In fact, Michael Hebberoy says he had known for quite a while. "Ripe was in a financial catastrophe every three months," he says. "After the first year, Clarklewis was losing money hand over fist; it never paid the bills for Gotham. They had a net zero balance, back and forth." And yet, through charisma and perseverance and "definitely some juggled money" between the businesses, Michael had been able to Band-Aid Ripe together for a while.
That Naomi Pomeroy (who reassumed her maiden name after the couple separated) had not been privy to how bad Ripe’s finances were may be partly attributed to youthful naïveté (she says, for example, that she "didn’t even read" the lease she signed at the Gotham Building). Mostly, she says, it’s because the business sprouted from Michael’s and her personalities: He was "the big picture guy"; she, "the motherboard. I directed all the flight traffic in and out."
In the early days, the division of labor worked. But as Ripe blossomed, Hebberoy became less interested in food per se and more interested in its uses as a creative force. His new ideas kept coming, even when the former projects had not yet been completed. Such megalomania resulted in "10 times more work for me," says Pomeroy, as well as confusion among the staff.
Moreover, she says she saw how publicity had become a dependency for Hebberoy–and then, a liability. "Michael’s extremely creative, but I think he started to feel like every time we got accolades, it was about him," Pomeroy says. "He couldn’t separate his own identity from the businesses. Every time something bad happened, he was shrunk down and really fearful."
His anguish was not enough to convince her to abandon Ripe or Portland. In January, Pomeroy started throwing Sunday night "suppers" at Clarklewis; she has a new boyfriend; she is still on the payroll at Clarklewis (Howitt calls her "the culture, the PR and the outreach" of the restaurant); and she says the community has been extremely supportive. "I had to stand in front of people saying, ’I’m really sorry, but I’m probably not going to be able to pay you back that gob of money you gave us,’" she says. "And most people said, ‘Hey, 80 percent of restaurants fail; you kids tried your best.’" Her divorce from Hebberoy, who plans to keep that name, was granted in late January.
Still, the fragrance of Ripe, in its headiest days, lingers for her. "I’m 32 now, and have already had so much success," Pomeroy says. "There’s part of me, like after a love affair, that wonders, Am I ever going to be there again?"
There are plenty of others still recovering from the breakup.
Tommy Habetz, now the chef at Meriwether’s in Northwest Portland, says he saw the romance go south as soon as he partnered with the Hebberoys in Gotham Building Tavern. GBT was a disaster from the beginning, says Habetz. The build-out, which Michael Hebberoy oversaw, took too long and cost too much; and the plan that Habetz and Naomi Hebberoy would be co-chefs was a "bad idea from the start." And while Habetz continued to receive superb reviews for his food, he watched as his efforts were lost in the reams of press Michael created around himself as a food pioneer.
"He would focus on this pie-in-the-sky stuff rather than what’s at hand," he says.
By design or accident, says Habetz, Michael Hebberoy was beginning to burn his own bridges with the press and the public. He famously dissed Alice Waters–owner of Chez Panisse–in the pages of Food & Wine by saying, "People say that [she] launched a food revolution, but they’re wrong. That was only an ingredients shift." And in July 2005, after Michael tried to line up buyers for his yet-to-be produced GBT gin on a trip in New York, the Oregonian’s A&E section published snippets of his diary (although Michael claims he never gave them permission to print it): "I have squeezed every little last drop of my essence onto their conference tables–and they loved it. The moral of this story … New York will have us … anytime we like."
"These statements were just ridiculous," says Habetz. "I was like, It’s bullshit, and it’s going to make everybody hate you."