Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles is a Los Angeles culinary institution, dishing up its soul food to the likes of Snoop Dogg and Magic Johnson.
But now the Long Beach chain is in trouble — its parent company, East Coast Foods Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Friday.
The filing came mere months after the company was ordered to pay $3.2 million to a former employee won a wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuit against the chain.
In filings with U.S. Bankruptcy Court in California, East Coast Foods estimated that it has debts between $10 million and $50 million. Its assets, on the other hand, total less than $50,000.
Lawyers for East Coast Foods did not respond to a request for comment. In court filings, the company did not say whether bankruptcy would affect the day-to-day operations of its seven Southland Roscoe's restaurants.
Roscoe's has been dishing up its chicken-and-waffle combos since 1975, along with Southern staples such as grits, biscuits and cornbread. In 2011, President Obama made an unannounced stop at the West Los Angeles spot when he was in town on a fundraising trip.
As befitting an eatery that started in the Southland, Roscoe's has also been referenced in numerous films, television and music. The late rapper Notorious B.I.G. name-checks the chain in his song "Going back to Cali." Samuel L. Jackson's character tempts an underling with a Roscoe's meal in Quentin Tarantino's 1997 crime drama "Jackie Brown." Rapper Snoop Dogg took both Larry King and David Beckham to the chicken mecca on his reality TV show.
But Roscoe's has recently been at the center of less welcoming attention.
In October, a judge in Los Angeles ordered the company to pay $3.2 million to Daniel Beasley, a former employee who claimed that there was systemic racial discrimination at the chain. A jury awarded Beasley close to $1.7 million; he was also awarded $1.5 million in attorney's fees.
In the suit, Beasley accused the company of giving Latino employees preferential treatment over black workers, including better schedules and shifts. Beasley said he was fired in retaliation when he tried to change those practices. He became homeless after losing his job, according to media reports.
In court filings, East Coast Foods listed Beasley as one of its largest unsecured creditors.
Bankruptcy experts speculated that the Chapter 11 filing may have been sparked by something beyond the original judgment.
"The judgment, that's a big number, but I wouldn't think that was a big number for a large restaurant chain," said Eric Pezold, a partner specializing in bankruptcy at Snell & Wilmer who is not involved with the bankruptcy or the Beasley case. He said something else may have occurred "between there and now to precipitate this filing."
Beasley's attorney, Scott Cummings, said he had hired a lawyer to start the process of collecting on the judgment, which Roscoe's is appealing. Cummings said he was worried that the bankruptcy filing was an attempt to get away from paying what is owed to his client.
"It looks strange," he said. "I'm very concerned that might be what's going on."