GOLD COAST — Leaders of a popular Chicago-based restaurant chain are fighting for control of the group’s empire.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, David Pisor accused his business partner, James Lasky, of trying to push him out of their restaurant group. The company, named What If Syndicate, oversees high-end Gold Coast steakhouse Maple & Ash and wood-fired-food spot Etta in Bucktown and River North, and also operates restaurants in California, Texas and Arizona.
But Lasky said he was forced to act because there are allegations Pisor acted inappropriately toward staffers, according to court documents obtained by Block Club.
Maple & Ash is one Chicago’s most sought-after reservations, attracting the city’s see-and-be-seen crowd with bold decorations, loud music, a strict dress code and steaks costing up to $180.
Pisor and Lasky launched the restaurant in 2015 and grew the group into a powerhouse that has earned accolades across the country. Last year, Maple & Ash also made headlines when Block Club revealed it was one of the luxury businesses that was able to get its employees vaccinated early after shots meant for West Siders were diverted away from Loretto Hospital, according to sources.
Now, the future of Maple & Ash could change as Lasky and Pisor battle in court over who will take over the company they spent years building.
‘Business Divorce’ Or ‘Smear Campaign’?
The complaint states the feud stems from a February preliminary valuation of the What If enterprise, which put its worth at $229 million.
The company has seen tremendous growth. It brought in $35 million in 2019, $100 million in 2021 and is projected to make $180-$200 million this year, according to the lawsuit.
Pisor, Lasky and Danny Grant, the restaurant group’s executive chef and partner, each own 31 percent of the company. Pisor said Lasky and Grant approached him March 10 to buy him out of the company at a “below-market” price, according to the lawsuit.
When Pisor declined to sell his shares, “Lasky took actions designed to freeze Pisor out of management,” including denying him on-site access to the company, discontinuing $15,000 payouts and deactivating his company email, according to the lawsuit.
Lasky said he and Grant took these actions for the best interest of the company and its employees, according to court documents.
In a March 25 letter obtained by Block Club, Lasky alleged Pisor committed 10 violations he thinks were “sufficient to justify” Pisor’s termination. They include using the company credit card for personal expenses, allegations of inappropriate conduct with female employees, creating another company called What If Soars LLC without Lasky’s knowledge and more.
Pisor’s attorneys denied those claims.
Last Friday, a judge denied Pisor’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have allowed him back into the What If office and restaurants and resumed his weekly payout.
Jade Lambert, one of Pisor’s attorneys, called the case a “business divorce” during last week’s hearing. Lasky does not want to continue doing business with Pisor, but he is going about it the wrong way and is in violation of the company’s operating agreement, Lambert said.
“Mr. Lasky has been resorting to lockouts, threats and … trumped-up allegations … of alleged misconduct to try and steal the company away from Mr. Pisor,” Lambert said.
Lasky’s attorney, Doug Wexler, confirmed Lasky does not want to work with Pisor anymore. But he said Lasky was not in violation of the operation agreement because Pisor was in the process of being fired.
Wexler said Pisor came into court “without clean hands,” referring to a human resources investigation into Pisor’s behavior that is being conducted by an independent attorney. Because of the probe, it would be inappropriate to allow Pisor back into company properties, Wexler said.
Wexler said Pisor inappropriately showed up at the home of What If’s marketing director, Molly Currey.
At about 4:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. March 11, Pisor twice went to Currey’s home demanding to speak with her after he couldn’t reach her on the phone, according to a police report. Currey wrote in a statement to What If Syndicate human relations that Pisor tried “the door handle and the Nest keypad to see if he can enter the right code to open the door.”
“The company has an obligation as does Mr. Pisor to provide a safe working environment for the female employees, and that’s what we intend to do,” Wexler said.
Lazar Raynal, one of Pisor’s attorneys, told Block Club Pisor went to Currey’s home looking for someone to confide in after finding out Lasky wanted to buy him out.
“Mr. Pisor went to the home of someone he believed was a friend — someone he had hired and known for 15 years,” Raynel said in a statement. “Mr. Pisor’s conduct was legal, and the police took no action as a result of the complaint.”
Court documents obtained by Block Club say Pisor committed misconduct with three female employees, including the girlfriend of a Maple & Ash manager.
An affidavit from Grant labeled Pisor as a “disconnected and absent” owner, claiming Pisor showed up to “drink all day” and party with friends at the restaurant instead of help with business operations throughout the pandemic.
“These are false allegations which are part of Mr. Lasky’s smear campaign,” Lambert said. “Mr. Pisor denies them in their entirety.”
Attorneys for Pisor also said the allegations are part of a master plan to “bully” Pisor into selling his “interest at less than fair value.”
In a statement, Lasky said he hopes Pisor and his lawyers will “refrain from continuing to make factually inaccurate comments.”
“It is unfortunate that a private dispute between partners, with collateral issues, had to be made public by David and his lawyers. That was their choice, not mine,” Lasky said in the statement.
A hearing date is set for April 29.
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