By Dan Nielsen
The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This is a great story about the importance of checking and double checking your company name and logo before building your brand. A small eatery in Michigan is being forced to stop using the name “Blue Caribou Cafe” because there is a coffee company with a similar moniker. The couple has agreed to find a new name and now they are seeking the advice of the local Small Business Development Center to find a fresh one. Good idea!
Kelly and Eric Chorley thought they had done everything right when they named their little restaurant two years ago.
The name derived from their second-grader’s school art project, a picture of a caribou. In a quest to make it unique, they added the word “blue” because it rhymed. They submitted paperwork through the state system designed to prevent duplicate business names, Kelly said, and the Blue Caribou Cafe was born in 2014 at 245 S. Benzie Blvd.
“We did everything that we were supposed to,” Kelly said.
The restaurant got off to a solid start in the small community of Beulah. Locals developed a taste for its food. Summer tourists lined up to buy ice cream. And a few customers bought coffee.
But trouble was brewing. The couple received a letter from Caribou Coffee Company Inc. of Minneapolis. The company’s website says it operates or franchises hundreds of Caribou Coffee locations in 18 states and 10 other nations. The website shows four locations in Michigan — three in Detroit and one in Stevensville, south of Benton Harbor.
The letter told the Chorleys that “Blue Caribou Cafe” is too similar to “Caribou Coffee Company,” and ordered them to stop using the name. The letter also said the cafe’s logo, the head of a blue caribou with antlers, was too similar to the coffee company’s logo, which features a stylized brown caribou, the body and legs suggesting the shape of a pair of spoons.
The Chorleys sought legal advice and ended up ignoring the letter, Kelly said, after learning that other businesses exist in the U.S. with the word “caribou” in their name.
But a second cease-and-desist letter arrived. Then Eric was injured in a car accident that left him unable to work for an extended period. The couple retains just two or three employees through the slow winter season. Kelly took on Eric’s duties during his recuperation. Eric only recently returned to the kitchen.
The couple said they were notified in November that Caribou Coffee had filed a lawsuit against them. They didn’t have the money to fight the action — which they were told could cost $50,000 or more, Kelly said — so they decided to abandon their company name. They just received the $5,000 bill for legal services that ended the lawsuit, she said.
The Chorleys are frustrated by what they perceive as a system that can be hard on entrepreneurs with limited finances.
“Obviously, it works really well for big business, not so well for small business,” Kelly said.
They still have trouble believing that the use of a single word can constitute identity confusion. Eric said he understands the legal protection for Disney’s “Mickey Mouse,” but wonders if a company could take legal action over every use of the word “mouse.”
“It’s not even the same kind of business,” Eric said of the Beulah restaurant and the Caribou Coffee shops.
Kelly said about a third of the restaurant’s business derives from food service, a third from ice cream and a third from beverage sales including coffee.
The Chorleys’ next hurdle is renaming the cafe. They’d like to retain part of the old name so their customers will have an easy transition.
“We want to stick with ‘blue’ something,” said Kelly.
The Chorleys are required to stop using the name “Blue Caribou Cafe” by July 6. They want to ensure they don’t encounter similar issues with a new brand, and said they are seeking the advice of the Small Business Development Center to find a fresh name. But they want to move quickly. The busy summer season will kick off on Memorial Day weekend and they’d like to have a new name in place by then.
Tourist season brings crowds, and the Chorleys need to bump up their staff to about 25 to serve their 45 indoor and 25 outdoor seats. They need to advertise for seasonal employees, but can’t mention the current business name.
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The terms of the settlement prevent them from using the name of their restaurant in anything new, including help-wanted ads, Kelly said.
The Chorleys shared their plight on the restaurant’s Facebook page. One Traverse City business noticed the situation and offered to help ease the branding transition by providing some free services to the Chorleys.
“We were just touched by their story,” said Rachel Tompkins, chief creative officer for Clockwork Integrated Marketing, clockwork360.com.
“We’ll set them up with a basic branding package,” Tompkins said. “It’s just something we can do.”
The Chorleys started a GoFundMe campaign that they hope will help with the cost of new signage and business identity. The GoFundMe page is linked from the business’ Facebook page.
The Blue Caribou Cafe is not the only area eatery being pressured to rebrand. The internet and social media have made local businesses visible to a worldwide audience. Even names that have been used for decades now are ruffling feathers thousands of miles away.
The Hofbrau Steak House and American Grille in Interlochen, in business since 1950, recently was contacted by German brewery Hofbräu München and told to change its name.
“We’ve been around a long time, so the name is everything,” said Brian McAllister, co-owner of the Hofbrau Steak House in Interlochen. “The name change might send a mixed signal to vacationers, which is a big part of our business.”