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Shellfish struggle lands in court

The owners of a crab restaurant in Carrollwood are suing the owner of a lobster restaurant in Tampa. Not surprisingly, the conflict began with some clause.

The clause is part of a no-compete agreement signed by the owners of Crabby Tom's Inc. and another bay area chain, Crabby Bill's, according to a lawsuit Crabby Tom's filed July 17 in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

The suit alleges that a former employee of Crabby Bill's recently opened a third restaurant, Lobster Louie's, just south of I-275.

The resulting confusion, the suit says, is having a devastating effect on business.

"We really don't understand the charges and that's about all I can say," said defendant Tom Geller, who owns the lobster restaurant at 612 N Dale Mabry Hwy.

To understand, you must know your seafood restaurant history.

According to the suit, Crabby Tom's owners, Anne Higgins and Gay Wolters, approached the then-owner of Crabby Bill's, George Loder, Jr., in 1986. After Loder helped them start their restaurant and allowed them to use Crabby Bill "concepts," the women agreed to pay him $25,000, the suit said.

Later that year, the lawsuit said, Loder signed an agreement not to compete within 200 miles of the first Crabby Tom's location. That one opened on Hillsborough Avenue in July 1987; two more followed in Brandon and Carrollwood. There are no Crabby Bill's restaurants in Hillsborough County.

In 1994, both parties agreed to change the no-compete agreement. Crabby Bill's was now prevented from opening a restaurant or retail seafood outlet in Hillsborough County, but only for six years, according to the lawsuit.

An Orlando-based company bought the Crabby Bill's chain from Loder in 1995.

Geller, the suit contends, violated the no-compete agreement when he opened Lobster Louie's this month. Geller is a former owner of a Crabby Bill's franchise in Pinellas County, the suit said, and he and his new employees continue to refer to themselves as affiliates of Crabby Bill's _ the chain that agreed not to compete in Hillsborough.

There's more to get the crabs boiling: At Lobster Louie's, the style, decor, customer seating and menu are all "strikingly similar" to Crabby Tom's, according to the suit.

The result? Customers and suppliers of Crabby Tom's are confused and business is suffering, the suit said. The remedy? The crabs want the lobster to close up shop and pay damages in excess of $15,000.

Geller said his attorney told him not to speak about the suit, but this much he confirmed: He'll see the clause in court.