SAUGUS, Mass. (AP) – The family of the founder of the iconic Hilltop Steak House is in a legal beef with the new owners.

Frank Giuffrida’s family claims High Country Investor Inc. has reneged on a promise to provide the family and their guests with a lifetime of free food and drink at the restaurant.

Giuffrida founded the restaurant – famous for its giant neon cactus and plastic cows – in 1961 and sold it in 1988, but kept the land. The sales agreement stipulated that the family and guests get free meals without having to wait in the long line of customers that often forms outside the Saugus restaurant.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the Hilltop was one of the busiest independent restaurants in the nation, serving 20,000 customers a week and grossing nearly $27 million in 1986.

The family took advantage of the free food perk. Giuffrida, his wife, their two daughters, and grandchildren dined at the restaurant “many times a month and sometimes with large parties,” family lawyer Paul Samson told The Boston Globe.

The new owners, who took over in 1997, say those privileges expired when the land was sold in 2004, shortly after Giuffrida died.

The family was “very disappointed with what happened,” Samson said. They no longer go to the restaurant.

A Superior Court judge agreed with High Country last year without a trial.

But this week, the state Appeals Court, while agreeing that the Hilltop owners were not “contractually obliged” to continue the privileges, ruled the family should have the right to make their case at trial. Giuffrida’s survivors plan to pursue the case.

A lawyer for High Country declined comment.

AP-ES-11-26-08 1036EST

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