Guilt by association is a pernicious thing, as the new tenant of Menalto Corners in Menlo Park is discovering.
Eric Ybarra opened West Bay Cleaners at 1921 Menalto Ave. in January, after the popular owner of a different dry cleaning business in that same space was arrested for multiple counts of alleged credit card fraud.
"A lot of people in the neighborhood are having a hard time distinguishing between me being the new owner and Gary (Smith)," said Mr. Ybarra. "People thought we were connected, that I'd taken it over for him, that we were related -- you name it, they thought it. We're still facing it to this day," he said.
"We are not connected to him."
This is Mr. Ybarra's first foray into dry cleaning. After Mr. Smith was evicted the day before his arrest, the cleaning equipment remained behind, as did longtime manager David Lopez, and the new business owner thought he recognized a great opportunity.
"The key is to hire the right people," Mr. Ybarra said, which is why he hired Mr. Lopez. "He's my only employee right now and he's a godsend. He's an amazing guy, and he's done an amazing job. He has 20 years of experience cleaning -- 15 years of that here with Gary."
The fallout from Mr. Smith's arrest included difficulty getting a credit card processing machine for West Bay Cleaners simply because the address had been blacklisted, according to Mr. Ybarra. Finally, after getting letters from the landlord and from the bank, he got approved.
"It was ugly," Mr. Ybarra said. "It took a month and a half for them to say OK, we'll take a chance on you. I said, 'Wait, take a chance on me? I'm not the previous guy.'"
When the former tenant showed up post-arrest to collect and return some items of clothing to customers, it further stirred suspicions of ties between the old and new dry cleaner, according to Mr. Ybarra.
Other businesses in the same small shopping center -- particularly those relying on walk-in business, including Cafe Zoe, saw customers dwindle, sources told the Almanac. Slowly some are returning.
"Our business owners and customers have been through an awkward and confusing time," said Kathleen Daly, owner of Cafe Zoe. "The negative impact had a cascading effect throughout the community. The opening of West Bay Cleaners is the beginning of a great new chapter for all of us."
Nona Ybarra runs a dance studio next door to her husband's West Bay Cleaners; Ms. Daly said the family is already part of the close-knit Menalto Corners community, describing the couple as "wonderful, hard-working people."
Mr. Ybarra said the whole family, along with fellow tenants and the landlord, are pulling together.
"My wife rallied behind me. My children are being as patient as they can be with us both owning businesses. It's starting to pay off. It's awesome. I wouldn't trade it for the world, being right next door to my wife."
Mr. Smith was arrested on Jan. 14. He has pleaded not guilty to 40 counts of alleged credit card fraud, and is currently out of custody, awaiting the preliminary hearing.