THE former owner of an upmarket Yorkshire restaurant has been jailed for helping to cheat wine buffs out of £380,000.
Belgian national Denis Lefrancq, 36, built up a reputation for fine dining at 3 York Place, Leeds, but when the business got into financial difficulties he and others set up Surpluswines.co.uk promoting the sale of clearance wines and champagne.
Hundreds of customers placed orders worth thousands of pounds after advertisements appeared in three national newspapers but complaints flooded in after the deliveries never arrived.
One disappointed customer tracked the business to Lefrancq at the restaurant only to find it shut down and the owner having fled. He was later brought back from Prague under a European arrest warrant to face justice.
Lefrancq, formerly of Little Neville Street, Leeds admitted conspiracy to defraud and was jailed for two years four months.
Sentencing him Judge Rodney Grant said he accepted for many years Lefrancq had worked hard to establish the reputation of his restaurant.
“That is to your credit, but there came a time when that restaurant ran into financial difficulties and it was at that stage you fell prey to the temptation of entering into this scheme in order to defraud members of the public of their money.”
He said it was serious since a considerable number of people lost money. “It may very well be the case that others in fact thought up the fraud but it is clear that you were a willing participant.”
He had used his expertise as a restaurant owner to help in the fraud and when he realised things had gone too far arranged to disappear.
David Dixon prosecuting said the parent company for the restaurant business was Mardenis Ltd and by early last year the bookkeeper for that company indicated Lefrancq was becoming uncooperative about the restaurant’s finances when it was apparently trading at a loss.
In mid February last year inquiries were made about advertising costs for Surpluswines.co.uk indicating they were going to sell discounted wines from bankrupt French restaurants and had a £30,000 advertising budget.
Adverts then appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday on March 6 or 7 offering “huge savings on fine wines and champagnes” with up to 60 per cent discount on trade prices.
The hotline number given was inundated with orders with many customers being told money would not be deducted from their accounts before deliveries were made but that was not the case.
On March 7 and 8 alone, 241 orders were placed for more than £77,000. Lefrancq claimed to Barclaycard he expected a £4m turnover, getting them to release some of the money.
But on March 26 he attended the office of an insolvency practitioner closing the restaurant and handing over bags of receipts before heading for Dover in a recently purchased £39,000 Mercedes.
Inquiries revealed £6,384 had been used to get 83 bottles of valuable wine worth £35,000 released from a bonded warehouse before he left.
Emma Edhem for Lefrancq said he had lost his “good name and reputation” because of a few weeks of madness. Having worked so hard to build up his business he was unable to cope when it ran into problems and the wine idea was put to him which he only later found was a fraud but continued.