A Tangled Web Café

Cherries Internet Café shuts down amid controversy. But what was it, exactly?

Cherries Internet Café, the Market Square business that opened with much media fanfare in late September, has already closed, with its owners tangled up in recriminations and lawsuits.

But its founder, Ingrid Gee, insists the idea for Cherries was innovative, marking the invention of a new type of media.

After being open for a few weeks, the cafe closed in November. Affordable Home Builders, a contractor who did renovations on the space, is suing the business for $43,909 in unpaid bills, according to court records.

"I'm not sure it ever really opened," says David Dewhirst, a co-owner of 17 Market Square, where Cherries was located. "I think its opening and closing were pretty much simultaneous. They had some cash flow problems."

At least publicly, there was confusion about what the business was. From the outside, it looked like an Internet café, more common in developing countries, where people pay to use a computer to surf the Web. But since most people have Internet access in their homes and free Wi-Fi is readily available throughout Market Square (or at the Knox County Public Library), the business seemed out of place in 2008—especially without serving food.

But Gee says the café was only an amenity to the core of her business. Her main service was to help businesses and organizations produce radio or TV shows at a studio in the cafe that could be streamed online. She wanted to provide groups "a new way to get their messages out" and envisioned stores, non-profits, and community groups using it to produce programs, without having their messages tainted by traditional media spin. Eva Magazine used the facility for one such broadcast. "The idea and concept of having a full-fledged production studio in the middle of a café is truly innovative. We pioneered a new path in media," Gee writes in an e-mail.

"I would have five people a day come in and talk to me about producing a show," Gee says. She blamed much of the business's failure on her partner, Joe Dickey, a former TVA executive who now runs FGS & Associates.

"We didn't have enough time. We opened on Sept. 25 and six days later, my business partner tried to take over the company," Gee says.

According to Gee, the partnership was structured with Gee having 86 percent ownership and Dickey having 14. Dickey's responsibility, she says, was to secure funds. But she accuses Dickey of finding investors whom he didn't tell her about, and then trying to take over the business. Gee says she eventually agreed to sell the business to Dickey—and agreed to take on $155,000 of the company's debt—in order for it to survive and the company's creditors be paid. But, she says, Dickey pulled out of the deal at the last moment. "I would say to anyone who is following my story, be careful who you go into business with," she writes.

Dickey would not comment extensively, but says, "There was an offer made [for the business]—I'm not going to tell you what the terms were. [Gee] didn't want to do it. It just got worse and worse and worse."

For her part, Gee is pushing ahead with plans for similar projects. She has started Bluedress.tv, which will produce online webshows, but this one shooting on location at stores and events. She also is continuing with her original webshow, Cherriesforlife.com, which will cover the Gatlinburg Christmas parade live on Friday. And she maintains a sliver of hope that Cherries Café will reopen. "That would be my Christmas wish come true," she says.