By Kenneth D. Suzan
For food truck owners, establishing a trademark early prevents headaches and provides clear sailing for important social media marketing campaigns.
A Minnesota food truck operating under the name “Twisted Sister House of Hunger” receives a cease and desist letter from heavy metal band Twisted Sister objecting to the name of a popular food truck. The estate of Frank Sinatra successfully opposes a food truck in Michigan seeking to federally trademark the name “Franks Anatra.” A New York City restaurateur is victorious in using his top selling pork belly steamed bun sandwich known as “Chairman Bao” and forces a food truck in San Francisco to change its name from “The Chairman Bao Truck” to “The Chairman Truck.”
Across the nation, restaurants, food trucks, and their loyal customers are wrapped up in the growing popularity of mobile cuisine. As the growth trend spirals upward, so will the battles in the courtroom and before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
According to Richard Myrick, the author of Running a Food Truck for Dummies and the editor-in-chief and founder of Mobile Cuisine Magazine, there are more than 7,000 food trucks traversing the streets of the United States, from small town to bustling metropolis. Markets such as San Francisco and Miami are attracting chefs and entrepreneurs in droves as they take their culinary skills and ideas mobile. As the number of food trucks grows exponentially, the number of filings for federal trademark protection has increased. As of January 2013, there are over 900 live applications or trademark registrations in connection with providing mobile food services. In addition, there are over 300 service marks that specifically reference a food truck in the description of services.
Branding is a critical component to operating a successful food truck operation and savvy entrepreneurs are seeking to secure their names on a federal level. “We’re intending to be a national brand,” says John Levy, CEO of the AZ Canteen food truck, the brainchild of Andrew Zimmern, the local chef and restaurant critic turned international television host with his popular television shows Bizarre Foods and Bizarre Foods America. The truck was launched last summer. “We are putting a lot of effort, energy and resources into our trademark,” Levy added.
Searching, clearing, and securing a food truck name are top priorities for new food truck operators and brick-and-mortar restaurants looking to bring their menus mobile. The name needs to be checked before the truck hits the street. “If possible, retain the assistance of a trademark lawyer to make sure that the rights to the name are available,” says New York City Food Truck Association President David Weber, who wrote The Food Truck Handbook. Failing to do so often leads to lengthy trademark battles, hefty legal expenses, and costs for rebranding, he adds. “There have been instances in New York where other hospitality businesses on the other side of the country had rights to a name and the New York food truck had to rebrand itself.”
Trademarks and service marks provide exclusive protection of words, phrases, symbols, designs, or a combination of these elements. Obtaining federal trademark protection confers numerous benefits including a legal presumption of ownership, nationwide trademark priority rights, listing in the online databases of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which is reviewed and cited by Examining Attorneys considering filed trademark applications, and deterring others from using identical or confusingly similar marks.
Trademarks and social media
Clearing and securing a trademark is also essential to launching a successful social media campaign, which is integral to the operation of a food truck business. A critical part of clearing a trademark is to obtain a comprehensive full trademark search report. The selected trademark often aligns with a Twitter handle, Facebook page, and website domain name. “The success of any food truck would be challenging without social media”, says Jon Jacklin, the GM at Smack Shack, which is opening in Minneapolis in February 2013 on the strength of its mobile operations under the same moniker.
Jacklin reports that social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook allow the Smack Shack truck to “communicate instantaneously with all of our fans.” In particular, the truck regularly tweets its location and food specials. He advises that the prime time to use social media is between 10:15 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., the period in which most people think about their lunch plans.
“We always tweet our menu and our location,” says Wesley Kaake, the owner of the Twisted Sister House of Hunger truck. “We rely upon it heavily for promotion, advertising, and our daily functioning.”
Social media sites such as Instagram and Pinterest are also gaining popularity as consumers look to food photography to visualize menu items, solidify lunch plans, and book food trucks for appearances at weddings and special events. Social media has helped food trucks develop a huge following leading to increased sales and the establishment of brick-and-mortar restaurants. For example, The Grilled Cheese Truck in Los Angeles has over 59,000 Twitter followers and tweets daily from @grlldcheesetruk. “When they send out a tweet, they have lines for 30 to 45 minutes for a grilled cheese sandwich,” according to Weber. The Grilled Cheese Truck recently started to franchise and has launched operations in Phoenix.
Restaurants are also looking to expand their operations by starting food trucks. “The truck serves as an extension of what we do…it helps us promote, gets our food on the street and it allows us to brand and increase sales,” notes Bruce Ringgenberg, the operating partner of Rusty Taco in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Rusty Taco started as a restaurant and later entered the mobile cuisine market. At Rusty Taco, the food truck is promoted at the company’s brick and mortar restaurants, and the restaurants promote the food truck. The concept of a food truck appeals to restaurateurs “looking to reach a different demographic and potentially market their brand to a new set of customers,” Weber said.
All that said, quality and value remain touchstones to success. “A name can get customers to try you, but ultimately the food has to be great and the value has to be good,” says Ringgenberg.