$100 million New Jersey deli firm fires CEO Paul Morina

Paulsboro coach Paul Morina cheers on George Worthy as he takes on Bergen Catholic s Wade Unger in the 152-pound bout during a wrestling match at The Palestra in Philadelphia,

Joe Warner | USAToday

The shareholders of the mystery $100 million New Jersey deli company Hometown International fired CEO Paul Morina — a high school principal and renowned wrestling coach — after weeks of questions about the firm and his role there, a financial filing revealed late Friday.

Hometown International’s majority shareholders also voted to remove the company’s only other executive, vice president and secretary Christine Lindenmuth, who works with Morina as an administrator at nearby Paulsboro High School. The deli, located just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, is Hometown’s only operating business asset.

Their ousters came a week after a previously unreported resignation of the president of a shell company, E-Waste, which has multiple connections to to Hometown International

Securities and Exchange Commission filings show that the shareholders voting to remove Morina and Lindenmuth almost certainly included all or some members of two different groups of investment entities, one based in Hong Kong, the other based in Macao, a special administrative region in Hong Kong.

Morina, 62, held a slew of other titles at Hometown International before he was removed. According to financial filings, he owns 1.5 million common shares of the deli owner, making him, on paper at least, worth more than $18 million.

Morina was replaced as chief executive officer by Peter Coker Jr., who is Hometown International’s chairman.

Coker Jr., who is based in Hong Kong, is aligned with investment entities there that have major stakes in the deli owner.

Coker Jr.’s father, North Carolina businessman Peter Coker Sr., himself is a major investor in the company.

The related shell company E-Waste also has replaced its president, John Rollo, 66, after similar questions were raised by CNBC about him, that company and its similarly preposterous sky-high market capitalization despite a total lack of ongoing business.

Rollo, a Grammy-winning recording engineer, until recently was working as patient transporter at a New Jersey hospital.

Rollo, also a New Jersey resident, was replaced as E-Waste’s president by 31-year-old Elliot Mermel, a California resident who is getting paid $8,000 per month in that role.

Mermel’s colorful business background includes founding a company that raised crickets as human food, and a partnership in a cannabis-related business with Paul Pierce, the former Boston Celtics superstar basketball player.

Pierce, who won an NBA title with the Celtics, last month was fired as an analyst by ESPN for a racy Instagram Live poss that showed him in a room with exotic dancers.

On Saturday, the Boston Globe reported that Pierce will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as part of its 2021 class.

Mermel also founded a biotech company and an artificial intelligence company, and was a business development consultant to a fertilizer company, according to a financial filing.

Mermel, a Colby University graduate, has another company, Benzions LLC, that had been collecting $4,000 each month since December under a consulting agreement with E-Waste.

That agreement was terminated as part of his taking over management of E-Waste, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on Thursday.

Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce waves to the crowd after reaching No. 2 on the all-time Celtics scoring list, surpassing Larry Bird, during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Bobcats in Boston on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Elise Amendola

SEC filings show that Benzions in March signed another consulting agreement with a second shell company, Med Spa Vacations, connected to Peter Coker Sr., which likewise pays Mermel’s firm $4,000 per month.

CNBC has reached out for comment from Morina, Lindenmuth, Rollo, Mermel, Hometown International’s lawyer and a spokesman for the Hong Kong investors.

The current president of Med Spa Vacations is former E-Waste president Rollo, who took that job in February, according to filings.

The changes in executive leadership at both Hometown International and E-Waste were disclosed in 8-K filings with the SEC.

The deli owner’s filing gave no reason why shareholders who control 6 million shares of common stock — which represents about 77% of the company’s voting power — voted out Morina and the 46-year-old Lindenmuth. At least 5.5 million of Hometown International’s common shares are controlled by the Hong Kong and Macao investors.

Both Morina and Lindenmuth remain principals in the deli itself, according to the SEC filing.

Morina also is involved in an entity that leases the deli space to Hometown International.

E-Waste’s filing said that Rollo resigned as president on May 7, a day after CNBC reported on the opaque nature of the Macao group of investors.

Your Hometown Deli in Paulsboro, N.J.

Google Earth

The moves appear — like other recent ones by each of the money-losing companies — to be an attempt to eliminate controversial issues that could harm their joint goal of merging with other firms in a transaction that would exploit their status as publicly traded companies on U.S. markets.

Hometown International first drew widespread attention last month when hedge fund manager David Einhorn, in a letter to clients, pointed out the company’s market capitalization, which had topped $100 million despite owning only a single small Italian deli.

That eatery had sales of less than $37,000 in sales for the past two years combined and was closed for nearly half of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Einhorn noted the incongruity of Morina being Hometown International’s CEO while working his day jobs as high school principal and wrestling coach.

Hometown Deli in Paulsboro, N.J.

