By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Richard Williams saw himself as the pie-and-cookie mogul of Dallas. He envisioned a huge plant churning out thousands of his cheese cakes and pecan pies, a fleet of his trucks delivering them to bake shops and restaurants across Texas--maybe even the country. It was a dream Williams and his wife, LaJeanne, nourished for 13 years, from the day they started Scratch Bake Bakery in the tiny kitchen of their suburban DeSoto home.
The dream seemed to be coming together last year, with Scratch Bake poised to offer the rest of the city what southern Dallas residents already had--the joys of its homemade desserts.
Richard Williams rented an empty storefront downtown, bigger by far than the store on Camp Wisdom Road that Scratch Bake moved into after outgrowing the DeSoto kitchen. He ordered stainless-steel tables, mixers with bowls big enough to lie down in, and ovens that could bake 28 pies at a time.
The company doubled its staff, hiring much of its work force--as Richard Williams liked to do--from among the city's most marginal people: single parents on welfare, ex-convicts, and others needing a second chance.
The second location would be easily accessible to people from all parts of the city. Heavy corporate hitters like American Airlines and Nordstrom had signed letters saying they would place orders with Scratch Bake.
The one missing ingredient was money, but the Williamses weren't worried about that. Bank of America had already loaned Scratch Bake $100,000 to start its expansion. And, the Williamses would claim in a lawsuit, they had been assured by Don Ford, a bank vice president, that the second $100,000 loan needed to complete the project was on its way. Based on the bank's representations, the Williamses bet the business.
And they lost.
Bank of America never loaned the couple the promised money. Instead, the bank delayed funding the loan, and ultimately killed it. The Williamses found themselves spending nearly all of their money to keep Scratch Bake afloat as they scrambled for capital.
Their efforts failed, and so did the bakery, putting 22 people out of work and scorching the 13-year-old dream.
A year later, bitter confusion has replaced the sweet taste of success. The Williamses still don't understand why a business with a successful track record like theirs was suddenly shunned by the bank. Their speculations keep leading them to the color of their skin. LaJeanne Williams says the couple has lived in Dallas too long not to consider race a factor. At the very least, the Williamses feel they are victims of the excessive burdens placed on minority-owned businesses trying to work their way up.
"I don't think they dealt with us in good faith," LaJeanne Williams says. "I don't think they intended to give us the money.
"It seems like it's OK for you to make money, as long as it's a little bit," she says. "But don't try to make too much...or you're stepping on toes."
The couple now is suing Bank of America, claiming it lied to Scratch Bake about the loan. The bank, Richard Williams says, deliberately dragged out funding the loan while Scratch Bake spent its way into a financial hole. The bank continually misrepresented the status of the loan, the lawsuit contends. And because the Williamses believed the bank's promise that the money was forthcoming, they lost their livelihood.
Bank of America will say nothing in its own defense. Numerous telephone calls to Jeffrey King, the bank's Dallas attorney, and bank officials in California, where the loan was handled, yielded only a "no comment" from bank spokesman John Keane. "We will defend ourselves in court," he says.
The suit has become a sort of crusade for Richard Williams, who sees a higher purpose in the bakery failure. God may not want him to become the next Famous Amos yet, he says, but he can try to make sure no one else is so unjustly treated.
"I think it's important that people understand...the stalling tactics they use," Richard Williams says. "It seems what they want to do is wear the person down so that they give up. I honestly believe there is a story to be told."
To hear the Williamses tell it, theirs was an accidental foray into the baking business.
Richard Williams, 45, used to be a counselor at the Dallas County Youth Village. At 6 foot 9 and more than 300 pounds, he is built more like a football player than a baker. LaJeanne Williams, 48, had spent nearly 20 years of her life working at Southwestern Bell, baking only occasionally for her family.
In 1982, the couple's daughter needed to raise money for a choir trip to Florida. Someone suggested that LaJeanne Williams bake a couple of cakes and pies and raffle them off to co-workers. The raffle went well, and yielded an added bonus.
"People started asking me to bake for them," LaJeanne Williams says. The Williamses began taking orders for desserts, and for the first year baked in the modest kitchen of their home. Then the couple landed a contract to make desserts for Partners restaurant, owned by Joe "Mean Joe" Greene, former defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was time to open a real store, and Richard Williams scouted locations. He found one in downtown Duncanville, and Scratch Bake Bakery had its first actual business address. Several years later, the company moved from Duncanville to its Camp Wisdom Road location.