LAKEVIEW — A battle over Budlong Hot Chicken is heating up between company founder Jared Leonard and Bow Truss coffee shop owner Phil Tadros.
In the days since Leonard shuttered his spicy fried chicken spot in Lakeview, Tadros has gone on the offensive. The coffee seller insists he has a right to half the company he helped build and has blasted Leonard — who also owns the popular Rub's Backcountry Smokehouse in West Ridge — as being "greedy" and "going rogue."
"Budlong wouldn't even be open if I didn't help him," Tadros said. "It's sad. You try and help talent out, and this stuff happens."
Leonard denies that Tadros had any involvement in Budlong beyond offering Leonard a lease at 2928 N. Broadway in the spring. Working with Tadros, he now says, was "as bad as you would think and more."
Tadros said he is still reeling from a Crain's Chicago Business story that detailed problems he's had with other business partners — including 15 lawsuits filed against him since 2004 — and he's showing no signs of backing down to Leonard or his other critics.
"He thought he could step on me while [I was] 'down,'" said Tadros, who denied the claims in the Crain's article published in July. "I can't believe [Leonard] did this to me, so I have to see the truth come out."
Tadros wasn't the only one surprised by Budlong's closure Tuesday. Customers expressed dismay at the sudden end to a popular lunch destination. Some even said they'd gone to the spot Tuesday to find it closed hours before Leonard made the announcement on social media.
Tadros, who said he has invested $300,000 in Budlong, quickly decried the move, accusing Leonard of "throwing a tantrum" and damaging the brand.
He also laid claim to the 49 percent ownership of Budlong he said Leonard agreed to, offering a May 2016 operating agreement, text messages and emails that he says prove he was heavily involved in the company.
The messages, purportedly between Tadros and Leonard, appear to show the two discussing food menus, investment proposals and potential locations for Budlong. Some date to December 2015 — months before Tadros had the vacancy on Broadway.
In one exchange, Tadros described the available lease at 1008 W. Armitage Ave. and said he would prefer to open a Budlong location there instead of his earlier plan for a Bow Truss.
That location will now replace the Lakeview Budlong, expected to open in late October.
Leonard said that while the sudden closure in Lakeview was not ideal, "if the only way is for me to vacate the space and give it back to him, I'll do that."
And the notion that Tadros owns half the company?
"Ridiculous," Leonard said.
The operating agreement relates only to the Budlong limited liability company set up in May for the Broadway location, Leonard said.
"If anybody does 10 minutes of research, they'll see Budlong is a brand I've been developing for two years," Leonard said.
In exchange for licensing, recipes and using the Budlong name, the business would get marketing and managing help from Funded Foods, a Tadros-owned crowdfunding umbrella geared toward food industry partners, the document states.
While Leonard only filed paperwork for The Budlong Hot Chicken LLC on Aug. 31, he was working on ideas for Budlong Pickle Co. as early as 2014, sharing on Facebook images of fried chicken recipes he was testing out.
And his restaurant group — separate from any dealings with Tadros — has been around long before he met the Bow Truss founder, Leonard said.
When his business relationship with Tadros began late last year, Leonard was over the moon. Despite multiple people warning him of troubles with Tadros, he believed at the time it was worth the risk, Leonard said.
"When the hottest girl in school calls you and says she wants to go out on a date, it doesn't make sense, but you [still] say, 'Sure, let's go,'" he said.
But within weeks of opening Budlong on Broadway in May, the relationship turned sour, Leonard said. While he declined to go into detail, he accused Tadros of "really shady stuff" and failing to live up to the promises in their operating agreement.
Leonard also told Eater Chicago that vendors and landlords were hesitant to work with any company tied to Tadros, particularly after the Crain's article.
Tadros said there were "zero issues" with vendors.
"We were buying and selling amazing chicken like clockwork," he said.
Leonard, on the advice of his attorney, stopped responding to media inquiries regarding Tadros' claim of ownership Thursday.
With no turning back on the Lakeview location, Leonard has his sights set on opening in Lincoln Park and Lincoln Square, while continuing Budlong's successful run at Revival Food Hall.
Hints the pair's relationship was having problems came in early September when their plans to open an Aquanaut brewpub serving Budlong chicken on Devon Avenue in West Ridge fell through. The building owner said the announcement of their plans in the spring was "premature."
A question that remains is whether the pair can part amicably, or if the courts will get involved.
"Lawsuits in business are best when someone is unreasonable," Tadros said. "It's the best way to force a fair exchange, or else you go in circles of senseless theory."
Tadros said Leonard has no money to buy him out. Leonard said Tadros has no case and no stake in Budlong going forward.
"He's just making it up," Leonard said. "Phil would say he's George Washington if it was convenient for him to say that."
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