CNBC

Morina’s team at Paulsboro high school is a perennial contender for state titles, and he is among the most successful coaches in New Jersey wrestling history.

But he has no apparent history of operating either a publicly traded company or food service business before the Hometown Deli opened in his own hometown.

However, Morina, whose brother is a New Jersey county sheriff, wrestled in the 1970s at Paulsboro High School with a man named James Patten, who works at Coker Sr.’s firm Tryon Capital.

Patten was barred by FINRA, the broker-dealer regulator, from acting as a stockbroker or associating with broker-dealers, according to the regulator’s database.

Before that sanction, Patten was the subject of repeated disciplinary actions by FINRA, which included not complying with an arbitration award of more than $753,000 for violating securities laws, unauthorized trading and churning a client’s account.

Since Einhorn’s letter, CNBC has reported other eyebrow-raising details about Hometown International and E-Waste, whose stocks, traded on the low-tier Pink over-the-counter market, in the past year have risen to stunning levels as ties have been formed between them.

Among those questions was why some investors would pay so much to buy shares in either thinly traded company, given their lack of meaningful revenue in the deli owner’s case, or, in E-Waste’s case, a lack of any revenue at all.

Even if both companies achieve their goal of engaging in reverse mergers or similar transactions with private firms looking to become publicly traded, current investors will not receive payments that reflect — in any way — the trading price of the stocks.

On Friday, just 205 shares of Hometown International were traded, closing at $12.40 per share. Given the company’s nearly 8 million shares of common stock outstanding, that gives it a market capitalization of $96.68 million.

E-Waste closed Friday at $9 per share, after no shares traded hands. With 12.5 million shares outstanding, E-Waste has a market cap of $112.5 million.

In recent weeks, both the deli owner and E-Waste disavowed their stock prices, saying in extraordinary SEC filings that there was no financial justification for their market capitalizations.

The moves followed the demotion of Hometown International from a more prestigious OTCQB over-the-counter market platform for what OTC Markets Group called “irregularities” in their public disclosures, and OTC Markets telling CNBC that it would be eyeing E-Waste as well.

A trio of Hong Kong investment entities led by Maso Capital, which last year became some of the largest investors in Hometown International’s biggest investors, are understood to be involved in likewise positioning E-Waste as a reverse merger candidate.

The Hong Kong investors include entities that are investment arms of Duke and Vanderbilt universities.

E-Waste’s biggest single investor, Macao-based Global Equity Limited, is also the largest investor in the deli owner, and in Med Spa Vacations, another shell company linked to Coker Sr..

The office building on Avenida Da Praia Grande in Macao, China, the address for multiple entities listed as investors in Hometown International, the owner of a single New Jersey deli.

Catarina Domingues | CNBC

Rollo remains the president of Med Spa Vacations, a shell company with no business operations whose office address is that of a business operated by Coker Sr.

Hometown International loaned Med Spa Vacations $150,000 in February, records show.

That loan came after E-Waste was loaned an identical amount by Hometown International in November, according to an SEC filing.

Records show that Coker Sr. loaned E-Waste $255,000 last September, most of which was used to pay the prior owners of E-Waste before they sold their shares to Global Equity Lmiited.

CNBC’s articles have detailed how Coker Sr., a former college basketball star who has refused to comment when contacted by a reporter, has been sued for allegedly hiding assets from a creditor to whom he owed nearly $900,000 and for business-related fraud. He denied wrongdoing in those cases.

He also has been arrested for soliciting a prostitute, according to a Raleigh, North Carolina, police report, and for exposing himself to and trying to proposition three underage girls, according to a 1992 newspaper article.

Peter Lee Coker mugshot from the Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification (CCBI).

Source: Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification

A firm controlled by Coker Sr., Tryon Capital, had until recently been collecting $15,000 a month from Hometown International under a consulting agreement. E-Waste was paying Tryon Capital $2,500 per month for its own consulting agreement.

Those agreements were terminated last month after CNBC articles described those deals and Coker’s tangled legal history.

SEC filings show that Med Spa Vacations is paying Tryon Capital $2,500 per month for its own consulting agreement.

Coker Sr.’s partner in Tryon Capital, Peter Reichard, in 2011 was convicted in a North Carolina court of his role in a scheme that facilitated the illegal contributions of thousands of dollars to the successful 2008 campaign for governor by Bev Perdue, a Democrat.

The scheme involved the use of bogus consulting contracts with Tryon Capital. Coker Sr. was not charged in that case.

Peter Reichard, a top Perdue aide, takes the oath before his apearance in Wake County Court, Wednesday, December 14, 2011 in Raleigh, N.C.

John Rottet | The News & Observer | AP

Reichard is also a managing member, with Coker Sr., of an entity called Europa Capital Investments, which owns 90,400 common shares of Hometown International, and has warrants for another 1.9 million shares.

