Chipotle Mexican Grill has found itself embroiled in a legal food fight – one that alleges the Mexican food chain misled a world-class chef and ripped off another chef’s ideas to launch a chain of ramen shops in the US.
Kyle Connaughton, a British chef who carved out his name in the culinary world through his work with elite restaurants around the globe, is suing Chipotle and its founder, Steve Ells, for allegedly ensnaring him in the mess.
In his lawsuit, Connaughton says that, in 2010, he came up with the idea to create a chain of fast food restaurants serving “high-quality ramen cuisine.” He presented the concept to a number of restaurateurs – and when Ells offered to ink an exclusive deal to make the concept a reality, he teamed up with Chipotle.
That’s when things began sliding downhill.
What Connaughton says he did not know at the time was that, three years prior, Chipotle had allegedly tried to create essentially the same ramen chain with another chef, David Chang. When Chang – founder of Momofuku restaurants – backed out, Chipotle allegedly ran off with Chang’s ideas; and Chang, who had not given Chipotle permission to use his ideas, reportedly planned to sue Chipotle once it rolled out Connaughton’s ramen shops.
Ells’ failure to disclose his prior work with Chang was “a material omission” and a “fraudulent” act, Connaughton charges.
“If Mr. Connaughton forged ahead and implemented his ramen concept at Chipotle despite the prior business dealings with Momofuku, his professional reputation would be ruined,” the lawsuit says. “He could never escape the accusation that he had stolen Momofuku’s ramen concepts.”
Those “ramen concepts” included plans for menu items, kitchen designs, the interior of the restaurant, and packaging for the ramen – things Connaughton says he discussed with Chipotle. Now, he says he's not sure whether the feedback he had received from Chipotle came from Chipotle or had been regurgitated from Chang’s ideas.
When Connaughton confronted Ells in October 2012, the lawsuit alleges, Ells did not deny anything, but “ordered” Connaughton to move ahead anyway with the ramen concept – something Connaughton said was akin to him being “perfectly willing to drag [him] into a lawsuit.”
About a month later, Connaughton was fired, the lawsuit contends, because he confronted Ells about his business with Chang.
Chipotle declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying in an e-mail that, “as a matter of policy, we don’t comment on pending legal action.”
Connaughton’s lawsuit, which has asked for an undetermined amount of compensation, was filed on May 31, 2013. Ells has up to 30 days to respond to the complaints.
With Connaughton’s dismissal from Chipotle and a lawsuit against the company pending, it looks like – to the disappointment of noodle fans – Chipotle-spearheaded ramen shops will not be cropping up in the US anytime soon.
Before the brouhaha erupted, Chipotle had been eyeing a site on 12th Street and University Place in Manhattan for the flagship ramen store, according to the lawsuit.