Dot-Bomb

Foodline.com strings freelancers along.

Another dot-com company has gone bust, hitting several local freelance restaurant writers where it really hurts -- in the pocketbook. Instead of collecting overdue paychecks, contributors to Foodline.com are being offered used furniture and computer hardware salvaged from Foodline's corporate offices in New York. How an Arizona resident is supposed to pick up a desk from Manhattan isn't addressed.

Foodline, offering online restaurant reservations, guides and menus in 25 U.S. cities, currently is "marketing the company for a sale/merger," according to a confidential e-mail sent to editorial contributors last week from Tom Infantino, chief operating officer. "If Foodline owes you money, you may offset that amount by accepting assets in lieu of cash."

The offer is hard to swallow for Sharon Salomon, a Phoenix freelance writer who's owed more than $750. A stringer since June, she's so upset she's asked the Arizona attorney general to investigate the company. Foodline continued to accept her contributions for almost a month after management knew it would be unable to pay, she says. An article in the Wall Street Journal last month noted that Foodline's firing surge began in early August, yet Salomon's editor continued to accept her submissions until September. A September 22 e-mail from Infantino promised Foodline was "closer to closing the round of financing. When we close the financing, we will pay you immediately."

"I don't think they just woke up one morning and found out they had no money," says Salomon. "I kept working on good faith. I'm so angry."

Another local restaurant writer, freelancer Robert Stempkowski, got off easier. He received his contract on August 11, a Friday. On Monday, he was told writers were being placed on hiatus. "I guess it's another dot-come, dot-go situation," he says. At least two other local writers are awaiting word on their paychecks but declined comment.

Foodline.com didn't make a significant impact in the Valley. Although the menu guide lists more than 300 local restaurants, only five signed up for Foodline's profit center of real-time, online reservations (meaning diners can see what tables are open and book one immediately). None have been activated, although as late as October 17, a Foodline e-mail indicated its sales agents were still soliciting in Phoenix.

The impact on Valley freelancers is more significant than just a missed paycheck. Salomon's contract paid her $25 for each 60-word blurb she wrote on a restaurant, and Stempkowski's contract promised him a retainer of $2,000 a month for work he estimated would take just a few hours a week.

"It was a great deal," says Solomon. "I figured it worked out that I was making $150 an hour. I would have done it until I died."

 
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