Former Baby’s Burgers and Shakes manager sentenced for stealing from business

Baby’s Burgers and Shakes was about one month away from closing due, in part, to a former manager siphoning nearly $80,000 from the downtown State College restaurant, co-owners Fred and Denise Wood said Friday.

The duo spoke outside the Centre County Courthouse after Cassandra “Tassie” Lopez was sentenced to 30 days of house arrest and two years of probation by Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest.

“She had us that low and that far behind. We were ready to close Baby’s and give it all up,” Fred Wood said. “We couldn’t figure out what was going on.”

Fred Wood went to State College police in August and the department filed charges against Lopez, who was responsible for all of the business’ monetary transactions and day-to-day operations since she was hired in April 2010.

Lopez, 55, of Philipsburg, pleaded guilty in June to one misdemeanor count of theft, Deputy District Attorney Sean McGraw said.

Fred and Denise Wood, who describe themselves as absentee owners, said they seldom had contact with their management team.

When they did discuss the business’ finances with Lopez, she convinced them her “sorely out of control” percentages were the nature of the restaurant industry, the Woods wrote in a statement provided to Ruest before the sentence was announced.

“Tassie’s deception not only greatly impacted our finances over these many years, it also impacted the lives of the many loyal Baby’s employees,” the Woods wrote. “We, obviously, have been unable to increase the income of the wait staff, cooks, shift supervisors or assistant managers. ... Her decision to run us into the red each month seriously limited our ability to offer competitive wages to our present employees or hire new ones at the competitive market rate.”

Lopez apologized before Ruest announced the sentence, saying “I’m sorry. My intent was never to hurt anyone.”

Lopez was also sentenced to pay nearly $30,000 in restitution to the restaurant and $50,000 to an insurance company. Fred Wood said he was glad to move on and focus on how to “have Baby’s be there forever.”

That starts with combating the parking challenges presented by construction at the former Garner Street parking lot. Business is down about 30% since the construction began, Fred Wood said.

“That has affected us tremendously,” Fred Wood said. “We’re trying desperately to hang on financially until that gets done so Baby’s will come right back again. That has definitely been an impact on every retailer.”

Added Denise Wood, who said Baby’s has implemented outdoor seating: “I think it’ll come back to us. It’s just a matter if we can hold on to that point.”

Here at State College, a mixed-use high rise, is slated to include more than 30,000 square feet of retail space and 227 residential units. Construction began in October 2018 and borough communications specialist Douglas Shontz on Friday said occupancy is anticipated in fall 2020.

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.