NEW ORLEANS — Brennan's, a New Orleans restaurant that famously invented the Bananas Foster dessert six decades ago, is more recently known for a long-running family clash over ownership of the French Quarter eatery.
Infighting among relatives of the restaurant's late founder, Owen Edward Brennan, flared up last month when a shareholder meeting led to a standoff inside the restaurant. Police were called to intervene. The heated confrontation ended with a temporary truce, but the tangled family dispute is heading to court.
Starting Monday, a federal judge is scheduled to hear testimony in a lawsuit that two Brennan family members filed against a competing faction of relatives vying for control of a restaurant that boasts of once serving John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Gary Cooper and other Hollywood legends.
Ted Brennan and his daughter, Bridget Brennan Tyrell, are seeking a court order barring three other relatives – Owen "Pip" Brennan and his two sons, Blake and Clark – from entering the restaurant or taking any action under the guise of being a shareholder, director or officer of Brennan's. Ted and Pip Brennan are brothers and sons of the restaurant's founder, who died in 1955 at age 45.
Ted Brennan and his daughter claim they have been solely in control of Brennan's since December 2010 and remain its only shareholders. Pip Brennan sold his shares two years ago as part of a settlement resolving state court litigation between them.
Pip Brennan, however, claims he is entitled to keep control over his shares of stock and maintain his voting authority because Brennan's Inc. allegedly has failed to comply with the settlement's payment conditions.
The Brennan family has been a prominent fixture of New Orleans' vaunted culinary scene for decades. Its famous Bananas Foster dessert was invented in 1951. Sliced bananas are cooked tableside in sugar, spices, liqueur and rum. The alcohol is burned off with a dramatic flourish and it's poured over ice cream.
In the 1960s, the family opened restaurants in Houston and Dallas and purchased Commander's Palace, another upscale New Orleans restaurant. The expansion, however, led to a decline in the original restaurant's quality and fueled a schism between some family members. Although those divisions date back decades, Hurricane Katrina seemed to drive a bigger wedge between brothers Ted and Pip.
Pip's sons, Blake and Clark, started managing the original Brennan's in 1995 and were making plans to expand when the 2005 storm struck, leaving the building heavily damaged. The brothers abandoned their positions "without notice" in March 2006 while the restaurant was being repaired, lawyers for their adversaries wrote in a court filing.
But a lawyer for Blake and Clark says Ted had informed the brothers just before Katrina that they would never be anything but employees of the restaurant and should leave if they weren't satisfied.
"Blake and Clark managed the restaurant to its highest financial success and critical acclaim," their attorney wrote in a court filing Thursday.
Ted and another brother, James, who died in 2010, subsequently voted to remove Pip as an officer of Brennan's Inc.
"In the period of 2006 through the present, Ted and Bridget worked to ensure the restaurant's reopening after Hurricane Katrina, weathered the (BP) oil spill (in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010) and economic recession, and entered into agreements for the redemption of two of the partners' shares of stock. These were difficult economic times," their attorneys wrote.
Ted Brennan and his daughter claim Pip no longer has a stake in the restaurant and didn't have the authority to call a shareholder meeting on April 26 to vote on removing them as directors of Brennan's. Pip Brennan, in turn, argues that his brother was disqualified from voting at the meeting because creditors seized his shares last month.
An attorney for Pip and his sons claims Ted and Bridget mismanaged the restaurant into a "state of financial chaos."
Phil Wittmann, a lawyer for Ted and Bridget, rejected that claim: "The restaurant is running well, it was running well, there was no reason to come in and announce they were taking over."
An attorney for Pip and his sons declined comment.
After the shareholder meeting adjourned at a nearby office, Pip and his sons allegedly entered the closed restaurant without permission and tried to call a staff meeting, prompting Bridget to call the police, according to her lawsuit.
"The police came; there was a stand-off; and the lawyers were called to the scene," the lawsuit says. The suit claims Pip and his sons "refused to leave the premises (absent handcuffs) and threatened to disrupt the opening of the restaurant to customers that evening, the first Friday of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival."
The confrontation ended with an agreement to let Ted's son, Teddy, and Pip's son, Blake, temporarily co-manage the restaurant until U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan could hold a hearing on the case. Morgan is scheduled to hear testimony on Monday and Tuesday.
The lawsuit isn't the only legal matter hanging over the restaurant, which has millions of dollars of debt and is facing foreclosure. The pink building it occupies near Bourbon Street is scheduled to be sold at a sheriff's auction on May 23.
"The corporation has been attempting to work out a settlement of these judgments and in order to do so with any hope of success, the corporation must speak with one voice with third-party creditors and potential investors," lawyers for Ted Brennan and his daughter wrote.
Brennan's New Orleans: http://www.brennansneworleans.com/