Big Food has decided there’s money to be made in selling bowls of ramen to the masses. It’s surprising it has taken this long, since ramen is basically just a bowl of water and noodles (with maybe a few veggies and things, additional charge), and presumably has a very high profit margin. Ramen has long been the go-to staple for people trying to subsist on an extremely limited budget – a dollar or two can provide many days of salty ramen slurping. Now, of course, we’re talking about fancy ramen (rather, “traditional” ramen) in this case – not your college dorm ramen, but rather the kind of ramen that world-famous chefs looking for that corporate paycheck have painstakingly designed and tweaked. The kind of ramen that won’t be sold for 29 cents a pack, but rather $8-10 dollars a bowl, presumably.
And where there’s big money at stake, litigation is soon to follow. In this case, Kyle Connoughton, former head chef of London’s “The Fat Duck” (“Best Restaurant in the World 2006 – 2007), is suing Chipotle, and its CEO Steven Ells, claiming Ells fraudulently induced (i.e. tricked) him into taking a job with Chipotle, and became unjustly enriched by the work Connoughton performed on “ramen concepts” pursuant to this employment.
To understand the basis for this claim, one must look to Mr. Ells’ (alleged) prior ramen dealings. Connoughton’s complaint alleges that Chipotle worked with chef David Chang (yes, the Momofuku guy) on a “ramen concept” around 2008, subject to a non-disclosure agreement signed by Ells. The complaint alleges that this work was never authorized by Chang for use in any restaurant. It further alleges that Ells and Chang could not agree on what Chang should be paid for his work and involvement with the concept, and that Ells thereupon insisted that Chang tear up the non-disclosure agreement, which he refused to do. Chipotle executives allegedly believe that Chang will sue Chipotle once it begins opening its “ramen concept” stores. When Connoughton confronted Ells about his dealings with Chang, Ells told him to forget about it and proceed with the “concept,” but soon thereafter fired him on the grounds that he “no longer had confidence in the ramen concept.”
So you may be wondering – where is the legal claim in all this? Connoughton essentially is asserting that Ells’ failure to disclose Chang’s involvement was fraudulent and that he never would have taken the job if he had known the history, because it would have forced him to violate the non-disclosure agreement and would have given him the reputation of having stolen the ramen idea from Chang. He is seeking to recover the equity in the company that he lost when he was fired, the loss of other opportunities he could have taken if he had turned down the Chipotle job, as well as the value of the work that he performed for Chipotle while employed there.
I leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about the viability of Connoughton’s lawsuit. My own observation is that these circumstances likely present a cautionary tale for those chefs who seek to climb into bed with heavyweight corporate partners. I am sympathetic to why they choose to do so – if they have a viable brand, they should make the most out of it while they still can, there is no shame in securing the financial well-being of themselves and their family. That being said, they are advised to watch their ass.
Finally, if you have been wondering what a “ramen concept” is, this should give you an idea. “Shophouse” is a Chipotle-owned joint in DC which, according to Connoughton, is based on the work initially done by Chang. Chang has played his cards close to his vest regarding this whole affair (as his lawyers have properly advised him) – however, the legal wars over these “ramen concepts” may soon heat up further, so stay tuned.
Apparently Chang et al. are not the first to come up with a “ramen concept.” See below for an alternative concept published on the interwebs. I’m not sure quite what the concept entails but perhaps you the reader will have some insights. Patent pending.