The words “Cheese, Swine & Wine” welcome diners to the Purple Pig. These days, a fitting tag line would add “And the Best Lawyer You Can Find.”
The principals of the popular downtown restaurant—recognized on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list since 2011—have been embroiled in a nasty legal fight since November. That’s when restaurateur Scott Harris, a part owner of the Purple Pig, sued most of his partners after discovering what he alleges was a series of improper payments made to them out of restaurant coffers. Those partners have since countersued with titillating claims of their own. Just you wait.
Now Harris, who has remained mum about the dispute outside of court filings, is shedding light on the situation. He told Chicago that the whole affair began in late 2013, when chef-partner Jimmy Bannos Jr., whom Food & Wine included in its 2012 cookbook America’s Greatest New Cooks, demanded a raise and 10 percent of the restaurant’s profits. “He said he was 100 percent of the reason the Purple Pig was successful,” Harris recalls.
Harris’s refusal led to a fraying of his decades-old friendship with Bannos’s father, Jimmy Bannos Sr., also a chef-partner in the business. Soon Harris, whose vast portfolio includes the chain Francesca’s, began looking at the Purple Pig’s 2013 books, which he claims “showed higher profits but lower distributions to the members.” When he decided to investigate further, he says, he was “stonewalled.” Harris, who chokes up speaking about the drama, says he “tried everything possible not to file suit”—though he won’t say exactly what—but couldn’t resolve the dispute on his own.
He sued the Bannoses, who also own Heaven on Seven, and others involved in the Purple Pig: chef-partner Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia fame; investor Gary Veselsky, owner of Shamrock Flooring; general manager Laura Payne; and Oak Park’s Prairie Bread Kitchen, owned by Doran Payne, Laura’s husband.
In his complaint, Harris claims the defendants paid themselves $584,000 in Purple Pig revenue, under the table, between 2010 and 2014; used the restaurant’s credit card for home repairs, health insurance, computers, and an engagement party for Bannos Sr.’s daughter; and engaged in “abusive spending” at a James Beard Awards banquet in New York. The partners, according to the suit, were also involved in a scheme in which the Bannoses tried to conceal revenue from taxation by paying “bonuses” to Laura Payne and making fake purchases from Prairie Bread Kitchen.
“We deny Scott Harris’s allegations,” Marianna Bannos, Bannos Jr.’s wife, wrote in an email on behalf of the defense. “We will continue to allow the judicial process to resolve this matter.” In mid-December, they filed a counterclaim, accusing Harris of forging Bannos Sr.’s signature on documents modifying a $3.6 million bank loan related to the Francesca’s restaurant group. According to the complaint, Harris defaulted on the loan in the fall of 2013. Their court filings also accuse Harris of luring Purple Pig employees to his other restaurants with cash offers, taking $65,000 from the Purple Pig’s operating account, copying its recipes at his other restaurants (including Davanti Enoteca and Francesca’s Forno), and—the capper—texting photos of a penis to Bannos Sr.’s wife.
“They’re just trying to tarnish my character and divert the judge’s attention away from the merits of the case,” Harris says of the countersuit. About that dick pic: He says that, as friends for 25 years, he and the Bannoses sent various types of texts as jokes. But he claims the rest of the partners’ allegations are “absolutely untrue.” Harris is seeking damages of more than $1.5 million, a full audit of the restaurant’s records, and the removal of both the Bannoses from ownership and management of the restaurant.
Meanwhile, it’s “business as usual” at the Pig, according to Marianna Bannos. “My husband Jimmy Bannos Jr. continues to cultivate a great team, a delicious and unique menu, and aims to produce a wonderful dining experience,” she wrote.
As for Harris: “I plan to prevail so the Purple Pig remains to be a profitable, successful restaurant that is properly run.” Presumably, a restaurant where shoes, shirt, and pants are required.