Celebrity Chef ”Big Shake” wants out of fake business deal

Originally Posted Online Feb. 10, 2017 at 8:01 a.m.

Chef Shawn ‘’Big Shake’’ Davis says former Gov. John Y. Brown was used to lure him into a deal

LEXINGTON, Ky – Nashville based Celebrity Chef Shawn “Big Shake’’ Davis, of Shark Tank and QVC fame, is the face of “Big Shake’s Hot Chicken’’ operating in Lexington at 867 S. Broadway. But Davis says he has been shut out of the local operation and does not want the community be deceived any longer.

A federal lawsuit coupled with an NAACP discrimination complaint against Lexington businessmen R. Lee White and Greg McDonald provide a detailed timeline of events which led to Davis, and his wife Robin, suing to get his name back and void the contract with the two Lexington business partners.

Chiefly, Chef Davis asserts that Lee White led him to believe that former Governor and successful businessman John Y. Brown, most known for his purchase of Kentucky Fried Chicken, would be involved in the franchising of “Big Shake’s Hot Chicken”.

Furthermore, the Davises NAACP complaint states that they believe White and McDonald targeted them “because we were unsophisticated business people. What makes it even worse, is that he targeted us because we were Black and therefore believed we were unsophisticated.”

The making of a Celebrity Chef

Chef ''Big Shake'' with entrepreneur Daymond John of Shark Tank posed in Shake's Nashville area restaurant. (Davis Family photos)

Chef ”Big Shake” with entrepreneur Daymond John of Shark Tank posed in Shake’s Nashville area restaurant. (Davis Family photos)

Chef Big Shake was a hit after his 2011 appearance on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank’’.

Davis did not get a deal with one of the shows investors, but an independent deal allowed him to manufacture his product “The Original Shrimp Burger’’.

In 2012, per the lawsuit, the Shrimp Burger was in 2500 grocery stores and grossed more than $850,000, which netted Davis more than $300,000 from this product alone.

Over the next two years, Mr. Davis made more than twenty-five appearances on national and local television shows, including Access Hollywood, and sold his frozen burgers on QVC. Additionally, Shark Tank’s Season 3 provided an update segment about Chef Big Shake and his business success after leaving “the Tank’’ without a deal.

Next, Big Shake capitalized on the Nashville culinary trend “hot chicken.’’

In January 2014, Chef Big Shake and Robin opened their first restaurant in Franklin, TN, which was called Big Shake’s Hot Chicken and Fish and in May 2015, the Davises opened a second Big Shake’s Hot Chicken and Fish restaurant also in Franklin.

The New Deal

Robin and Shawn Davis (center) in their Lexington store flanked by R. Lee White and his wife. (Davis family photos)

Robin and Shawn Davis (center) in their Lexington store flanked by R. Lee White and his wife. (Davis family photos)

Court documents state that Lexington based businessman Randolph Lee White approached the Davises in February 2015 about a partnership that he promised would quickly bring their chicken business to a national scale.

Robin said White approached them about reintroducing the shrimp burger to the retail market, and they considered that offer.

However, when White visited their restaurant he put a new deal on the table to also franchise Big Shake’s Hot Chicken.

“He visited on a particularly busy night, saw the crowd, and wanted to add our restaurants to the deal but we didn’t need any help with that,’’ said Robin.

But White continued pursuit. After 6 months without a commitment from the Davises, White arranged a meeting that ultimately cemented the relationship.

The lawsuit states “On or about Saturday, July 18, 2015, Governor Brown drove to Franklin, Tennessee and met with the Davises at the restaurant.  During the visit, Governor Brown tasted the food and spoke with customers. He remained at the restaurant for approximately two hours. He told the Davises that he was looking for another restaurant to franchise to others.

“As the owners of a chicken restaurant, the Davises had great respect for Governor Brown’s success with Kentucky Fried Chicken, were enormously impressed that White had led him to their restaurant.

“White repeatedly referred to “the team” he would leverage if the Davises agreed to a partnership.  White led the Davises to believe that John Y. Brown was part of the team.”

In August, White sent an email to the Davises relaying positive feedback from Gov. Brown and another in which White committed to launch 15 new Big Shake’s restaurants in Tennessee.

After nine months of repeated visits and emails from White, and most impressively, a personal visit from John Y. Brown to their Franklin restaurant, the Davises agreed to sell a 75% stake in their business.

“In essence, the Davises sold a majority interest in their growing business for pennies on the dollar because of White’s representations about his ability to make the Davises multi-millionaires through their 25% equity stake,’’ Davis’ attorney states in the lawsuit.

“As the person who helped launch KFC to its’ national status, we were thoroughly impressed and persuaded that we would were making the right decision. [Brown] was a very important part of our decision making process,’’ the Davises claimed in the NAACP document.

Former Gov. John Y. Brown acknowledged meeting Chef Big Shake in his Nashville restaurant and called him a “nice guy’’. Brown did not share his first impression of Big Shake’s Chicken for this story but said he planned to visit the Lexington location in the next week or two.

When pressed by email for comment on the lawsuit and answer questions for this article, the former governor did not respond.

“I don’t believe the Governor has a deceitful bone is his body. I believe he was an innocent bystander in this whole situation,’’ said the Chef.

Lee White was contacted for comment but he declined to comment and referred questions to his attorney, who has not yet been reached.

