10 Food Feuds

Is there nothing original in food anymore?

By Roxanne Webber

Scanwiches Versus Scanwich
Scanwiches Versus Scanwich
Yelp Versus the East Bay Express
Yelp Versus the East Bay Express
Cindy McCain Versus the Food Network
Cindy McCain Versus the Food Network
St-Germain Versus Domaine de Canton
St-Germain Versus Domaine de Canton
Pearl Oyster Bar Versus Ed's Lobster Bar
Pearl Oyster Bar Versus Ed’s Lobster Bar
The food biz is totally romanticized, but running a restaurant isn’t all James Beard Awards and five-star reviews. It’s tough work, competition is huge, profits aren’t so huge, and sometimes people have to throw down to defend themselves and their businesses. Here are 10 food feuds that got us talking.

1. Pat’s King of Steaks Versus Rick’s Original Philly Steaks. It’s good to be the king, so it follows that it’s worth fighting to be the king of Cheez Whiz–covered steak on a hoagie roll. Thus we have the cheese-soaked battle between the grandchildren of Pat Olivieri, the purported inventor (and king) of the cheesesteak. In 2006, Frank, who had taken over the family business Pat’s King of Steaks, filed a lawsuit against his cousin Rick, of Rick’s Original Philly Steaks, claiming that Rick was infringing on trademarks such as a crown logo.
Choice quote: “I don’t know, I just figured that Pat was the king and my father was the prince, and then when he passed on, I was the king,” Rick told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

2. Scanwiches Versus Scanwich. In February 2009, Jon Chonko started greasing up his scanner with sandwiches containing things like chicken cutlet, bacon, Muenster cheese, and mayo, and banh mi with grilled pork, sliced pork roll, and Vietnamese salami, then posting the resulting scans to his blog Scanwiches. A month later, as recapped by Endless Simmer, a blog called Scanwich came forward to claim it was the “original” site to encourage ruining the office scanner with greasy lunch food.
Choice quote: “I think there’s enough room here for both of us to scan our lunch. I’m not a fraud or a rip-off. I’m just a guy who scans sandwiches. It seems like we have something in common,” Endless Simmer reported Chonko posting in his defense.

3. Yelp Versus the East Bay Express. In February 2009, the East Bay Express, a weekly paper based in Berkeley, California, published a story titled “Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0.” Writer Kathleen Richards alleged that Yelp was engaging in some dodgy business practices, including moving negative reviews for advertisers. Yelp posted a response to its official blog saying nope, it don’t do that, then proceeded to lambast Richards’s use of anonymous sources. Richards then wrote another story with lots of on-the-record allegations but an oddly juvenile explanation for using secret sources in the first story: Yelp posters are anonymous too.
Choice quote: From the original East Bay Express story, “Many business owners, like John, feel so threatened by Yelp’s power to harm their business that they declined to be interviewed unless their identities were concealed. (John is not the restaurant owner’s real name.)”

4. Cindy McCain Versus the Food Network. The Huffington Post blew the whistle on “recipegate” during the most recent presidential campaign, posting about “an eagle-eyed attorney” who had noticed that recipes on John McCain’s website posted as “Cindy’s Recipes” were plagiarized from the Food Network. The hot-button campaign issues: ahi tuna with napa cabbage slaw; passion fruit mousse; and farfalle pasta with turkey sausage, peas, and mushrooms. The snafu was later blamed on a campaign intern.
Choice quote: From the New York Times, “‘The intern has been dealt with,’ said Tucker Bounds, a campaign spokesman, who declined to provide details. Nonetheless, Mr. Bounds said, ‘we took away his zero pay.’”

5. Missy Chase Lapine Versus Jessica Seinfeld. Apparently the world is not big enough for two cookbooks about sneaking vegetables into kids’ food. After Jerry Seinfeld’s wife, Jessica, published her book Deceptively Delicious (and it became a bestseller), Sneaky Chef author Missy Chase Lapine filed a lawsuit that said Jessica had “brazenly plagiarized” her book. In the court documents Lapine alleged that Seinfeld’s book was criticized online by people saying that Seinfeld had lifted the idea and recipes from Lapine’s work. Jerry Seinfeld then tried to defray the backlash on Letterman with alleged “malicious defamation.” Last week, a judge dismissed all claims against Jessica Seinfeld, but left open the defamation claims against Jerry Seinfeld.
Choice quote: “She says, ‘You stole my mushed-up carrots. You can’t put mushed-up carrots in a casserole. I put mushed-up carrots in a casserole. It’s vegetable plagiarism,’” Jerry Seinfeld joked on the Late Show with David Letterman.

