A court has barred a Billings restaurant from opening under its original plans after a would-be competitor cried foul.
The restaurant's owners say it will proceed under new plans and is now aiming for an Aug. 1 opening.
Odd Duck, which was set to open this spring in West Park Promenade, was sued in January by a rival restaurant. Local Kitchen and Bar filed suit saying the Odd Duck's chef violated a non-compete agreement.
That chef, Travis Stimpson, was fired as a part owner of Local Kitchen in April 2018 after sending sexually suggestive text messages to a 15-year-old employee. His leaving the restaurant triggered a non-compete clause in his contract that prohibited him from working for any other restaurant in Yellowstone County for five years.
Local Kitchen bought out Stimpson's 41 percent share of the restaurant for roughly $12,000, gave him certain kitchen equipment and agreed not to sue over damages incurred by Stimpson's shortened tenure.
In the ensuing months, Stimpson went on to work in various Billings restaurants. Local Kitchen didn’t seek to intervene until he entered into the plans to launch Odd Duck.
The owners of Local Kitchen, John and Meagan Heenan, said the plans for Odd Duck were essentially “Local 2.0” and were too similar to the concept at Local Kitchen. For example, both menus would feature local beef, egg dishes and a rotating menu. John Heenan is a Billings attorney who has also run for statewide public office.
In a ruling issued Wednesday, Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses granted Local Kitchen’s requests to block Stimpson from participating in a restaurant competitive with Local Kitchen, including Odd Duck.
The judge found that the principals of Odd Duck — Don Christensen, Jamey and Ronald Eisenbarth, and Travis Stimpson — all knew about the non-compete clause with Local and intentionally violated it.
Odd Duck was “from the beginning” designed to compete with Local Kitchen, the judge ruled.
The judge cited text messages Jamey Eisenbarth sent to John Heenan after Stimpson was "dissociated" from Local. Those texts included one that said, “Don & I have put $500k up for (Stimpson) too (sic) compete directly with you!”
Jamey Eisenbarth declined to comment on what his attorneys had advised the ruling meant for Odd Duck, and how they would need to change their menu or overall restaurant concept. Odd Duck’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Eisenbarth did say the partners would proceed with opening the restaurant and that Odd Duck was in talks with various Billings chefs, although he wouldn't name the chefs.
Reached Friday, John Heenan said he was grateful the judge held accountable the other restaurant.
“And so, we hope that they’ll comply with the judge’s order, but if they don’t, we’ll be there to hold them accountable,” Heenan said.
Local Kitchen has had two co-chefs take over since Stimpson was dissociated last year.