Did Cousin's Incredible Vitality Give Its Customers a Raw Deal?

Cousin's owner Mehmet Ak.

Raw-foods restaurant Cousin's Incredible Vitality closed at some point this fall. Now former customers are alleging on Yelp that they're out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for raw food "livebox" programs selling them greens and other ingredients at what appear to be very high prices. Behind it all seems to be the saga of a onetime conventional middle eastern restaurant operator turned evangelist for raw food, who according to the Yelp posters, at least, has now dropped out of sight.

Some background: Turkish-born Mehmet Ak worked in various kitchens around Chicago before opening the first of the small Cousin's chain of middle eastern restaurants in 1990. By 2001, he had become overweight and, around the same time, began taking personal development courses through Landmark Education, a new age organization descended from the work of 1970s est trainer-cult leader Werner Erhard. According to a Landmark website, he took a 28 day raw food detox program and apparently emerged from it with the zeal of the convert, closing his conventional restaurants and opening Cousin's Incredible Vitality on Irving Park in 2005.

At first glance Cousin's IV seemed like many other vegan or raw food restaurant-shops: wheatgrass on the counter, etc. But there were other sides to Ak's raw food business— notably various educational programs under the banner of Raw Gourmets International, "the Raw Culinary Art and Hospitality Institute," which awarded "the prestigious (RGI) Raw Gourmet International certification" to graduates. (There was also a bed and breakfast on the second floor, which explains the "Hospitality Institute" part.) Something about the way the business talked about itself, referring to Ak as "Master Chef Mehmet Ak" and making too-non-specific-to-verify claims of importance, sounds like the sort of thing you read about L. Ron Hubbard:

From this point on, the international reputation of Raw Gourmets International spread rapidly. Great chefs came to the school to teach students further, contributing to the world-renowned reputation of the raw culinary school. As a result, students from a variety of countries were enrolling in classes as well as notable restaurants start opening world wide.

Then somewhere around the beginning of August, Cousin's suddenly closed. The first mention of trouble on Yelp seems to be from Erin E. around August 10 (it's not clear if the updates to the post come from a later date):

UPDATE: Cousins's is CLOSED FOR BUSINESS and many of my poor friends had the lunch box specials with them (though many didn't like them) they LOST THEIR MONEY! BEWARE. They are closed but YELP WILL NOT update this fact! Sorry for all who lost money. The rude owner said they ran into money problems (publicly on this board)

The next wave of complaints don't come until October, suggesting that the restaurant may have reopened for some period before closing again. In any case, complaints about prepaid orders began piling up then. Rochelle P. on October 10:

I ordered the 2 month live food box and I am owed a month. No food and I can't get my money back. I was lied to last Monday and told I would receive my order (again). I found out the place had closed down last week - they guy that answered the phone could have at least told me to go grocery shopping! I got a call that they would reopen today... guess what? THEY ARE NOT OPEN!

Tara G. made some effort to figure out the situation, reporting on October 16:

just went to call today to get my LFB ready for pickup. no answer, mes says they are opening back up 10/10. website says 12/17. tape on voice mail is full. Yea, i bet it is.

Ak responded on October 18:

Dear Patrons of Cousin's Incredible Vitality
I want thank you for choosing cousin's and trusting us.
As you know Cousin's iv is more than a ordinary restaurant.
Cousin's Incredible Vitality exists to serve a growing community of health-conscious individuals.
We strive to offer the highest quality prepared gourmet raw food, products, services and education, while uniting those in search of knowledge with those who are well-informed, engaging in social activities, support groups and discussions.
Since October 5th. we have breakdown in our finances and leadership. That was enough reason the closed down temporarily.
We are responsible to resolve this and get it breakthrough and open back November 1th.
We now know that you all impacted by this breakdown.
How ever we are all working on this issues get resolved by the time November first Cousin's iv will be open to serve all of you again.
No one will be left out what ever kind of service you need we will continue where we left of. (live food box, curriculum class, detox, workshops etc.)
We are deeply apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you for your loyalty and your understanding.

happy radiant day

Chef Mehmet Ak

But in fact the restaurant has not reopened and the phone number is now disconnected; a notice about offering the restaurant for sale appears on the website's homepage. While we have no idea what the basis is for poster Valery S.'s claim that it "looks like Mehmet took the money and ran back to Turkey," it's true that there have been no further responses from Ak on Yelp.

It's also worth noting that we are not talking small sums here. According to the website, the two month plan Rochelle P. purchased costs $895.00 per person, while another Yelper who bought for a year appears to have shelled out as much $4,800.00 (assuming they just bought for a single person). Meanwhile, a response to a Yelp post by Ak gives a sense of the numbers at least claimed by the restaurant:

we have more than 7000 people member in our life box program and our detox program is one of most successful in Chicago area we prepare 1500 raw meals everyday plus we have got 25 people working at cousins more than 5 years now

A rough calculation of 1500 daily customers at $495 a month reveals an annual revenue of millions of dollars which, frankly, is hard to reconcile with our experience of the business itself or its apparent traffic levels. But even assuming hyperbole by a factor of 10, you have a nearly million-dollar annual business. Whatever has become of Ak since his business closed and he apparently stopped communicating in mid-October, it's clear that some of his customers, once attracted by his raw food model, claims of expertise, and spiritual enlightenment, are now disillusioned by the lack of communication or any effort to make good on their "liveboxes." Yelp poster Simon J.:

I want in with anyone who wants to get their money back... All this stuff Mehmet used to talk about . . . karma, love, gratitude, eastern philosophy, Landmark , yoga . . . all FAKE !!