6. St-Germain Liqueur Versus Domaine de Canton Liqueur. John and Robert Cooper are brothers, born into a fancy liqueur family (their dad, Sky Cooper, introduced Chambord to the United States), so it’s not that far-fetched that they would be responsible for the two trendiest and arguably tastiest liqueurs to hit shelves in the past few years: Domaine de Canton (ginger) and St-Germain (elderflower). What is a little surprising is what Eric Felten reported in the Wall Street Journal: Instead of working in the family business together, the brothers started two new, rival companies. But it looks like Dad might not be letting it slide: At the time of Felten’s article, Sky Cooper told the writer he was “planning to convene a family meeting to see if there is a way to reunite the enterprises.”
Choice quote: “‘I wish my brother well,’ [John told Felten], before giving a simple explanation of why a partnership wouldn’t have worked: ‘We don’t get along.’”

7. Bill Niman Versus Niman Ranch. Earlier this year, sustainable meat man and Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman told the San Francisco Chronicle that he now refused to eat the meat produced by his former company, after the near-bankrupt Niman Ranch merged with its primary investor, Chicago’s Natural Food Holdings LLC, and Niman sold his share. The Chronicle noted that Niman had previously clashed with the company board over stuff like finishing Niman Ranch cattle in commercial feedlots instead of a private feedlot, and using antimicrobials (similar to antibiotics) on the cattle. Niman Ranch CEO Jeff Swain defended the company’s policies by saying … not much of anything: “We believe that our protocols are stronger, the auditing of the protocols more rigorous, and the current business model is more financially viable,” he blathered.
Choice quote: “I think idealism can pay,” Swain told the Chronicle. “But it has to be couched with practicality.”

8. Pearl Oyster Bar Versus Ed’s Lobster Bar. Rebecca Charles, the owner of Pearl Oyster Bar in New York, filed a lawsuit in 2007 against one-time Pearl sous-chef Ed McFarland, alleging that he stole the décor, business model, and menu from her restaurant for his own seafood joint, Ed’s Lobster Bar. The most egregious aspect of McFarland’s supposed intellectual property theft, as noted by the New York Times, was the Ed’s Caesar appetizer, which Charles alleged was her signature dish, made with English muffin croutons and a coddled egg from a recipe passed down by her mother. In April 2008, Eater reported that the suit had been settled out of court. The Caesar salad, however, still stands on Ed’s menu.
Choice quote: “Mr. McFarland called the allegation that he was a Caesar salad thief ‘a pretty ridiculous claim,’” reported the New York Times.

9. Wolfgang Puck Versus Wolfgang Zwiener. Is only one Wolfgang allowed to open restaurants in LA? It seems the Puckster was so displeased by Wolfgang Zwiener opening Wolfgang’s Steakhouse near his own Spago restaurant and Cut steakhouse that he filed an unfair competition and trademark infringement suit against the owners in 2008. Eater LA was on the case, quoting from a Puck camp press release that said: “People have come to me and asked why I was opening another steakhouse in Beverly Hills and whether I am going to close CUT. … In over thirty two years, I have never encountered such confusion expressed by my patrons and in the media.” Eater then followed up with Zwiener’s side of the story: “My father has been universally known in the steakhouse business as Wolfgang for decades, long before Mr. Puck entered the restaurant business,” said co-owner Peter Zwiener. The court ruled that Zweiner had the right to name his restaurant Wolfgang’s.
Choice quote: “We can just hear the who’s-on-first now,” joked Eater LA. “‘Let’s go to Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Bev Hills.’ ‘You mean Cut?’ ‘No, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse not Wolfgang’s steakhouse.’ ‘Right, Cut.’ ‘Oh fuck it. Let’s go to In-n-Out.’”

10. Street Sweets Food Truck Versus Other Street Vendors. At 7 a.m. on June 27, 2009, the Street Sweets truck parked in front of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. By 2 p.m., police were on the scene after other street vendors had “traded hostilities” with its owners, Grant Di Mille and Samira Mahboubian, reported the New York Times. The rub? An old-school-versus-new-school street vendor “turf war,” says the Times, wherein the big, fancy haute cuisine trucks are converging on the spots where other vendors have been working for years.
Choice quote: “I want to be a good neighbor,” Di Mille told the Times. “But I am nobody’s fool, and nobody’s pushover, and I should not have to carry a baseball bat on my truck in order to sell cupcakes.”

Image sources: Lobster by Flickr member law_keven under Creative Commons. Oysters by Flickr member Allerina & Glen MacLarty under Creative Commons. Cindy McCain by Flickr member ChiMoose under Creative Commons.

CHOW’s The Ten column appears every Tuesday.

Roxanne Webber is an associate editor at CHOW.

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