August 30, 2013

Columbia bridal boutique, bakery declare bankruptcy

The owner of a bridal boutique and bakery in the Vista who shut the businesses’ doors abruptly earlier this month filed for bankruptcy Thursday.

The owner of a bridal boutique and bakery in the Vista who shut the businesses’ doors abruptly earlier this month filed for bankruptcy Thursday.

That has left some brides wondering if they will get their wedding gowns or bridesmaid dresses in time. Some are moving forward to find replacements.

Bella Vista Bridal and Wedding Boutique, which has been in the Vista for less than a decade, and Lady Antoinette’s French Bakery, which opened next door less than a year ago, shut down two weeks ago.

A phone message at Bella Vista tells callers the store is closed temporarily until Aug. 19 for “inventory, administrative purposes and pest extermination.”

However, the stores remained closed Friday, and the owner, Larry “Ren” Judice, filed paperwork Thursday with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in South Carolina seeking Chapter 7 personal and business bankruptcies, which means his assets will be liquidated to pay creditors.

Attempts to reach Judice this week were unsuccessful. His attorney, Nancy Johnson, said Judice was “very concerned” about getting dresses to customers who had ordered dresses and have upcoming weddings.

“He can’t leave the brides in a lurch; he knows that,” Johnson said.

However, the store is now under control of an agent of the bankruptcy court, Johnson said. Judice has provided the names and wedding dates to the agent in an attempt to make sure the brides will get their dresses, Johnson said.

Creditors, including brides waiting for their dresses, soon will get a notice in the mail from the bankruptcy court with further instructions, Johnson said.

Johnson said sales at the boutique struggled to recover after declining sales during the recent recession. Bankruptcy records show Judice owes $50,000 in payroll taxes to the Internal Revenue Service and $10,500 in sales taxes to the S.C. Department of Revenue.

“It’s very sad,” she said. “It’s a beautiful store.”

Before Judice filed for bankruptcy, the store sent a letter obtained by The State to customers with dresses on order that said the owners decided to close Aug. 19. It painted a different picture of the reason for closing. Johnson said she was not aware of the letter.

“The decision to (close) was very difficult and came, unexpectedly, due to a cascade of issues with the building which were ‘the straws that broke the camel’s back,’” the letter stated.

The letter included photos of rats and rat droppings in the store and said, “The final decision was based on ending any risk to the health of ourselves, our staff, or our customers.”

The store has 27 unfulfilled dress orders and assures brides – in bold, all-capital letters – that they will get their dresses as long as they return an enclosed registration card, the letter said.

Johnson declined comment on the letter and said any news would come from court.

But some customers were not taking chances.

David’s Bridal on Harbison Boulevard said it had heard from two brides and several other special-occasion customers this week who were clients at Bella Vista, district manager Kimberly Bridgers said.

David’s Bridal has arranged to offer 40 percent discounts through Sept. 8 for off-the-rack dresses to customers who have receipts showing they have put down deposits on dresses at Bella Vista.

“The situation saddened us, and we wanted to do something to help,” Bridgers said.

Other brides were worried about wedding cakes they had ordered from the bakery, said Sarah Lewis, executive director of the Congaree Vista Guild, who said she has fielded emails from a couple of “desperate brides” in recent days.

Lewis said the bridal shop was packed with customers during South Carolina’s tax-free weekend in early August.

“People are just looking for answers, and I don’t know what to tell them,” said Lewis, who said she had reached out to shop owners but had not heard back from them as of Friday.

The bankruptcy paperwork offers some clues.

The filings show a pending eviction from the business space at 929 Gervais St. The paperwork also shows that Bella Vista owes $17,000 to the landlord – more than half of the nearly $31,000 in listed claims. The personal bankruptcy paperwork lists debts of more than $123,000 and a pending divorce. The business filing shows more than $393,000 in personal property, including $250,000 worth of wedding gowns, $78,000 worth of special occasion gowns and $25,000 in bridesmaid dresses.

That inventory likely will be sold at an auction, said Johnson, Judice’s attorney.

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