Can the style of a country western restaurant function as a valid trademark?
Texas Roadhouse believes that it can -- and does, and has sued to block other rustic-themed restaurants with similar country western motifs and names located in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.
Texas Roadhouse is an American chain restaurant headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, that specializes in steaks and barbecue fare, and promotes a rustic country western theme. The chain operates over 300 locations in nearly every state. The restaurants are known for their rough and ready look, with steel buckets of peanuts on every table.
The company is now demanding that a federal court order competing restaurant chains Texas Corral and Amarillo Roadhouse to cease their uses of confusingly similar names and themes, claiming that consumer confusion is likely.
According to the lawsuit filed in the Western District of Michigan, Texas Corral operates a Western-themed, casual, family restaurant that is "markedly similar in appearance to the Texas Roadhouse concept."
In an interview with the press, the senior director of public relations for Texas Roadhouse claimed that instances of actual confusion have occurred, with "even delivery drivers going to the wrong location on occasion."
Texas Roadhouse is claiming exclusive ownership of "the overall appearance" of its restaurants, including wooden booths and tables with light brown stain and green bench seat cushions, dish shaped, green metal light fixtures hung over individual tables, galvanized metal pails filled with free peanuts on the tables, and upbeat country music playing over speakers.
Texas Roadhouse's argument is not unprecedented. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has unequivocally held that federal trademark law can protect the theme of a restaurant.
Taco Cabana operated a chain of fast food restaurants in Texas which served Mexican food. Taco Cabana described its Mexican-themed trade dress as "a festive eating atmosphere having interior dining and patio areas decorated with artifacts, bright colors, paintings and murals. The patio includes interior and exterior areas with the interior patio capable of being sealed off from the outside patio by overhead garage doors. The stepped exterior of the building is a festive and vivid color scheme using top border paint and neon stripes. Bright awnings and umbrellas continue the theme."
Subsequently, a Two Pesos restaurant opened in Houston. Two Pesos adopted a motif very similar to Taco Cabana's trade dress. Two Pesos' restaurants expanded rapidly in Houston and other markets, but did not enter San Antonio. In 1986, Taco Cabana entered the Houston and Austin markets and expanded into other Texas cities, including Dallas and El Paso where Two Pesos was also doing business.
A Texas jury found that Taco Cabana owned a distinctive concept as a form of "trade dress," that taken as a whole, was non-functional, and that there was a significant likelihood of consumer confusion between the two restaurants based on Two Pesos' intentional copying of the distinctive Mexican motif.
In 1992, a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed the lower's court's finding that the restaurant concept was indeed distinctive, and upheld the jury's finding of intentional infringement.
Texas Roadhouse is no stranger to litigation over its "style."
In recent years, it faced EEOC charges that hiring managers at the company allegedly told jobseekers ages 40 and older that “we need the young, hot ones who are ‘chipper’ and stuff” and that they were “basically looking for young teenagers.”
The company has also been sued for underpaying its waitstaff, allegations which it reportedly settled by paying millions.
Additionally, the company has also faced litigation when one of its customers claimed to have slipped on peanut shells and suffered injuries, and been sued by one of its customers who allegedly found hair in their steaks.