Reichard is the son of Ram Dass, the late spiritual and LSD guru who gained renown in the 1960s and 1970s.

CNBC earlier this week detailed how Coker Sr. and Reichard in 2010 created eight shell companies that were later sold off to other owners.

Most of those shell companies, after they were sold, ended up having their registrations revoked by the SEC for failing to keep current in their disclosure filings, records show.

One of the companies ended up being owned by a real estate tax lawyer in New York named Allan Schwartz, who did work for former President Donald Trump decades ago in connection with Trump’s real estate holdings. Schwartz told CNBC he knew nothing about Reichard and Coker Sr., or the deli owner.

Hometown Deli, Paulsboro, N.J.

Mike Calia | CNBC

Records show that a securities lawyer named Gregg Jaclin was involved in the creation of those shell companies. Jaclin also was involved three years later in the creation of Hometown International.

Jaclin was disbarred as an attorney last year after pleading guilty to federal criminal charges related to his creation of shell companies to sell to individuals “who used those shell companies as publicly traded vehicles for market manipulation schemes,” court records show.

None of the shells in that scheme were one of the ones created by Coker Sr. and Reichard, or to Hometown International.

Katz’s deli survived the 1918 pandemic. Now, it is navigating Covid

Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City has been around for more than a centuryand matures into an iconic institution on the Lower East Side.

Owner Jake Dell told CNBC on Friday he was feeling the weight of the family history as he tried to cope with the uncertainty and disruption created by the Coronavirus pandemic.

“This is technically our second pandemic for Katz. It’s my first,” Dell said “Squawk on the Street” in relation to 1918 flu pandemic. Katz’s, originally founded in 1888moved to its current location on Houston Street a year before this health crisis began.

For this pandemic that has devastated the restaurant industry, Dell said it uses a “make-it-up-as-you-go” approach.

“Make the best decision we can make right now without losing touch with the nostalgia and tradition that really lies at the heart of Katz,” said Dell, a fifth generation owner.

While the pandemic is not over yet, Dell said the lessons Katz has learned over the past 11 months will help the delicatessen business thrive in the decades to come, such as website development. Strategic decisions Katz made in the years leading up to the coronavirus crisis helped keep her afloat, too, he said.

Dell’s comments came as limited indoor dining in New York restaurants set for recovery after Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended it indefinitely in mid-December. Some health professionals have questioned the timingciting new coronavirus variants believed to be more communicable. But for many in the city’s gastronomy, the resumption of eating is indoors to be cheered on as a much needed way to increase revenue in bitter winter.

Katz’s will have about 17 or 18 tables available to meet the 25% capacity limit, Dell said. The deli will revert to the health protocols it used in the fall when the city allowed indoor eating, he said.

Dell acknowledged Katz’s lucky because the size of the dining room makes the capacity 25% more sustainable than smaller restaurants. From a business perspective, most restaurants find it difficult to get by with just a quarter of the tables available, Dell said.

Katz’s Delicatessen will remain open for takeaway during the coronavirus pandemic on May 7, 2020 in New York City.

Ben Gabbe | Getty Images

Digital presence

“One thing that we really focused on was our website and our focus on bringing the customer experience to your door, the real Katz experience. You can’t make it to the Lower East Side. How do we bring it to you ? ” said Dell, who came to the restaurant in 2009. His father Alan was involved before him.

Fortunately, Katz’s experience of shipping groceries to the United States dates back to World War II, when the slogan “Send your boy in the army a salami,” said Dell. But when the pandemic hit last spring and brought New York tourism to a standstill and indoor dining shut down, Katz’s really needed to expand its logistics operation.

That meant training some staff, like dishwashers, on how to properly package mustard, pickles and knives so that the groceries can be shipped across the country, Dell said. “And that has grown enormously and we really hope it will continue when everything is back to normal.”

Regarding local delivery, Dell said Katz built its own network a few years ago to avoid paying third-party vendors like “a monstrous” fee With the Dash and About Eats. “We just bit the bullet and built a giant [delivery] Factory a few years ago and it paid off, “said Dell.” We were lucky. We didn’t fire anyone during this pandemic, and I’m pretty grateful for that. “

Katz received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program valued at $ 1 to 2 millionAccording to a database compiled by the nonprofit journalist website ProPublica. The loan was approved on May 3rd and has helped save 143 jobs, the database shows.

When asked why Dell struggled to keep Katz open in the depths of the pandemic, he said, “Because you have to. You lower your head and move forward. You make a choice at a time.”

“When the pandemic started, we immediately started distributing soups to … low-income and senior neighborhood buildings. We have, I believe, distributed about 30,000 meals to over 30 hospitals in all five counties. Line workers,” added Dell added, saying Katz felt obliged to help as a family-run company. “The community takes care of you. You have to take care of them when they are in need.”