Through a strange series of events, it has emerged that Chipotle CEO Steve Ells may have knowingly jacked some of David Chang’s ideas when developing the brand’s latest Asian-fusion concept. The story was sparked by Fat Duck veteran Kyle Connaughton, who according to the New York Post has sued Chipotle for firing him when he objected to plans to steal Chang’s intellectual property.
Here’s how it went down: Connaughton says the fast-food giant brought him on to develop its South East Asian-inspired spinoff, ShopHouse. What he wasn’t told was that Ells had previously spoken to Chang about the concept, but they had failed to come to an agreement. He was only made aware of the implications when he overheard a marketing director state that “Momofuku will sue Chipotle when the ramen concept opens but that Mr. Ells made a decision to proceed anyway.” When Connaughton spoke up out of fear for his professional reputation, he was promptly fired—hence the lawsuit.
Although the Post was unable to reach or get comments from representatives of Momofuku and Chipotle, respectively, Eater reports that Chipotle declined to comment on “pending legal action,” while Momofuku reiterated that it is “not a party to the lawsuit.” However, the paper does point out that Chang told AdWeek last August that “a very successful fast food company…took our intellectual property,” which would back up Connaughton’s allegation that Ells took Chang’s ideas without compensation after the Momofuku chef signed a nondisclosure agreement.
All of this is crazy stuff and we’ll be watching it closely, but if Chang himself isn’t getting involved, the suit’s more a matter of employment law than intellectual property. Still, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for Chipotle-brand pork buns, as well as any other evidence of Momofukery within the Chipotle kingdom. It’ll be unfortunate if the allegations turn out to be true, since Chipotle has done a fine job of developing a healthy working relationship with another high-profile chef, Nate Appleman, who serves as its Culinary Manager.