Loans and grants

Investor sues Boston chef Tiffani Faison, claiming financial mismanagement

In a statement to the Globe, Faison denied the lawsuit’s allegations, calling the suit “disappointing but not surprising” and saying Weintraub and an unnamed “close business associate” have a long history of “misogynistic and bullying tactics” over their 13 years of business dealings with her.

“The clear intention is to damage my character and my career,” Faison said. “I will not cower to the intimidation intended to scare me into submission and silence.

“I look forward to the truth of my dealings with Mr. Weintraub and the details of my relationships with my business partners, both past and present, coming to light through this litigation,” she added.

Faison’s fare has been a mainstay of the Boston food scene since she opened her Boylston Street barbecue joint Sweet Cheeks Q in 2011, the first of a string of establishments under the umbrella of her restaurant group Big Heart Hospitality.

Since then, in the Fenway neighborhood, Faison has opened the Southeast Asian restaurant Tiger Mama (which closed in 2021), the snack bar Fool’s Errand, and the Italian restaurant Orfano (which shut its doors last year after only three years in business, and just seven months after reopening following an extended COVID hiatus). Last year, Faison debuted three concepts — raw bar Dive Bar, pizza joint Tenderoni’s, and champagne bar Bubble Bath — all in the newly opened High Street Place food hall in downtown.

Patrons eat and drink at Sweet Cheeks Q, run by celebrity chef Tiffani Faison, in Boston in 2011.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Gl

The trio of complaints outlined by the lawsuit, however, call the owner-chef’s business practices into question.

Weintraub invested $100,000 in Sweet Cheeks in 2011 for a roughly 5 percent interest in the business, according to the lawsuit. (He later also invested $100,000 in Orfano.) In 2017, the lawsuit alleges, Faison’s corporate entities took out a loan to buy out Brian Lesser, her onetime partner in Sweet Cheeks, for $1.5 million. Though she has since used income and operating capital from Sweet Cheeks to pay off the loan, the lawsuit claims, Faison assumed Lesser’s ownership stake herself, rather than reapportioning its value to minority investors such as Weintraub.

Weintraub also alleges that Faison misused federal COVID relief funds — from both the Paycheck Protection Program and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund — at Sweet Cheeks and Orfano. In total, Sweet Cheeks received $1,383,400 in PPP loans, and $2,230,173 in no-strings-attached RRF grants, which were seen as a potential lifeline for struggling restaurants in 2021 but were granted to only about one-third of applicants. Orfano received $945,685 in PPP dollars and $1,975,521 in RRF funds.

Despite repeated requests, Weintraub’s lawsuit says, Faison never told investors how she used this roughly $6.5 million, and the suit goes on to accuse Faison of using the funds to over-pay “possibly herself, her wife, and other parties with whom she shared a familial or personal relationship.” (Faison’s ex-wife, Kelly Walsh, denies that she received any funds and says she split from Faison both personally and professionally in December of 2019.) This misuse at both restaurants, the lawsuit claims, cut into profits that would have otherwise been distributed to investors — or, in the case of Orfano, money that “could have been used to prevent” its closing.

Finally, the lawsuit claims that Faison has failed to provide Weintraub and other investors with accounting information about the restaurants, including details about loan and compensation amounts.

The main dining area at Orfano in Boston, a now-closed restaurant run by celebrity chef Tiffani Faison. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

The lawsuit calls for a trial to give Weintraub a proportional share of interest in Sweet Cheeks, award him various damages, and order an accounting of Sweet Cheeks and Orfano.

Allen, Weintraub’s lawyer, said he has spoken with Faison’s representatives, to no avail.

“Clearly, [the conversations] haven’t been substantive, or we wouldn’t be where we’re at today,” said Allen.

Faison, a four-time James Beard nominee, is among Boston’s highest-profile chefs. She has made a name for herself in the entertainment world since her turn as a runner-up on the first season of “Top Chef” in 2006, and she has since served as a judge on the cooking shows “Chopped” and “Fire Masters.” In recent years, Faison has been outspoken about gender inequities in the restaurant industry, the importance of the #MeToo movement, and the premium she puts on workplace transparency.

“All of our numbers are open with our management team. We hide nothing,” said Faison in a 2019 interview with the Globe. “We have a lot of conversations about how to spend money in a restaurant: Spend it like it’s your money, not like it’s someone else’s or it’s free money, because it’s not. It’s just like personal finance. It matters what you make, but it matters more what you spend.”

Dana Gerber can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.

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