5Church lawsuit claims mismanagement, freebies and, yes, name-calling

5Church’s original location in Charlotte shares a kitchen and other resources with Sophia’s Lounge.
5Church’s original location in Charlotte shares a kitchen and other resources with Sophia’s Lounge.

A new lawsuit filed against the partners of 5Church, one of Charlotte’s trendiest restaurants, contains tales of friendship soured, mismanagement, free-flowing food and drink and claims that one partner called another “a whiny ex-girlfriend” who could not handle “a breakup.”

The relationships behind the three-city 5Church restaurant group are detailed in a civil suit filed in U.S. District Court by a former investor and co-owner against co-owners Patrick Whalen, Alejandro Torio and MAP Management.

In the suit, Ayman Kamel claims damages in excess of $75,000 and asks for amounts to be determined at trial. The suit claims violation of non-compete and non-disparagement restrictions, breach of fiduciary duties by using resources from 5Church Charlotte to benefit the neighboring Sophia’s Lounge in the Ivey’s Hotel, and unfair and deceptive acts.

The contract dispute, filed Tuesday in Charlotte, offers an unusually detailed description of operations behind the popular restaurant group, which started in Charlotte but now has locations in Charleston and Atlanta, as well as Sophia’s in Charlotte.

In addition to becoming a celebrity hangout during the Democratic National Convention in 2012, 5Church received national publicity earlier this year when executive chef Jamie Lynch competed on the Bravo TV show “Top Chef: Charleston.” Lynch is not named in the suit.

Whalen and Torio responded with a statement Wednesday night: “5Church categorically denies the allegations in the lawsuit and intends to vigorously defend itself against these charges.”

Dana Lumsden, Kamel’s attorney with the law firm Bradley Arrant Boult Cummings, said he had no comment beyond what is in the complaint.

According to Kamel’s claim, he hired Whalen in New York in 2007 when Kamel was executive general manager of a night club, restaurant and bowling alley called Frames and Whalen was new to the restaurant business.

Later, the suit claims, Whalen moved to Charlotte to work at the now-defunct nightclub Butter and repeatedly asked Kamel to move to Charlotte and work with him.

Eventually, Kamel agreed to be “a silent investor” in the restaurant that became 5Church, investing $100,000 in return for a 20 percent interest in the restaurant.

According to the suit, Kamel came to Charlotte to help Whalen manage 5Church and found “incredible mismanagement of the business,” including lack of credit with vendors and bounced checks.

“5Church Charlotte was providing excessive amounts of free food and drink to the investors and their guests without accounting for, or charging the investor back for, these ‘comps,’ ” the suit claims.

When 5Church expanded to Charleston in 2014 and Atlanta in 2015, Kamel became a co-manager and co-owner in all three locations, moving to Atlanta to oversee that location. Eventually, the suit claims, Whalen transferred all of his shares in 5Church Atlanta to Kamel.

The complaint behind the suit apparently started after Whalen sold his ownership stake in 5Church Atlanta to open Sophia’s Lounge in the Ivey’s building, which is connected to the 5Church Charlotte location and shares resources, including the kitchen.

In addition to claims surrounding the use of 5Church resources for Sophia’s, the suit also alleges that Whalen induced 5Church Atlanta employees, including Torio, to leave Kamel’s location in Atlanta. It also claims Kamel wasn’t offered an option to participate despite earlier agreements.

From the suit: “Torio posted a picture on his Facebook page of Whalen, Torio, Lynch and Kamel, except Kamel was cropped out of the picture,” with a caption suggesting that Kamel wasn’t an original owner and that 5Church Atlanta was closing. The restaurant was still open Wednesday.

According to the suit, Torio corresponded with multiple people, characterizing Kamel “as a whiny, ex-girlfriend who could not handle a ‘breakup.’ 

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis