A power struggle is emerging between a pair of investors behind some of Chicago’s buzziest restaurants. The co-owners of Maple & Ash and Etta — the flashy Gold Coast steakhouse and neighborhood hangout, respectively — met Friday, April 1 in Cook County circuit court over what co-founder David Pisor is calling an “illegal coup.”
Pisor, a co-founder of What If Syndicate, the group that owns the two restaurants, has filed a lawsuit claiming that he’s been banned from the restaurants as co-founder Jim Lasky attempts to oust him from their company. The complaint alleges Lasky has “repeatedly threatened to air Pisor’s ‘dirty laundry,’” in regards to “alleged conduct that happened years ago… unless Pisor agreed to accept a below-market buyout from Lasky.” Lasky is listed as the sole defendant.
Friday’s court hearing concerned Pisor’s request for a temporary restraining order that would allow him back into the restaurants, as well as undisclosed compensatory and punitive damages, since he is suffering “monetary damages and irreparable harm in the form of loss of reputation, loss of goodwill, and loss of current and or future restaurant opportunities.”
“We’re here basically with a business divorce case,” Jade Lambert, one of Pisor’s attorneys, said at the hearing. “But we need to put some process around this and take the heat out of it.”
She added: “Mr. Lasky no longer wants to be in business with Mr. Pisor, the problem is he’s going about it totally the wrong way, in violation of the party’s operating agreement.”
Judge Clare Quish denied Pisor’s request, saying that his legal team hadn’t demonstrated an emergency need. A hearing is scheduled for Friday, April 29.
In court, Lasky’s attorney, Doug Wexler, told Quish that What If’s HR department was investigating an incident involving Pisor and marketing director Molly Currey. A police report filed by Currey on March 11 claims PIsor made two early morning visits to her Logan Square residence, at 4:28 a.m. and again around 6:30 a.m., when he knocked on her front and back doors and called her name.
Police did not follow up on the incident, but Currey, via a company memo, told her coworkers Pisor had repeatedly called her and texted her that morning and set her dogs barking and alarm ringing. Currey says she is now “afraid of him” after dealing with a series of “verbally abusive and aggressive behavior” through the years. A February 10 office exchange between the two brought her to tears, according to an affidavit filed by Lasky’s defense team.
In court, the parties admitted to negotiating Pisor’s exit, but Pisor’s attorneys want to speed up the process and return his access to What If’s facilities. In court, Wexler said he’d be happy to return Pisor’s computer “as a going-away present.” He painted Pisor as an absentee owner. An affidavit from executive chef Danny Grant claimed Pisor wasn’t doing his job during the pandemic and that he had checked out and “drank all day.”
These accounts had no bearing on Judge Quish’s decision to deny the temporary restraining order. The judge said the police report and affidavits were categorized as “unverified banter,” and that she would only consider whether the operating agreement was violated and Lasky had legal grounds to oust Pisor.
Maple & Ash was hailed as a fresh approach to the traditionally stuffy steakhouse when it opened in 2015. The lawsuit credits Pisor with conceiving the idea and securing funding for the venture, which replaced Hunt Club, a nightclub that had lost both its edge and popularity since Lasky opened it in 1996. Hunt Club was torn down in 2013.
Lasky, Pisor, and Grant opened a second Maple & Ash in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2019. A year prior, the more casual Etta debuted in Bucktown; a Scottsdale location is also debuting next week. Since Etta’s debut, What If has also opened chic Italian eatery Monarch and sake bar Kessaku in Dallas, along with rooftop restaurant Celestina in Culver City, California (where there’s another Etta location). Another new concept, Cafe Sophie, is planned for Chicago later this month. Another Maple & Ash is also pegged for Beverly Hills, California.
According to the lawsuit, Lasky, Pisor, and Grant each own a 31 percent stake in the company with Lasky and Pisor considered “capital members,” meaning that, “all management decisions and actions require the approval of both Lasky and Pisor.” Revenue for What If has climbed from $35 million in 2019 to a projected $180 to $200 million for 2022.
In a statement sent after Friday’s hearing, Lazar Raynal, one of Pisor’s attorneys, reiterated that “none of these allegations were raised, to our knowledge, before Mr. Lasky proposed a buy-out on March 10. Mr. Lasky is now using this as a pretext to force Mr. Pisor out... We believe that, in the wake of the company’s recent valuation, Mr. Lasky is acting out of greed.”
Raynal also characterized Pisor as being upset on March 10 when he tried to visit Currey. After learning “he was being pushed out of the company he’d built, Mr. Pisor went to the home of someone he believed was a friend — someone he had hired and known for 15 years. Mr. Pisor’s conduct was legal, and the police took no action as a result of the complaint.”
Prior to Friday’s hearing, What If issued a brief statement: “At this time, the company will not comment on a meritless and frivolous lawsuit.”