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Christian de Berdouare, South Florida's Eccentric CEO of Chicken Kitchen, Sets His Sights Higher Than Fast Food

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By 1990, Chicken Kitchen had a half-dozen Florida locations, and the restaurant's then-novel concept -- fresh grilled chicken that offered a healthier alternative to fast food -- was a local smash. "The low-cholesterol, low-calorie, low-fat char-grilled flesh is seductively delicious," read a Miami Herald review that March. "Tender, juicy, moist, plump, succulent... Finally! Truth in menu!"

De Berdouare had his real first taste of financial success: a membership at La Gorce Country Club and fine European clothing. In May 1992, he and Porter became parents of a set of twins, Annalee and Jean-Michel. Finally, the chicken entrepreneur was flying. But his world was about to come crashing down.

That August, de Berdouare and Porter separated. Three months later, on November 20, she was granted a temporary restraining order: In divorce papers filed ten days later, Porter alleged that she had been the victim of repeated domestic abuse and that she was "in fear of her life" due to "particular threats."

"You can wipe your ass with the 49 percent," de Berdouare says. "They kicked me out of the company."

She also accused her estranged husband of misappropriating corporate funds, including siphoning cash from Chicken Kitchen into his own possession, issuing spurious "loans" from company accounts to relatives, and using company money for a lease on a new Lexus sports car.

On December 3, Porter and her father ousted de Berdouare from Chicken Kitchen. With Sir Edward's investment, the elder Porter had assumed a 49 percent stake in the company, and Starr, who had invested $10,000, had assumed 2 percent -- leaving de Berdouare with less than a controlling stake. "You can wipe your ass with the 49 percent," de Berdouare says today. "They kicked me out of the company."

De Berdouare responded in court with his own allegations. He accused Starr of defamation, related to the abuse and misappropriation claims and other statements she had allegedly made, calling him "a thief" and that he "had only married her in order to obtain legal residency."

Neither de Berdouare nor Starr was ever criminally charged over any of the complaints. He adamantly maintains that her allegations were baseless. "It's still very hurtful," he says of the allegations. (Starr Porter didn't respond to New Times' requests for comment.)

The rancor between de Berdouare and Porter, in any case, didn't contaminate his relationship with his two oldest children. "He was just so much fun," remembers Annalee Berdouare Porter, now 22 and a senior at the University of Michigan. "My brother and I were just in love with him."

Annalee, who grew up mostly in San Francisco with her mom, says she still enjoys shopping trips with her dad -- "we laugh like little girls whenever we're together" -- and has always been awed by his indomitable work ethic. "It was honestly inspiring," she says, "to see him still putting in such an effort, day in and day out."

A judge eventually finalized the divorce and ruled that de Berdouare would maintain possession of Chicken Kitchen's intellectual property rights, but his ex-wife and her father were granted the physical restaurants. De Berdouare was crushed. At one point, he says, all that was left to his name was $200 and a mountain of debt.

Still, even as the company he had poured his life into existed only on paper -- Porter continued operating the restaurants after changing the name to Starr's Chicken Grill -- de Berdouare remained resolute. "I had the same vision," he says, "that I had the day I saw Chicken Kitchen in New York."

De Berdouare soon met a charming businessman named Roberto Veitia, who ran an Orlando firm called CRG that organized investors for emerging companies. Veitia, professing a belief in de Berdouare and his vision, helped secure $4 million so de Berdouare could buy back stores from Porter and open new locations. "It was something that was very exciting for me at the time," de Berdouare says, "having somebody who was throwing around all kinds of money."

With the new investments, Chicken Kitchen was resurrected, going public on the Nasdaq in 1997 and soon announcing record sales. But it wasn't long before de Berdouare's excitement turned into something darker.

Only after he became involved with Veitia, he says, did he realize the investor's whole operation was actually a pump-and-dump scheme. Veitia would invest in a small company and take it public, boost its stock value through advertising and marketing, and then abruptly sell off the shares.

Dismayed, de Berdouare -- who had made sure to maintain controlling ownership, a lesson he says he learned from the divorce -- refused to sell any shares, even as Chicken Kitchen reached a high of near $3 from an initial 40 cents.

In 1999, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a federal lawsuit against CRG, Veitia, and seven associates, alleging securities fraud; in 2003, he was ordered to surrender $44 million in profits and pay a $1.4 million civil penalty.

"He's just a thief," Dowda says. "He took our money and he didn't issue our shares."

De Berdouare, who was never named in the SEC complaint, hung on to a growing Chicken Kitchen. "I was smart enough to save my ass on that one," he says.

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach