A group of estranged investors who sunk $3 million into Maple & Ash, the popular Gold Coast steakhouse, filed a lawsuit in April against Maple & Ash accusing restaurant co-founder Jim Lasky of fraud. Instead of spending $7.6 million Payment Protection Plan funds on workers at their Chicago and Arizona restaurants, the investors allege the money went toward personal expenses.
As the restaurant denied any wrongdoing, the specific accusations weren’t known until last week as reporters and attorneys at WBEZ and the Sun-Times have pursued the story for months and dogged Cook County officials to release sealed court records. What they found was that “virtually no PPP $ was sent to the restaurant(s).” Instead, unsealed records show allegations that $2 million was spent on a 12-seat Learjet and another $32,000 on country club dues.
The investors — who include Dylan Bates, ex-CEO and president of ATI Physical Therapy; Jason Hafner, COO of Fast Pace Health; and Chris Cowan, the current owner of the Kanela Breakfast Club mini-chain and partner at One Health Home — have grown frustrated over the months. They had a ringside seat watching Lasky and co-founder Pisor bicker with dueling lawsuits accusing one another of locking the other out of financial records and more. Pisor and Lasky settled their legal beef in January and split their company. Laksy and chef Danny Grant remain at Maple & Ash and What If Syndicate. In January, Pisor took Etta and Cafe Sophie, forming a new company, Etta Collective. He isn’t listed as a defendant in the investors’ lawsuit and has no holding interests in the companies listed as defendants.
The federal government established the $800 billion PPP program to help businesses survive during the pandemic, and many restaurants applied for money to pay their staff. WBEZ/Sun-Times reports that Maple & Ash employs 220 workers in Chicago with an average monthly payroll of $748,595. A Scottsdale, Arizona location staffs 168 with an average monthly payroll of $600,000. An attorney for Maple & Ash once more denied all wrongdoing in a statement to WBEZ/Sun-Times.
Maple & Ash is one of the priciest steakhouses in Chicago, right across the street from Mariano Park, near Rush and Division. It’s also routinely hailed as one of the highest-grossing restaurants in the country, at least by Restaurant Business’s survey results.
As WBEZ reporter Dan Mihalopoulos justifies on the platform formerly known as Twitter, this story involves the misappropriation of taxpayer money from the PPP. He also pushed back over the notion that this story was a case of “rich people fighting with richer people,” by responding that the money was supposed to go to restaurant workers, “who are not rich.”
Accusations of PPP fraud are being heard across the country. However, the allegations haven’t really remained in the news cycle or impacted political races as federal politicians worked together to get aid out as quickly as possible.
Attorneys for Pisor and Lasky weren’t immediately available for comment.