Gulf Drive Cafe owner Wendy Kokolis says she’s “trying to do the right thing” by offering a free ad in her upcoming to-go menu to any Island “scammed” in late 2010 by alleged advertising representative Jennifer Hill.
Hill, who claimed she and husband Greg were co-owners of Hill Advertising Inc. of Tampa, was retained by Kokolis in October 2010 to sell advertising for the cafe’s to-go menus.
“She said she was a company that got ads for restaurant menus. I normally use a local company, but I was in a hurry and she said she could do it immediately,” Kokolis said.
Kokolis also did a trade with Hill, giving her and her children free food at the restaurant in exchange for a discounted price for the to-go menus.
After four weeks of selling ads in and around Anna Maria Island and free dining at the café, Hill and her family disappeared. That was around early November, Kokolis said.
By early December, when she had not heard back from Hill, Kokolis began to get worried. She was supposed to have delivered a contract and proof by that then.
The restaurant owner’s efforts to reach Hill were unsuccessful: Hill’s telephone was disconnected, as was a North Carolina telephone number. E-mail inquiries were unanswered.
Island business owners who purchased ads from Hill for the menu also became concerned.
Joan Carter of J&J Graphics said she should have suspected something was amiss because Hill asked that the check for her ad payment be made out in her name.
Carter never saw a proof of her ad and her efforts to reach Hill were unsuccessful.
When Carter began to suspect something was amiss, she checked her bank statement.
“I found Hill had cashed the check the same day it was written. She must have taken it straight to my bank,” Carter said.
Kokolis estimated Hill took between $10,000 and $12,000 from 38 Island businesses planning to advertise in her menu booklet.
“Everybody fell for it,” Kokolis said. “I feel awful and stupid.”
Kokolis decided to take the losses herself and ordered menus from Hola Sunshine, paying for ads in the new menus for each company scammed by Hill.
“I want to do the right thing. I don’t want to have my name or the restaurant’s associated with Jennifer Hill, so I’m paying for everything.”
“But this woman needs to go to jail,” Kokolis said, with emphasis.
Kokolis said she’s advised everyone who paid Hill that Hola Sunshine’s offer of a free ad is “for real” and people should not think that’s a scam.
At the same time Hill was selling ads for the Gulf Drive Cafe, however, a woman named Michelle Thomas was on Anna Maria Island selling ads for similar menu booklets for Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe at the Manatee Public Beach.
Some business owners and managers got concerned when they heard about Hill and thought Thomas might be the same person, but using a different name.
Brenda Canning of Island Fitness became worried she had been scammed when she heard the word “cafe” used by a business owner who had bought an ad through Hill. Canning had purchased an ad from Thomas for the AMI Beach Cafe menus.
“It was just strange how both women were around selling the same thing at the same time, and the menu names were similar,” Canning said.
An inquiry by The Islander with the corporate headquarters of Menus To Go in California and with Thomas at her Largo office confirmed the AMI Beach Cafe menu project is legitimate. Those menus should be ready by mid-February, Menus To Go spokesperson Stephanie Sabatini said.
“We’re a large company that’s been in business more than 20 years. We enjoy a very good reputation, and we never accept checks made out to an individual,” Sabatini said.
Thomas said she’s received several calls from Island business owners worried about their ads with Menus To Go, or a sister publication Thomas represents, Entertainment Extra.
“People are confusing me with this Jennifer Hill,” Thomas said.
She noted that checks for an ad with Menus to Go or Entertainment Extra were made out to the company, not her or another individual.
Thomas said if an ad sales rep wants the check made out to them, there’s “probably something wrong with the deal.”