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Cheese Nuts

When you leave Kansas City and marry a former child star 16 years your junior, there’s only one thing that can save you.

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But Van Pelt admits that she wasn't ready to run the company in Missouri. She'd been gone for nearly two decades. She knew only two people in her former hometown, and she'd just left a city of constant stimulation.

Almost immediately, she met musician Jeremiah Rozzo, then a member of the band Minds Under Cover, and turned all of her attention to him. She trusted her mother and aunt to get Playfood off the ground.

"Then I came in here one day and realized I'd kind of been on vacation for too long," she says.

But when Van Pelt tried to get down to business in Kansas City, Smith was occupied elsewhere. He says he continued to fund the company, but Van Pelt says that when she needed money, he was traveling with his girlfriend or camping out to save an inner-city farm in Los Angeles that was being threatened by a Wal-Mart developer.

By spring 2006, Playfood was months behind in bills and two weeks late with payroll, Van Pelt says. She tried to take out a small-business loan but says her credit was shot. A Visa in her name — but in Smith's possession — was $9,000 overdue with car payments and cable bills for Smith's Sherman Oaks house. She says she had no choice but to take out a second mortgage on her Westport home.

"I was financially fucking ruined," she says.

Smith says Van Pelt's financial troubles were because of her lifestyle and that she stuck him with thousands of dollars of unpaid expenses on a joint American Express card.

In April, though, he agreed to sign over 100,000 shares of the Save the World Air stock. He says he wanted to bankroll Playfood with a sizable sum that would get the company off the ground, teach Van Pelt some money-management skills and get her out of his hair.

Van Pelt claims that he gave her only a stingy portion of what they had jointly earned during their marriage and that he said he wanted nothing more to do with her cashew cheese.

She tried to dissolve their business partnership, asking Smith to step down as CEO and sign over all trademark rights to Van Pelt.

He refused. He suggested that the company needed an independent board of directors to make clearheaded decisions, which the dueling couple was unable to do.

Van Pelt didn't heed his advice. Her California lawyer, Dan Cross, recommended that she set up a second company to cover the Parkville operation. When she incorporated Playfood Manufacturing LLC in May, Smith was not a signer.

"He was never around, never worked a day in his life," she says. "He was a little prince. So why would I put him on the LLC?"

Six months later, Smith would answer that question in court.

By the end of 2006, Playfood was on the verge of going national.

On an icy December day, Van Pelt was bright with enthusiasm, bustling around the painted cave as industrial blenders buzzed with the sound of crunching cashews. At the sink, Rozzo washed the raw Sri Lankan nuts in a massive silver bowl. Behind them, a cast of Nepali exchange students from Park University squirted the bright-orange spread into plastic bottles, slapped a Playfood label on the front and loaded the order onto a pallet in the walk-in refrigerator. This would be the first pallet to be shipped out of state.

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