Operations

Infighting threatens one of the country’s top-grossing independent operators, a lawsuit alleges

A partner in the group that owns Maple & Ash, Etta and others said his business associate is trying to force him out of the company and is putting its future at risk.
Maple & Ash
Photo courtesy Maple & Ash

A lawsuit filed this week by one of the partners in the restaurant group that owns Maple & Ash, one of the country’s highest-grossing independents, alleges infighting is putting the company’s “operations and credit at risk” and is leaving seven under-construction restaurants in limbo.

David Pisor alleges “ongoing, irreparable harm” by his What If Syndicate partner James Lasky, and says in the suit that he has been frozen out of management of the company he was integral in building.

Lasky, according to the lawsuit, demanded Pisor stay away from Chicago company headquarters and restaurants, disabled Pisor’s electronic access to company financial information, cancelled in-process projects and stopped sending Lasky the $15,000 per week he’d been receiving for the past 18 months. It’s all an attempt to push Pisor out of the company, the lawsuit states.

“Lasky has informed Pisor that no further distributions will be made until Pisor agrees to a buy-out,” the suit alleges.

Pisor filed the suit against Lasky in the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Neither Lasky nor other What If Syndicate representatives responded to multiple Restaurant Business messages and emails Friday.

What If Syndicate currently has eight restaurants in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, Houston and Scottsdale, in addition to seven locations under development. That list includes two locations of upscale steakhouse Maple & Ash and wood-fired restaurant Etta, as well as Mexican concept Celestina, and modern Italian restaurant Monarch. A high-end sushi brand called Kessaku is in the works, according to the company’s website.

The company’s annual revenue has grown from $35 million in 2019 to just under $100 million last year and is projected to be close to $200 million in 2022, Pisor’s suit said.

Late last year, the company was in discussions with a private-equity fund about potential financing options and expansions of the Etta brand. During that time, What If received an estimated value as high as $229 million, the lawsuit said.

After learning of the company’s “significant value” in late February, Lasky began freezing Pisor out of management and demanded that he agree to sell his stake in What If, the lawsuit says.

“This brazen attempt to force a buy-out of Pisor’s membership interests at a discount to their fair market value is a violation of the applicable LLC agreements and the law,” the suit alleges.

Pisor claims he created the Maple & Ash name, brand and concept and secured the majority of the restaurant’s 31 original outside investors.

Around the middle of last month, Lasky told Pisor he would not sign previously negotiated documents connected with a “mission-critical” $8 million expansion of the company’s line of credit, the suit alleges.

What If currently has a $3 million line of credit, “but this line is fully drawn,” Pisor said in court documents.

“By these actions, Lasky is putting the company in a cash-constrained state that severely threatens its overall financial health and jeopardizes current operations and future development projects,” the lawsuit states. “The company currently has seven restaurants in the buildout phase. Without the necessary credit, the company will be unable to pay the architects and contractors working on these projects.”

A hearing date in the case is set for July 28.

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