The complaint in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas says Michael Ference and his wife, Kathleen Kamouyerou Ference, of Venetia, Pa., contacted NBC producers in April 2014, hoping Lemonis would rescue their business, My Big Fat Greek Gyro, after two franchises went belly up.
Lemonis, of Lake Forest, Ill., is the host of CNBC’s “The Profit,” a weekly program in the vein of the network’s hit series “Shark Tank.”
“On the show, Lemonis, a self-professed ‘multi-millionaire,’ interviews owners of small businesses such as restaurateurs, learns their backgrounds, discusses the problems facing their businesses and decides whether or not he will invest money into the business,” the Dec. 23 complaint states.
The Ferences say filming on location at My Big Fat Greek Gyro’s flagship restaurant in McMurray, Pa., began almost immediately in July 2014. They note that Lemonis wound up offering them $350,000 in exchange for a 55 percent slice of the business.
As soon as the cameras stopped rolling, however, “The Profit” producers allegedly told the Ferences to return the check Lemonis gave them, saying it was only a stage “prop.”
“They still have never received the Three Hundred Fifty Thousand and 00/100 Dollars ($350,000.00) from Lemonis,” the complaint states.
Lemonis disputed the allegations in a phone interview, saying he paid more than $150,000 to renovate the Mount Lebanon, Pa., restaurant, which still operates under the name My Big Fat Greek Gyro, but that the Ferences refused to fork over any royalty fees.
“Let me be clear: The Simple Greek is a brand new concept that I created,” Lemonis said in a phone interview.
“I’m not Santa Claus. I don’t just create a concept and then just hand it over to people for doing nothing,” Lemonis said.
“They thought that they were just going to get a free gift,” he added. “They put no money in; they haven’t done any work; and yes, I definitely committed to giving them a piece of the equity … but I also did that under the presupposition that they would not withhold money from me.”
The Ferences say they were enthusiastic about working with Lemonis until he began usurping financial and creative control of the business.
First Lemonis changed the restaurant’s name to The Simple Greek, despite the couple’s protests, according to the complaint. The Ferences say they still retained an active ownership role but never saw a dime of the money promised to them on TV.
When the Ferences asked Lemonis for the buy-in he promised, they were allegedly told that money had already been spent on remodeling three of The Simple Greek’s Pennsylvania locations as well as a new franchise opened in Highland Park, Ill.
On Jan. 21, 2015, according to the complaint, Lemonis named his own company, ML Foods, as sole owner of The Simple Greek, and appointed his own board of directors without the Ferences’ knowledge or consent.
Lemonis, and newly appointed company president Sam Lundy, refused to let the Ferences see any of the company’s financial records, the Ferences say.
A second episode of “The Profit” featuring the Ferences was allegedly shot in January 2016 but never aired. The Ferences say they declined an offer by Lemonis during the filming of this episode to sell their remaining stake in The Simple Greek.
This past July 18, according to the complaint, the Ferences received a new contract from Lemonis’ attorney Robert Gerber, claiming that their previous arrangement with the show host “had been abandoned.”
“Mr. Gerber, on behalf of the [d]efendant, proposed a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ scenario for the [p]laintiffs which required them to either sign the [contract] or forfeit any interest they have in the Simple Greek LLC,” the complaint states.
By Aug. 16, 2016, the Ferences say they had been frozen out of their own company, and will not see any revenue from Lemonis, who plans to open more than 250 franchises of The Simple Greek nationwide.
“Defendants have profited from the taking of [p]laintiffs’ franchise business without compensation and from the operation of The Simple Green franchises throughout the United States, resulting from [p]laintiffs’ original business, recipes, know-how and experience,” the complaint states.
Lemonis said the couple will not intimidate him.
“I was very active on social media the day I found out about the lawsuit, and told my followers that these people filed a lawsuit against me,” Lemonis said over the phone. “I didn’t want them to feel like I was running from it, or hiding from it, or I was scared.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” he added. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Their lawyer told my layer that they are giving us the chance to not have this public. I want it to be public,” he continued. “I don’t care.”
The host noted over the phone that his legal battle with the Ferences will appear in a follow-up episode of “The Profit,” expected to air sometime before June.
“And just to be clear, they have a contract with the network that requires them to participate in it, and they will get a chance to tell their side of the story,” Lemonis said.
“It will almost be like watching the discovery in a lawsuit play out in front of you,” Lemonis added. “I’ll make sure it airs.”
“These folks want to get something for nothing, and they believe that just because it’s a television show, or because I’m worried about being embarrassed, they are just going to hold me hostage,” said Lemonis.
“I’m telling them now, in whatever form I need to – not only am I not embarrassed, but I am going to get super aggressive,” Lemonis said.
“I’m not going to be bullied and taken advantage of,” said Lemonis. “I’m just not.”
The Ferences are represented by Pittsburgh attorney W. David Slomski and Gary Ogg with the law firm Ogg, Murphy & Perkosky. Neither has returned a request for comment.