company has the trained workforce it needs by providing forklift training and certification for Georgia Chopsticks employees.
The company received world-wide attention, appearing in countless domestic publications as well on the BBC and in National Geographic. The idea of making chopsticks in the U.S. for export to China was unique.