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Saison Files Intellectual Property Suits Against Former Employees [Updated]

Three-Michelin-starred secrets are expensive

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Three-Michelin-starred SoMa restaurant Saison, helmed by chef/owner Joshua Skenes, recently filed lawsuits against two employees, accusing them of stealing trade secrets among other allegations.

The first lawsuit was filed in May against Matthew Mako, former director of hospitality, who left the restaurant after four years. He’s now involved in a new project, with former Saison chef de cuisine Rodney Wages, a tasting menu-focused restaurant currently known as RTB Fillmore. That restaurant charges $89 per tasting menu, while Saison clocks in at $398. (Wages, who is not named in the suit, was most recently chef de cuisine of Atelier Crenn, before leaving to pursue his own restaurant.)

The lawsuit accuses Mako of defamation, unfair competition, violation of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act and a breach of fiduciary duty and duty of loyalty, and other allegations. Saison is seeking damages in excess of $500,000 from Mako.

According to parties familiar with both sides of the suit, the lawsuit against Mako was being dissolved out of court, until a new round of discovery requests was filed by Saison on September 12. According to the Chronicle, that included a five-page request for the production of documents associated with the suit, presumably information from Saison’s proprietary document called “The Handbook” which contains information about business plans, investors, recipes, and more.

A second lawsuit was filed in September against Anthony Keels, former bar director at Saison. Keels is now the beverage director at Eight Tables by George Chen, a fine-dining restaurant that opened this month as part of China Live, the Chinese food emporium that debuted in Chinatown earlier this year. That suit alleges that Keels altered recipes, attemped “to serve a substandard substitute to customers” before leaving the restaurant and taking trade secrets with him. In the suit Saison lists damages at $500,000.

Saison issued the following statement last week, in response to a request for comment on the suit:

"Saison takes great care and expends substantial resources to develop its IP to make sure its guests receive the best experience. Any actions to sabotage that IP or undermine that experience are taken very seriously and expeditiously. Having said that, Saison is not in the business of filing of lawsuits and taking matters to a trial, and is optimistic that there will be discussions between the parties to resolve this matter and look forward to having this matter put behind us promptly."

Like many fine-dining restaurants at its lofty level, three-Michelin-starred restaurant Saison attracts high-quality talent from around the world. Eventually, those employees may choose to move on, taking some of the knowledge they’ve gained with them — but how much are they allowed to use?

At restaurants, intellectual property law can be a murky subject. It’s difficult to copyright a recipe, ideas, or knowledge of techniques. If a restaurant has a “secret sauce,” like a signature dish or recipe that they are known for and is a driving force for their business, they might be able to protect it as trade secrets. Typically restaurants concerned about protecting their intellectual property ask employees to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Chez Panisse, the Berkeley temple of California cuisine, has been a training ground for numerous chefs in the Bay Area, many of whom have gone on to use what they’ve learned to open restaurants like Camino, Pizzaiolo, and more. They’re all known as “alums” of the restaurant, part of a storied family tree with many branches. At Saison, the current term seems to be “defendant.”

Update, 3 p.m.: Saison has released the following statement.

“Saison takes great care and expends substantial resources to make sure its guests, clients, partners, and employees receive the best care. Any actions to sabotage that or undermine that experience are taken very seriously and expeditiously. This is the primary reason Saison filed suit.

Though there was a reference to trade secret violations, that is not primarily what led to court action being taken. Saison’s focus, and indeed its very culture, is providing an environment for its workers to learn and thrive, and to be creative. Saison is not in the business of filing lawsuits but our assets and IP must be protected. Even now, Saison remains willing to put this matter behind us promptly.”


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