When I was a reporter writing about tech companies during the dot-com boom more than a decade ago, I used to wonder about some of the names entrepreneurs gave their startups, until someone explained that nonsense words with seemingly random capital letters often are the result of a lengthy struggle to come up with a moniker that wouldn’t get the company into legal trouble by being too similar to a trademark.
What’s true in the tech world is true in the restaurant arena. A handful of recent lawsuits center on restaurateurs’ right to use the name they’ve given their eatery, including a case playing out in federal court this week in Miami. Restaurateurs with the same surname and a long history are fighting over the right to use “Chow.” Michael Chow, owner of upscale Chinese food chain MR CHOW, filed a $10 million lawsuit three years ago to prevent former employee Philippe Chow (no relation) from using the name for his growing chain of similarly upscale eateries, Philippe Chinese Cuisine by Philippe Chow.
Michael Chow said in his lawsuit that Philippe Chow took not only his name but also his recipes and borrowed liberally from his restaurants’ ambiance when he left the company to strike out on his own seven years ago, The Miami Herald reported.
What’s in a name?
Another case points out naming issues that can come with growth. Nobody questioned Edmonton, Alberta, baker Linda Kearney’s right to use the name Queen of Tarts when she started selling lemon tarts at a farmers market, but trouble came after her baked goods proved popular enough for Kearney to expand into a brick-and-mortar café. That’s when pastry chef Stephanie Pick learned that Kearney was using the business name her father had trademarked for her Toronto shop in 2004. Pick has since closed the business but still owns the name, and a court ruled that Kearney has to pay $10,000 in damages and rename her shop, CTV News reported.
Kearney registered her small business with provincial authorities and was advised by other small-business owners that she didn’t have to do anything else. Lawyers said business owners should always do a trademark search before deciding on a name.
Pick said her lawyer wrote to Kearney to let her know about the problem, and at first she was willing to sell Kearney a license to use the name. But when Kearney failed to respond, Pick went ahead with a lawsuit.
In contrast, Chillicothe, Ohio, pizza-shop owners settled their dispute over the name Cardo’s more amicably, with newcomer Jeff Barker agreeing to change the name of his soon-to-open location to Bruno’s Pizza, The Chillicothe Gazette reported.
Has your restaurant ever had to deal with naming disputes? Tell us in the comments.