Nine years ago, the co-founders of Big Sur Bakery were riding high when they released The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook. Michael Gilson and Michelle and Philip Wotjovich were praised by the likes of the New York Times and Martha Stewart. Their menu and hearty breads drew foodies from all over the world to the small, rustic restaurant. The partners since 2001 were all praise. “He gets our dreams, has great ideas and is great with people,” Michelle said of Gilson in a 2009Weekly story.
Within four years, Michelle and Philip divorced and it appears Michelle (whose last name is now Rizzolo) is in essence divorcing Gilson. Rizzolo filed suit against Gilson and the business in Monterey County Superior Court on Aug. 1 after mediation efforts failed. Rizzolo accuses Gilson of, among other things, mismanagement, withholding payments to her and using bakery funds to pay off his credit cards. In court papers, Gilson denies all claims; they’re scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 18 to set a possible trial date.
Rizzolo is asking the court to assign a third party to manage the business, oust Gilson from the partnership and award an unspecified amount of damages. (Wotjovich is listed as a partner in state business records, but is not named in the lawsuit; he became a partner in Pacific Grove’s Poppy Hall, which opened this year.)
Some of Rizzolo’s ire stems from the temporary closure of the restaurant in 2017, when she wanted to expand the business outside of Big Sur but claims Gilson prevented it.
Gilson’s attorney, Jim Cook, calls the situation “a pretty vanilla bookkeeping problem,” and adds, “It’s an unfortunate dispute of what’s been a successful Big Sur landmark – which has returned to that status – and we hope to resolve the conflict.”
Rizzolo's attorney, Steven Formaker, sees it differently. "Ms. Rizzolo learned that Gilson had taken some of the company’s funds for himself without authorization from the other members," he writes by email. "Gilson linked his personal line of credit and his credit card to Big Sur Bakery’s bank account, which resulted in funds being debited from Big Sur Bakery’s account to pay his personal expenses…
"Rizzolo felt that she had to file a lawsuit to protect the company that she had worked so hard to build."