Skip to main content

The coffee in Masset, B.C., tastes exceptionally strong and sweet this week as the owners of a small native-owned café savour their victory over Starbucks.

HaidaBucks, a 60-seat restaurant in a town of 700 on the remote northern edge of the Queen Charlotte Islands, was just an aromatic drip in the rain forest before the international coffee giant filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit last spring. In true David-and-Goliath fashion, the owners of HaidaBucks stood up to the multibillion-dollar company, becoming international heroes in the process.

Having created a public-relations nightmare for itself, the Seattle-based global enterprise, which prides itself on "support for local communities" and fair trade practices, has officially announced that the case is closed.

"We won," said Darin Swanson, one of four HaidaBucks co-owners. "We did more than defend our name; we defended our honour as indigenous peoples and our right to our heritage."

The brew-ha-ha began boiling last March, when a Vancouver law firm, acting on behalf of Starbucks Corp., sent a cease-and-desist letter to the owners of HaidaBucks, requesting that they change the café's name and stop using the "confusing" variation of the Starbucks name and trademark. A formal notice of litigation arrived the following month.

The owners of HaidaBucks, who opened the café in 1999, refused to budge. They argued that "bucks" is a colloquial expression, akin to "dude," that young native men use among themselves.

"Three of the original owners were Haida," Mr. Swanson said. "And the other guy was married to a Haida woman. So we decided to call ourselves HaidaBucks.

Rather than back down, HaidaBucks launched a massive Web campaign and enlisted the support of Joseph Arvay, the Victoria-based lawyer who represented natives in a landmark 1997 Supreme Court case that established the concept of aboriginal title.

After both sides fired off several rounds of letters, Starbucks offered to let HaidaBucks keep the name until the end of the year. The owners refused, countering that they not only planned to keep the name but wanted Starbucks to concede in writing that it would not be a trademark infringement for them to do so.

In July, Starbucks sent another letter, stating that HaidaBucks had made appropriate accommodations by changing its logo, name and signage. The letter also said that HaidaBucks had agreed not to move or expand its business beyond the Queen Charlotte Islands.

The owners of HaidaBucks deny making any such changes or agreements.

The latest letter from Starbucks simply states that the matter "is closed." Neither the coffee company's lawyer nor its director of worldwide public affairs would return calls to elaborate.

"This is what Starbucks is so concerned about," Mr. Swanson explained a few weeks ago, laughing quietly as he looked around the small café with peach-coloured walls, natural-finish wood tables and a stuffed trout on the wall. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon, and HaidaBucks had no customers.

Unlike Starbucks, which primarily serves beverages, desserts and ready-made snacks, HaidaBucks employs a full-time chef who dishes up everything from sushi to steak dinners.

Of course, it also sells coffee.

It once brewed Seattle's Best, the main rival to the Starbucks brand until Starbucks bought it a few months back. Now, HaidaBucks offers self-serve Canterbury coffee for $1 a cup.

This tempest in a coffee pot may not do much to help business on rainy days when the tourists aren't around, but it has generated a huge amount of publicity and an outpouring of encouragement.

A memo board on the café wall proudly displays several newspaper articles and editorials about the dispute, next to a four-page computer printout of people who have sent donations for the legal fight or other forms of support.

Included on the list is Lane Baldwin, a businessman from West Virginia who heard about the case and offered to create and maintain a HaidaBucks Web site, free of charge. At last count, had received almost a million hits.

Since March, the proprietors have sold nearly 800 HaidaBucks T-shirts, mostly on-line. And in May, Jack Greenwood, the owner of Chubbie's Coffee Shop in Queen Charlotte City, joined the fight by changing his café's name to ChubbieBucks.

"I don't think Starbucks knew what it was getting itself into," said Mr. Arvay, who is representing the Haida Nation in a land claim that seeks title to the entire Queen Charlotte Islands and the surrounding waters of the Hecate Strait. "When they took on HaidaBucks, they took on, to some extent, the entire Haida Nation."

The case may be over for Starbucks, but not for the owners of HaidaBucks, who plan to seek compensation for their legal costs.

"It's kind of a hollow victory," said Mr. Swanson, who is upset that Starbucks has not apologized.

"But I guess if there's a moral to this story, it's that you shouldn't back down to anybody who tells you what to do. If you know you're right, pursue it, even if you've got a big bully coming at you."