Boba (left), an Asian restaurant in Lewiston, claims a former employee took recipes to his new employer.; Mu Noi Brunch (right) in Auburn claims it was asked by a competitor to not create dishes that are part of its cultural heritage. Credit: Lori Valigra / BDN

Two well-regarded Asian restaurants in Lewiston and Auburn that once collaborated have taken accusations of stolen recipes and racism to social media, polarizing patrons of both eateries.

In recent posts on each restaurant’s Facebook page, Boba in Lewiston accused a former employee of stealing recipes and taking them about 3 miles away to current employer Mu Noi Brunch in Auburn, which denies the allegation. Mu Noi Brunch said it was asked to not make dishes that are part of its owners’ heritage, a request it called “privileged” and “racist.” The employee is not named in any posts, and only Boba’s post mentioned Mu Noi Brunch by name.

Both said public posts are unusual in Asian culture and were difficult for them to make, but they did so to protect their business. It was apparent from the writings that prior efforts to settle the matter in private did not work. The conflict comes at a time when anti-Asian sentiment is running high among those who blame Asia for the coronavirus. A man who allegedly attacked an Asian woman and her child in Portland last month will be formally charged with a hate crime under the Maine Civil Rights Act.

The dispute between the two Asian restaurants, which grew from humble beginnings to gain accolades for innovative dishes, first came to light in an April 7 post on Mu Noi Brunch’s Facebook page. The post said while Asian Americans are taught to not make people feel uncomfortable by sharing experiences with racism, it is important to shed light on it.

It said the restaurant was told to not make dishes that might look like those at “another restaurant” and that it not create dishes that are part of its cultural heritage. It did not specify the dishes.

“If you are a white person cooking food from another culture, you do not now own the rights to that culture’s food,” the Mu Noi Brunch post, which was unsigned, said.

“The pure audacity of this behavior is a clear example of privilege and the blind spots so many have to the outright racism that is alive and well in our community,” it continued.

Responses to the post on the restaurant’s Facebook page were largely sympathetic and praised its food. The restaurant is owned by Sav and Elise Sengsavang. Sav, whose parents came to the U.S. from Laos, is the chef. The Sengsavangs declined to comment on the situation.

While Boba was not named in the post, the co-owner of the Lewiston restaurant said Mu Noi Brunch’s post targeted her restaurant and chef. Like the Mu Noi Brunch post, Boba’s co-owner Keshia Thanephonesy started her April 8 post by saying she was breaking “Asian long-lived morals and values” by going public. She signed her name to the post.

Her life partner and Boba co-owner, Zack Pratt, is the chef and “white person” to whom the Mu Noi Brunch post referred, she wrote. Thanephonesy’s post went on to say the information that Mu Noi Brunch shared was inaccurate and misleading. She said she tries to resolve business disputes privately, but felt she had to defend her restaurant.

Thanephonesy told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday that the employee who decided to leave was a sous chef who signed a non-disclosure agreement, but claimed that employee copied Pratt’s recipes and took them to his new workplace about two months ago. Soon after, she said, the dishes started appearing online.

“We ordered some of their dishes, and they tasted exactly and looked exactly like our dishes,” she said. “But this is about a non-disclosure dispute. It had nothing to do with the restaurant per se. It was just between the employee and us.”

She said she treats recipes as trade secrets, and employees must sign an agreement when they are hired to acknowledge that they will not disclose, use, copy or share Boba’s confidential information, including Pratt’s original recipes.

Recipes cannot be copyrighted because they are a list of ingredients, but they can be protected by Maine’s trade secrets law, David McConnell, a lawyer with Perkins Thompson, said. But the recipes must be original and truly unique, such as having an unusual ingredient or technique not widely known, and the restaurant must take steps to keep them secret.

Thanephonesy wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page that she thought the disagreement ended behind closed doors, but it was stirred again in social media posts that “could be read to suggest that we are anti-Asian racists.”

She said she is of Cambodian descent and three-quarters of Boba’s employees are minorities. Thanephonesy said the employee has since returned the recipes to her attorney and signed a “certificate of return of property.” She said she considers the matter closed.

Her post also drew mostly support from its readers, but some said the two restaurants needed to settle the matter privately so patrons weren’t forced to choose between the two. Both posts ended with a photo of the respective owners and their families.

In a separate public post on her own Facebook account on April 8, Thanephonesy said the owners and their families know each other.

“We loved this family,” Thanephonesy wrote. “There has been a huge misunderstanding that somehow went viral, and all the hatred and negative comments were made without the full story.”

She said she doesn’t know why the situation evolved into an accusation of racism against Boba, and hasn’t talked to the other owners yet, but wishes their business well. She said the dispute has not caused any change in business at Boba.

The two families met when the Sengsavangs visited Boba in its first location, a former convenience store, in 2016, one year after that location opened. The Sensavangs also helped Boba stage pop-up events. Boba moved to Lisbon Street in the heart of Lewiston in 2019.

The Sengsavangs started Le Mu Eats in Bethel in 2018 in a food trailer with window service. They opened Mu Noi Brunch, which serves creative Asian dishes, last July in Auburn on a busy commercial stretch of Route 4.