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Last week, in the upstairs loft at Meshuggah Coffeehouse in the University City Loop, something Unreal took place. Two Hallmark greeting-card writers, an editor, at least two publicists, another Hallmark employee and ten suburbanites converged to experience together the national Hallmark Meaningful Moments and Memories Tour, one of six stops in St. Louis on a journey that will take them to Phoenix, Nashville, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and elsewhere. This was at Meshuggah, where Loop rats get their coffee, where bohemians cuddle with DJs, where wannabe philosophers argue with poets about existential bullshit. Where most meaningful moments involve a cigarette and a double-shot.
Seated between a video screen and a circle of women who are clearly not Meshuggah regulars, Hallmark card writer Matt Gowen holds up one of his creations. (Cue string section.) "Here's an example of a card I wrote," he says into a headset mic that makes him look like a member of *NSYNC. The card is a photo of an apple sitting next to an orange. Thanks is written in the corner. Gowen opens the card. Inside it reads, You're beyond compare. The crowd smiles. "This phrase on the inside -- it's not a new phrase," he acknowledges. "This is an example of a card where the package, with the visual, makes it, even if what you're saying isn't exactly brand new."
Next, Hallmark writer and St. Louis native Jennifer Fujita, who's celebrating her fifteenth anniversary with the Kansas City-based company (later her colleagues will present her with a card) shows one of her efforts, which reads: You are riding on a float of pink roses through streets lined with your adoring public. She opens it. Happy Birthday. Another adoring sigh from the crowd.
"What we're doing is communicating with people in an emotional way," Gowen tells Unreal. "That's not usually the mission of most companies." He used to be a journalist, he says, but got sick and tired of only writing about things like war, famine and greeting-card promotional tours. "It got to the point where I thought: 'You know what? I think I would rather that my words energize people, excite people, interest people, make people happy.'"
Steak Your Claim
Most news organizations fail to see the importance of assigning a scribe to the meat-sandwich trademark beat. That's why God made Unreal, who keeps a close eye on griddle conundrums at blue-plate broilers all around the region.
Hot on the heels of our riveting "Gerbergate" reportage (see the issues of October 8 and December 3 last year) comes a meat-sandwich trademark battle of epic proportions. The combatants: Steak n Shake and Burger King. At issue: Whether Burger King's new Steakburger is an illegal rip of Steak n Shake's trademark line of belly bombs.
On May 3 Steak n Shake filed suit in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, accusing Burger King of trademark infringement, false designation of origin and trademark dilution. Their beef: Burger King's Steakburger, which debuted on May 1, is "an apparent attempt to free ride on Steak n Shake's reputation and renown."
Burger King spokesman Blake Lewis believes the fast-food mavens of One Whopper Way are in the clear.
"We clearly believe 'steak' and 'burger' are available to us just like 'the' and 'and,'" says Lewis.
Steak n Shake, whose representatives did not return multiple phone calls to their Indianapolis headquarters seeking comment for this story, has gone so far as to secure multiple trademarks involving the term "Steakburger" (among them a trademark for "Original Steakburgers"). But Steak n Shake isn't the nation's sole proud owner of a "Steakburger" trademark. Natural Meats Montana holds the rights to "Natural Steakburger" -- and none other than Burger King Brands, Inc. has trademarked "Great American Steakburger."
But then, these cases are hardly as simple as who's registered what trademark, says Paul Fleischut, a patent and trademark attorney with Senniger, Powers, Leavitt & Roedel of St. Louis.
"Steak n Shake's challenge here is that they will have to prove that the public in Steak n Shake's trade area attributes the name 'Steakburger' to Steak n Shake and Steak n Shake only," says Fleischut (the trade area in this case being the St. Louis region). "And their other challenge will be to prove that Burger King's Steakburger will confuse the fast food-eating public into thinking that there is an affiliation between Burger King's Steakburger and Steak n Shake.
"If you interviewed people in St. Louis and you asked, 'What does the term "Steakburger" mean to you?' it would seem like a lot of people would attribute that to Steak n Shake," Fleischut posits. "On your next survey question -- 'Burger King must have a deal with Steak n Shake' -- I don't know."
But Unreal knows something Fleischut doesn't: that the purest incarnation of the Steakburger exists at S&J Main Street Bar and Grill in Columbia, Illinois, where the sandwich actually contains steak, a far cry from the fast-food combatants' poseur patties.
"Is it better than their Steakburgers?" S&J bartender Janet Poole asks rhetorically. "Oh, yeah. It's steak, not a ground-up patty. Everybody raves about it."
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