A former Sticky Fingers executive who functioned as the public face of the company is threatening to countersue the barbecue chain after being accused of stealing clients and trade secrets to enrich his own catering outfit.
According to a lawsuit filed this week in the Charleston County Court of Common Pleas, chief operating officer Robert Patterson five years ago created Top Shelf Catering Company. At some point thereafter, the suit claims, Patterson “began the implementation of a broad scheme to use his position at Sticky Fingers to direct catering business and opportunities away from Sticky Fingers and to Top Shelf.”
The lawsuit alleges Patterson restructured Sticky Fingers’ website so he would receive catering inquiries intended for Sticky Fingers’ sales team, invoiced Sticky Fingers’ customers through Top Shelf, undercut Sticky Fingers on a catering proposal involving smoked chicken and ordered Sticky Fingers employees to prepare food for Top Shelf events.
“He deployed this scheme to steal corporate, individual, religious, educational, government civic and non-profit customers from Sticky Fingers over the course of more than two years,” the lawsuit says.
Patterson, who has publicly promoted Sticky Fingers since joining its team in 2006, maintains the arrangement did not unfold as stated in the suit.
While the suit says Patterson’s practices only came to light earlier this year, when the company looked into Patterson’s emails in hopes of reconciling “disappointing catering sales from the Charleston-area restaurants (with) apparent increased volume in catering-related activities,” Patterson says his bosses were aware of Top Shelf from the start.
“It was stupid of them to allow me to do it in the first place, but it was a great opportunity,” Patterson says of the additional income stream. “I did my best running both of these companies as fair as can be. There was no sneaking around. Everything was on the up-and-up.”
When Patterson first created Top Shelf, he pitched the business to his bosses as a complement to Sticky Fingers.
“It broadened the horizon for us to get more catering things from people who may have had a bad taste in their mouth from Sticky Fingers” or weren’t especially interested in barbecue, he says.
Furthermore, Patterson proposed Top Shelf could financially compensate him in ways that Sticky Fingers couldn’t then afford. He depicts Sticky Fingers as being so strapped for cash that it eventually had to borrow credit from Top Shelf to buy wood and pay employees.
“It was tough sometimes, working through both things, but the last thing I would have wanted was to hurt Sticky Fingers, because that’s not going to do any of us any good,” Patterson says, explaining how the two companies collaborated to manage client requests.
For instance, after Top Shelf in 2014 won the contract to serve as Patriots Point’s official caterer, it assigned the site’s concession stands to Sticky Fingers.
Because Patterson was promoted five times after launching Top Shelf, he assumed company leadership was pleased with the set-up. But he says the situation changed three months ago after he refused to sell Top Shelf to Sticky Fingers in exchange for a $100,000 raise and Sticky Fingers equity.
“They gave me a piece of paper that said if I signed over Top Shelf they would not take legal action,” Patterson says. “I shoved it back at them and said, ‘Have a nice day.’ It was baloney.”
Sticky Fingers’ attorneys did not return messages seeking comment. A Sticky Fingers publicist did not respond to an email or phone call on Wednesday morning, but later provided a statement saying the company was "saddened" by having to bring legal action for the first time in its 27-year history.
"We feel very confident in the outcome," Nikie Griffith of Iron Ivy Consulting wrote. "In the interim, we will not allow this to be a distraction...We have some amazing new items on our new menu and hope folks will visit with us very soon!"
Since being fired from Sticky Fingers on April 19, Patterson has thrown himself into Top Shelf, which Patriots Point confirmed remains its official caterer. The snack bars have been rebranded.
“I didn’t have to run around and steal any business,” Patterson says of the fallout following his departure from Sticky Fingers, which he had hoped to turn into a million-dollar franchise. “The relationships were with me; they weren’t with Sticky Fingers.”
Although Patterson hasn’t yet filed a countersuit, he says he looks forward to presenting his case to a judge or jury.
“This experience has been brutal,” he says. “I spent a ton of years giving blood, sweat and tears to Sticky Fingers. It hurts me as a human being. I wholeheartedly believe this would not have happened if I had accepted that deal. I would still be running Sticky Fingers.”