The husband-and-wife team that runs the local Ruby Slipper Cafe chain has filed suit in federal court against former executive Christopher Belou, alleging that he is using trade secrets from the company and that they gave up their original location on South Cortez Street because of deceptive advice from him.
Belou, reached on Saturday, denied the allegations.
“I have no intention of ever using anything proprietary to the Ruby Slipper Cafe. … I don’t need or want anything from the Ruby Slipper Cafe except for them to stop slandering my name with this fabricated and frivolous lawsuit,” he said. “It will get really interesting when the truth comes out about why the owners of the Ruby Slipper chose to get out of their South Cortez Street lease early.”
On Wednesday, Erich and Jennifer Weishaupt filed suit on behalf of Ruby Slipper Cafe LLC, asking the court to prevent Belou from using private company information and from opening his own restaurant in the South Cortez Street location until after the Ruby Slipper’s lease for the site would have expired in a few months, had they not opted out of it at Belou’s urging.
In 2008, the Weishaupts launched a New Orleans all-day breakfast mainstay when they opened the first of nine Ruby Slipper Cafe outlets at South Cortez Street and Cleveland Avenue in Mid-City. Soon after it opened, its big stacks of pancakes, praline bacon and signature omelets had people lining up outside its doors for hours on weekend mornings.
Early on, the restaurant added administrators like Belou, who was the head of business development until January.
The company now operates nine locations — five in New Orleans, one in Baton Rouge, two in Alabama and one in Florida.
But in the lawsuit, the Weishaupts say that, despite that expansion, they would not have made the “critical business decision” to leave the original location if they hadn’t been counseled to do so by Belou. They also claim that Belou is using confidential information — strategies, pay rates, vendor lists and recipes — that he was privy to as a trusted part of their business.
“Other than the two founders, there is no one ... who has been more involved in or knows more about Ruby Slipper than Belou,” the suit says.
In response, Belou said he played the role of the instructor: “The Ruby Slipper Cafe learned how to run a restaurant from me when I took over as a consultant, then general manager, of the 139 S. Cortez St. location in 2008, when it was newly opened,” he said.
He cited his degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and the University of New Orleans, where he received a master’s degree in hospitality and tourism management, and his experience as sous chef at the Windsor Court Hotel and the original chef de cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Canal Street. He also helped to launch several restaurants in Cancun, Mexico, he said.
In their lawsuit, the Weishaupts outline how, in 2017, they sat down with Belou to make some decisions. The company had completed construction on a two-story corporate headquarters at 315 S. Broad St. that also incorporated a restaurant downstairs. They didn’t want to create a Ruby Slipper glut in Mid-City, but their 10-year lease on South Cortez wasn’t up until April 2018 and they wanted to keep the restaurant open till then.
The Weishaupts contend that, even as Belou was “strenuously” urging them to get out of the lease early — telling them that they were “stretched too thin” to operate both spaces — he was negotiating his own lease for the site under the name CB Hospitality and was sharing information with their landlord.
Unaware of Belou’s negotiations, the Weishaupts even accepted their landlord’s unsolicited offer in November to get out of their lease early, the lawsuit says. As a result, Ruby Slipper closed its location on South Cortez at the end of last year.
“Belou is now working to realize the fruits of his illegal scheme," the suit says. "He has already begun construction at the Cortez Street location, and he has put signs in the windows, using colors and fonts similar to Ruby Slipper’s, announcing, ‘Brunch is coming back to this location!!!’ ”
None of the allegations will be proven in court, said Belou, painting the suit as a Goliath vs. David scenario. “This is just the case of a large, multistate restaurant-chain corporation unfairly attacking a local chef, to try to minimize their competition,” he said.