It's become a bit of a turf war, and the turf is sausage. Last month's Style Weekly cover story on the area's growing artisan-meat culture featured Tanya Cauthen of Belmont Butchery and two former employees, Chris Mattera and Brad Hemp, who now own the wholesale business SausageCraft. Just as that story went to press, Cauthen's lawyer served notice that a lawsuit was in the works, seeking an injunction order against the new business. That injunction was denied and the suit now goes to court unless a settlement is reached.
Mattera says he and Hemp were caught by surprise. “We are being sued, that's true. It came out of the blue — we were hoping to be partners. I'm upset because we had a great relationship for four years and that place [Belmont Butchery] is important to me. We put in earnest effort to make it great.” Mattera's photo appeared on the butchery's website even as the suit was being waged, and the principals had attended each other's weddings and shared a vision for Richmond's food culture. “We are two small businesses in a town on the cusp of interesting new foods,” Mattera says. “This doesn't help move that along. What is a ‘win?'”
While that may not be clear, the financial implications are. With the specter of punitive damages potentially in the $7 million range, according to SausageCraft's attorney Devon Cushman, the new business could tank before hitting its second quarter. At issue is proprietary information, and what constitutes a trade secret.
Sausage making “is my craft, but it isn't rocket science,” Mattera says, “it's sausage, people.” Cauthen says the point of the suit is how the deal went down. “This is a breach of trust. If I didn't feel there was wrongdoing, I wouldn't have chosen this course. To find out my trust was sorely misplaced, it's tough. It's the details and the way it was done. I left the two of them in charge [at Belmont Butchery] because I was on my honeymoon. [Sausage wholesaling] is what Belmont Butchery was going to be doing next, so it's a loss of growth opportunity. My desire when they announced what they were going to do was set some rules, some parameters of how it would work for everyone. I told them exactly how I felt,” so that the lawsuit was not unexpected. “It doesn't make any of us look good,” Cauthen says, vowing to keep her business moving above the fray.
Last year, Billy Bread and Richmond Restaurant Week stirred up issues of ownership in the local food community. When are recipes and techniques trade secrets, and should fundraising events be invitation-only? Legal answers might differ from public opinion, and this town's not lacking that. Watch this space for an update as the case is resolved.