A Wollongong-based interior design and fit-out business has left at least half-a-dozen businesses with incomplete or defective work, after taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments.
Business owners and subcontractors are now attempting to pursue the business and its owner, Endre Horvath, through the courts and via the police, but many expect to be paid little if anything.
After the Mercury revealed that Kiama cafe owner Gulcin Topel handed over nearly $90,000 for the fit out of a new cafe in Albion Park Rail and was left with barely any works to show for it, the Mercury has uncovered multiple other businesses that have also been left out of pocket to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars after Mr Horvath's promises fell apart.
Volkan Guden was hopeful of opening a permanent home for his family-run donut food truck in Shell Cove in time for world donut day in June this year.
After signing a lease on the shopfront that overlooks the boardwalk at Shell Cove earlier this year, Mr Guden found Allspace Design with glowing reviews online.
"We met him and walked through the site, told him what we needed," he said.
"We negotiated and locked it in and we agreed that it would be four weeks turnaround time."
As the weeks came and went, Mr Guden saw little progress on the fitout they had agreed upon, and fielded continued requests from Mr Horvath for more money, despite no progress to show for the funds already handed over.
At certain points, Mr Guden paid tradespeople directly, bypassing Mr Horvath altogether, to try and get some work completed.
Sixteen weeks later, the store was ready to open, but that wasn't the end of Mr Guden's headache.
"I lost a lot of trade, a lot of publicity," he said. "Equipment has broken down, I can't even get a hold of him to get it rectified."
It's a similar story for other businesses that were caught up in Mr Horvath's wake, and it wasn't just Allspace's customers but its suppliers as well.
Mick Cuda's business Micon Office National supplies office equipment for businesses in the Illawarra and was first approached by Mr Horvath in November 2022, but soon he started asking for more.
"He kept coming in all the time wanting to have a chat, it was like he was trying to get business advice."
But after fronting some supplies, the money dried up, just as it had for Mr Horvath's clients.
"He kept coming in, making excuses and excuses."
Multiple subcontractors and suppliers are owed in the vicinity of tens of thousands of dollars each, and while some are considering legal actions, others are writing off the loss as the cost of doing business.
But there are others who were drawn deeper into Mr Horvath's orbit.
Mr Horvath was referred to Shannon Elliffe who runs LFBC Home Modifications with his brother.
Mr Elliffe engaged Mr Horvath to do draft work for him and drawings for office fitouts that LFBC was conducting in mid 2021.
The business relationship worked well for both parties and then by the end of 2021, Mr Elliffe rented out part of his business premises to Mr Horvath.
"He predominantly worked on his own stuff, he was just sharing space. He had his business and I was doing my business."
But in April 2023, word began to spread that other customers were having issues with the work conducted by Mr Horvath. Mr Elliffe asked Mr Horvath about this and he denied what was being claimed, but with rumours circulating in the industry, Mr Elliffe decided to cut ties.
"I just felt uncomfortable, something was up."
Four months later, Mr Elliffe found out that Mr Horvath was using Mr Elliffe and his brother's name and image on the website of Allspace Design, claiming that the brothers were part of the business's "amazing site team".
"I was furious," Mr Elliffe said. "We haven't spoken since, that was my last communication with him, 'Get my s--- off your website, I'm not affiliated with your business.'"
Work goes on
While various businesses have made attempts to recover what they have lost with Mr Horvath, the same companies have come together to try and fix what has occurred.
Back at Ms Topel's unfinished cafe in Albion Park Rail, a group of tradespeople have come together to finish the cafe, including those who were left thousands of dollars out of pocket by Mr Horvath.
Electrician Yianni Roukos estimates he is owed nearly $30,000 for work completed but not paid for at Donut Jam and other jobs.
He is one of a handful of tradespeople who are now helping to build Ms Topel's cafe.
Mr Roukos phoned plumber John Hermann of Local Plumber and Hot Water Specialist to tell him what had happened with Ms Topel, who pitched in to help.
"I told her she'll pay my discounted price on materials," Mr Hermann said.
Equipment supplier Pano Tzolakidis of Kwik Hospitality Equipment also put his hand up to help, knowing Ms Topel from previous jobs at her Kiama cafe.
All three said they were motivated to help, even after being stung financially, because what goes around, comes around.
"I don't do it to get anything back," Mr Tzolakidis said, "but indirectly it always comes back."
But what had changed for all three was the nature of the work they would sign on to do in the future. Small jobs only, for private clients, to avoid being burnt again.