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Chef Chris Ponte says he was cheated out of Burger 21 ownership stake

A week after Burger 21 began selling franchises, the Clearwater chef who cooked up the gourmet burger and shakes menu says he was cheated out of a promised ownership stake in the venture.

Chris Ponte, who spent more than two years perfecting the menu for the Tampa parent of Melting Pot fondue restaurants, on Wednesday filed suit in Pinellas County against former employer Front Burner Brands Inc.

Paid $120,000 a year to be executive chef for Front Burner, which also owns GrillSmith and an unlaunched concept for which Ponte also developed a menu called Peel, Ponte says he was promised a 5 percent stake in Burger 21. But when he was presented a new employment contract, there was no stake, no raise and a noncompete restriction against working with rivals. So he left May 3.

Until now, Front Burner executives, brothers and Melting Pot founders Mark and Bob Johnston described Ponte's departure as a mutual parting.

"Chris is a very nice guy and they took advantage of him," said David Linesch, the chef's Palm Harbor attorney. "He really believed in and worked hard developing the concept. Then they took back the promised stake."

"We are surprised," said Sandy D'Elosua, spokeswoman for Front Burner. "But we cannot comment on a lawsuit we have not seen."

After a successful debut in Westchase last fall, the second Burger 21 opens in Carollwood in a few weeks, with plans for up to three more in the bay area within a year. The Johnstons hope to sell rights for 30 franchise stores around Florida within a year.

The menu of the fast-casual restaurant features 21 types of moderately priced gourmet burgers — including chicken, ahi tuna and shrimp ground on site — and a milk shake and ice cream bar with pedestal seating.

A Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Ponte has focused on his own Cafe Ponte restaurant in Clearwater.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Chef Chris Ponte says he was cheated out of Burger 21 ownership stake 09/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 8:25pm]
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