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For beloved ice cream chain Gifford's, a rocky road

Gifford's ice cream shops, a Washington institution, have closed their doors amid a legal battle between their owner and the chain's wholesalers, who allege that the shops were secretly selling another brand of ice cream.

Lieberman and Quartner both said that Cooper started having problems almost immediately, falling behind on rent, not paying suppliers, and letting the stores get run down. They believe Cooper didn't have as much money in the bank as he claimed, an allegation Cooper strongly denies.

On July 4, at 9:58 a.m., according to court filings, Lieberman sent Cooper a blistering e-mail telling him he was in default of the purchase agreement and taking him to task for selling Hood's ice cream in Gifford's shops. Lieberman and his partners filed suit a few weeks later, and they then sought and received an injunction forbidding Cooper from selling non-Gifford's ice cream.

Lieberman and Quartner both said that in retrospect, they made a "mistake" selling to Cooper. "We did a deal with the wrong guy," Quartner said. Asked if he thought they were duped, Lieberman said, "Yes, I do think so."

A countersuit

Cooper tells a different story. Representing himself in court, Cooper has countersued Lieberman's group for breach of contract and fraud, alleging, among other things, that proper paperwork to keep stores open had not been filed for years, that the sellers misrepresented how Cooper would purchase the ice cream, and that Lieberman and Quartner set up obstacles that made it impossible for him to expand the business through partnerships.

In a stream of e-mails to The Post, Cooper offered several defenses of his ownership. In the first e-mail, Cooper blamed the failure of the business on the trademark suit: "The lawsuit and ensuing judgment required us to exit the ice cream business altogether, which is why we have stopped paying expenses and shuttered the stores." However, there has been no judgment in the Maine Gifford's case, according to court documents and interviews with attorneys.

Later, Cooper blamed his retail troubles on the recession, leftover debt from when Lieberman controlled the stores, and the expense of defending lawsuits. "We were always accurate in our financial ability," Cooper wrote. "They were not honest about their business" or the quality of the ice cream. "We were forced to field multiple customer complaints about the vacillating quality of their ice cream."

Lieberman strongly denied all of Cooper's allegations.

Asked why he served Hood ice cream, Cooper replied, "We never sold any ice cream in our shops that wasn't super premium ice cream."

What happens now? Lieberman and Quartner said they are pressing ahead with their wholesale business, defending themselves against the trademark lawsuit, and looking for other partners to reopen the stores, which they acknowledge will be a difficult chore.

"In terms of the brand, look, this is not great," Lieberman said.

Quartner said: "It's horrible what has happened. It's horrible for the people who love Gifford's."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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