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(Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
(Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Restaurant trademarks: all in the name Add to ...

When Sean Heather heard that Salt Wine Bar was opening in Toronto last summer, he flew across the country hoping to persuade its owners to change the name.

Mr. Heather had launched his own laudedrestaurant, Salt Tasting Room, in Vancouver's Blood Alley in 2006, and was concerned customers would think the two businesses were affiliated.

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In the weeks leading up to Salt's opening in Toronto, mix-ups were already starting to happen, Mr. Heather says.

"We got people sending us their resumes," he adds "We received phone calls from people saying, 'We've been trying to get through to your place in Toronto. Can we get a booking with you for Toronto?' It was certainly creating some sort of confusion."

When he confronted one of Salt Wine Bar's partners in Toronto, however, Mr. Heather's appeal was rejected and he returned home frustrated.

"There's an unwritten code," Mr. Heather says. "It's just not something you do … To take the name of another business that's successful and relatively well-known within the country - what are the chances of that happening?"

Intellectual-property rights area touchy subject in the restaurant industry, especially when business names, concepts and menu items overlap. Last week, for instance, Aurora, Ont.-based restaurant chain Wild Wing launched a lawsuit against Buffalo Wild Wings for at least $1.5-million in damages, claiming the U.S. franchise had infringed on its trademark and was misleading customers in its Canadian expansion.

What's considered acceptable duplication within the industry is a matter of debate.

Albino Silva, a shareholder and the business mind behind Toronto's Salt Wine Bar, says he sees no reason for Mr. Heather's displeasure.

"We are… in two totally different cities, in two opposite sides of the same country," he says. "That particular Salt - what do you call it? I don't even know the name. Tasting Room, did you say? And our product here is something completely different."

Indeed, the similarities end with the name. Vancouver's Salt Tasting Room is a kitchen-less wine bar that serves only cured meats, cheeses and condiments, while Toronto's Salt Wine Bar focuses on tapas-like dishes. But Mr. Heather says the latter's existence now puts a spanner on any future plans to open a Salt Tasting Room in Toronto.

Mr. Silva says he has never visited the Vancouver Salt. Nor, he says, had he heard of it until Mr. Heather's encounter with his associate.

"Salt is a generic name. Salt, sugar, coffee are not trademarks. They can be used by anybody," he says.

Mr. Heather admits it's unrealistic to think there aren't other businesses elsewhere in the world that are similarly named. But whether a business name is trademarked or not, he says, "At some stage, you're relying on what I would consider common decency."

Last summer, Karri Schuermans, co-owner of Vancouver's Chambar, a Belgian restaurant known for its moules frites , received an unwelcome surprise when she discovered an almost identical restaurant, named Chambar Belgian Bistro, had opened in Shanghai, using her restaurant's logo and also serving mussels.

While Ms. Schuermans says she had no intentions of opening a second location in China, she was concerned that anyone who visited the Shanghai Chambar would never eat at her own, noting there are several less than favourable reviews of it online. Not wanting to spend the time and money to take legal action in China against its owner, Fissal Oubida, Ms. Schuermans took to the Internet, posting a mocked-up "Wanted" poster on her restaurant's website with Mr. Oubida's photo with the bolded text: "Concept Theft."

"It was nice of you to be a patron of Chambar while you lived in Vancouver," the posting reads. "We hope all our guests take home a wonderful experience - but not the name, logo and concept."

Reached by e-mail, Mr. Oubida says he has never been to Vancouver, and has never visited Ms. Schuerman's restaurant. He says the copying of Ms. Schuerman's logo was a mistake made by his designer, and added that he has since apologized and adopted a new logo.

Defending the business on Vancouver's Scout Magazine web site, the Shanghai owner wrote: "I liked their website, I liked the name, and I created my own concept … In China it is a common practice, we have Nike, like Neke … as long as they respect [the]legal process and they have a license to run their business."

The line between inspiration and plagiarism within the restaurant world can be particularly blurry, since culinary culture involves a lot of sharing of ideas, says Vancouver chef Andrey Durbach, co-owner of La Buca, L'Altro Buca and Pied à Terre.

The notion of being unique and inventive, for example, is less important in classical French and Japanese cuisines, where countless restaurants compete by offering better versions of the same recipes, techniques and concepts, he says.

For his part, Mr. Durbach says he's nonplussed that other restaurants carry the same name as his own. There's a La Buca in Portland, Ore., for example, and a Buca in Toronto, as well. "If they were doing a lousy job and heaping shame upon us, it would be different," he says, noting he named his own Pied à Terre after his favourite restaurant in London.

There would be an uproar, however, if anyone named their restaurant The French Laundry or The Fat Duck, two internationally renowned institutions, he says.

The difference, he explains, is this: "There's lots of successful people with the name of John Smith. But if you named your child William Shakespeare or Adolf Hitler, you're making a different sort of statement."

When it comes to actual dishes, however, there are very few entirely original ideas, he says.

"Anyone who says they don't own a cookbook and browse through other people's cookbooks … and lifts some of the stuff is lying," he says. "Because everyone does."

TAKING CREDIT

Most chefs are happy to give others credit for a dish, says Kimberley Payne, executive director of Stratford Chefs School.

"People would be very proud to say 'I learned this with James Walt,' or 'I learned this by doing a stage at The Fat Duck,'" she says.

But giving homage to another chef can also backfire.

If, for instance, a restaurant puts a "Daniel Boulud burger" on its menu, in honour of the famed New York chef, it had better live up to the name, Ms. Payne warns: "Because if it was really awful, he would be furious that he would be attached to that."

 

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