Three years after opening El Chupacabra, a restaurant and bar on Phinney Ridge, owners James Hardy and Aaron Wright are locked in a brutal legal battle over the fate of the business. Hardy and Wright are each struggling to gain control of the restaurant. Both have sought protection orders against each other. Meanwhile, both partners are working to open other businesses on the side.
This is Hardy and Wright's first business together. The two were roommates in San Francisco before Hardy moved to Seattle and opened the Storeroom Tavern on Eastlake. The Storeroom closed in 2001, and three years later, Hardy and Wright went on to open El Chupacabra.
On May 2, Hardy and Wright filed antiharassment orders against each other in King County Superior Court. Although the orders never went into effect—King County Commissioner Bruce Gardiner quashed the requests, saying that a business dispute was not grounds for a protection order—they do offer a number of revealing details about the feud.
Hardy's filing is brief. He claims Wright removed property and stole mail from his apartment above El Chupacabra last September. Additionally, Hardy's filing claims Wright "repeatedly" changed the locks and put up plywood on Hardy's front door to try to keep him out of his own apartment. Finally, Hardy says Wright called police on May 1 and told them Hardy was breaking into the apartment.
Wright's filing, meanwhile, contains a long list of allegations against his business partner. Wright claims that Hardy stole more than $10,000 from the business, and that Hardy's tenancy in the building, where he's lived for nearly three years, caused "emotional distress" among the staff. However, one staff member at El Chupacabra, interviewed at the restaurant, said employees weren't aware of any problems at the business and had never seen the owners fight. In his court filing, Wright also says Hardy hasn't been involved in managing the restaurant in over a year. However, when The Stranger contacted Hardy, he said he was busy updating the restaurant's computer system.
Complicating the rift between Hardy and Wright, both men are working to open their own restaurants. While Hardy was not specific about his plans, Wright recently filed for a liquor license for his new restaurant, The Chupa—which translates, literally, to "the suck."
Citing ongoing legal issues, Wright declined to comment for this story, although he did acknowledge that he was trying to buy out Hardy's half of the business. David Osgood, El Chupacabra's attorney, wouldn't comment on any aspect of the case.
Wright's new business partner, James Newell—owner of Sal's Barbershop on Capitol Hill—says he found the new location, at 129 Belmont Avenue East, last December. "I'm putting up [80 percent of] the money and doing the build-out," Newell says. Since construction at The Chupa got underway, though, Newell says he's had his own disagreements with Wright—especially over the name.
"I couldn't figure out why he wants to call it that. It's not totally up to him," Newell says. Additionally, Newell says he has heard rumors about Wright's falling-out with Hardy, but hasn't been able to get his partner to open up about the situation.
"He won't tell me anything, and I've heard things that really bother me," Newell says. "I'm at the point where I'm not sure that I want to be involved in a business with him. I'm starting to get really worried about the situation."
Because of the legal dispute between El Chupa- cabra's owners, Hardy would not directly address the accusations in Wright's filing, although he did say that he's hoping to acquire the restaurant. For now, Hardy says he's avoiding talking to Wright, and may not do it until they're in court. "We don't usually talk; we text," Hardy says. "It just gets ugly real fast."
Right now, Hardy and Wright are both hoping to get a court to force a sale. Hardy says he and Wright will meet with a mediator in the next few weeks. Although El Chupa-cabra isn't likely to close, it remains unclear who will be managing the restaurant in the future.