Reporter's Notebook

Wrangling over ramen

Chipotle faces a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a former culinary director who was hired to develop a ramen concept

 

Chipotle Mexican Grill was in the news last week after the chain’s former culinary director filed a lawsuit over development of a concept that, sadly, never came to fruition: Ramen.

Kyle Connaughton, a former chef of the acclaimed Fat Duck restaurant in the United Kingdom, charged in the lawsuit that Chipotle had brought him on to help develop an idea for a fast-casual ramen chain. This was something entirely separate from ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, a concept Chipotle is growing that features the flavors of Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. Ramen is rooted in Japanese cuisine

In the lawsuit, filed earlier this month, Connaughton said he began working on a ramen concept back in 2010 and Chipotle took interest, working out a deal in early 2011 to purchase the plan for the concept, which was initially called “Ramen Yokocho.” Connaughton was brought on as culinary director at Chipotle to spearhead the project.

It wasn’t until the fall of 2012, after a lease was executed for the first ramen restaurant that was scheduled to open in New York City, that Connaughton said he learned that Chipotle had already worked with famed New York chef David Chang on a similar concept.

Though Chang, known for his Momofuku and other restaurants, later parted ways with Chipotle, according to the lawsuit, Connaughton claims he feared that he would be accused of stealing the New York chef’s ideas. After expressing those concerns to Chipotle executives, Connaughton was fired late last year. The lawsuit seeks damages for wrongful termination, charging Chipotle with fraud and “unjust enrichment” – though it doesn’t appear that Chipotle has made a ramen-related dime off the idea.

Chang, meanwhile, is staying out of it. The chef reportedly has declined comment on Connaughton’s charges and on any involvement he had with Chipotle. Likewise, Chipotle officials say they can’t comment on pending litigation and won’t say whether a ramen chain might still be in the works.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear the Chipotle of Ramen will come from Chipotle anytime soon, though the company is happily moving forward with its ShopHouse plan to open eight by mid 2014.

Regardless of how the court battle turns out, Connaughton’s lawsuit unveils an opportunity for an Asian fast-casual concept that remains relatively untapped. Who knows, but perhaps drawing attention to that fact was the intent of the filing.

The notion of a noodle soup menu with Chipotle’s build-your-meal service model is a forehead slapper – what a great idea! It’s healthful, customizable, and Millennial-friendly. Surely now someone else will jump in to fill that niche, if they haven’t made the move already.

Though ramen shops appear to be growing in cities with large Asian populations, most tend to be full-service operations. The U.K.-based Wagamama chain has ramen on the menu, but only three locations are in the U.S., all in Boston. The fast-casual Pei Wei Asian Diner has also dabbled with ramen on the menu at times, but it is by no means a ramen-focused concept.

So who will be the first to claim fast-casual ramen as a chain concept? We wait with chopsticks (and a spoon) at the ready.

 

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