Claims of Non-payment and non-disclosure

The Davises filed an 8-count federal lawsuit in Tennessee on October 31, 2016 alleging three counts of securities Fraud, Failure to Register Securities, Fraudulent Inducement, Breach of Fiduciary Duty, Conversion and  Denial of Access to Books and Records.

The Davises are asking to rescind the original contract which would return all their intellectual property including recipes and ownership of the name “Chef Big Shake”.

Once the deal was closed, problems began. The Davises never heard from the accountant, the architect, or many of the other professionals that White told Mr. Davis would be a part of the team.

The building in Lexington, that White represented would be the company’s office is vacant and listed for lease.

Davis said his partners failed to pay the bills from vendors and suppliers which would have potentially closed the business.

“Vendor after vendor was telling me that they had not been paid. These are relationships we’ve built. This is a small town and we have a good reputation,’’ said Chef Davis.

Feeling pressured to save the good name of their brand and business, the Davises asked to repurchase their Nashville restaurant.

In August 2016, the Davises entered an agreement with White and McDonald to repurchase their Tennessee store for $75,000 more than they sold their business and name for just a year earlier.

Also, stated in the lawsuit, “White boasted to the Davises that he was an early executive of Tempur-Pedic, which he said was sold for billions of dollars. He also told them that he brought the London-based restaurant Yo! Sushi to the United States and sold it for $150 million.”

The lawsuit says White failed to disclose Federal and State tax liens, a personal bankruptcy and a $2.1 million-dollar judgement owed from a North Carolina lawsuit.

Legally, Chef Big Shake has no authority to use his own name or control the use of name since he only has a 25%, non-controlling stake in the new business.

Two weeks after the Davises filed their lawsuit in Tennessee, White and McDonald filed a lawsuit against the Davises in Kentucky.

Lexington Attorney Bill Davis entered a motion on Friday, Feb. 3 to have the case against them moved to Tennessee citing the “first to file’’ rule which allows cases involving similar parities and interests to be heard in the same court.

“Black Face’’

The walls of Big Shake's Hot Chicken and Fish in TN are filled with framed photos of Black entertainers and civil rights icons. (Davis Family Photo)

The walls of Big Shake’s Hot Chicken and Fish in TN are filled with framed photos of Black entertainers and civil rights icons. (Davis Family Photo)

“Our business has been racially profiled as a target for Mr. White to take advantage of. We believe he plotted to steal the business from our family from the beginning. Much like the sad story of Famous Amos, and other culinary entrepreneurs in the African-American community, we believe that he intended to use our Black heritage for profit and never intended to fulfill promises made to us,’’ Davis said in his NAACP complaint against White and McDonald.

A photo of Big Shake was prominently displayed on the wall approaching the register of the bustling Lexington chicken establishment. The website bears the chef’s name and boasts his culinary influence.

Black Lexingtonians are among the crowds that have literally flocked to this chicken shack to patronize this Black owned establishment.

Robin Davis said, “It’s a great restaurant, it’s just not our restaurant.”

The NAACP complaint states that Lee assured that each franchise of Big Shake’s Hot Chicken would have the “look and feel of [our] restaurant. We are an African- American owned restaurant and we take pride in having pictures of many black musical artists on the walls to showcase our history.  One of the cornerstones of our restaurant is the Soul Music we play to go along with the Soul Food. Our formula is Great Food + Great Music = Happy People.”

The Davises expected to connect with Lexington like they connected with the community around their restaurants outside Nashville.

“I feel bad that I never got to personally invite the Black community to the restaurant. But I won’t continue to deceive them into thinking that I have any part of the day to day operations there,’’ said Davis.

“I don’t want them to think they are supporting a Black business when they are not. We’ve been shut out and have no clue to what is going on,’’ said Robin.

Corey Dunn has posted several videos online of his visits to Big Shake’s Hot Chicken and suggested that his 5000 Facebook friends go there.

When told about the lawsuit Davis filed against his partners Dunn said, “I feel let down and disappointed and greatly misled. I’m kind of angry about it actually.”

Dunn said he would not go back to “Big Shake’s’’ in Lexington. “Instead of going there I’ll take my business to a real Black owned business. I won’t support them at all”

Through the NAACP complaint Davis revealed that he was offered $1 for his share of the company.  “If I accepted the $1, the terms of the agreement say that I would no longer be able to use my own name to earn a living for my family. My recipes, my history, who I am and all the work I have put in over the years and even during our partnership is only worth $1 to them. Offering me a $1 shows how these two wealthy, white, businessmen value my worth as a hard-working Black man in America who built a business in hopes of one day leaving a legacy for my family.”

Shawn Davis reached out to the local NAACP via Facebook.

Adrian Wallace, President Lexington Branch NAACP said that after researching Davis online he contacted him. “I had a phone call with Shawn and his wife and then I asked him to send us a completed complaint form so we could begin working on his behalf.’’

Wallace said the scenario was nothing new. “It’s the foundation of this nation that people of color have been robbed of their rights even the right to their own name.”

“I felt deceived because I had just told someone how excited I was to take them to Big Shakes,’’ said Wallace. “I’d see Big Shake’s picture in there and I looked forward to meeting him one day.’’

Per Wallace, The NAACP was prepared to seek legal counsel of behalf of the Davises but they have retained Atty. William Davis for their local legal issues.

“We aren’t involved in the legal battle but we don’t want to the community to be deceived,’’ said Wallace.

The Key Newsjournal will continue to follow these court cases.


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