Consider these two very different restaurateurs. The first is Tatyana Telnikova, small-business owner, proprietress of the quirky and beloved HandleBar in the Grove, Russian immigrant. The other is Tom Colicchio, star of TV's Top Chef, pioneer of the New York restaurant scene, and owner of the wildly successful Craft Restaurant family, which includes twenty locations of the sandwich shop 'Whichcraft, CraftBar, CraftSteak, and his flagship establishment in Manhattan, called simply Craft.
Last week, Telnikova changed the name of her highly anticipated new Cherokee Street venture from "Craft Art Bar" to just "Art Bar." She did so after realizing that Colicchio has a history of defending his trademark on the word "craft" -- in the past he has sent cease-and-desist letters to restaurants in California, Wisconsin and even to nearby Edwardsville, Illinois. They've all backed down and changed their names.
"For lack of a better word, the guy's just being a bully and throwing his weight around," she says. "In no way would 'Craft Art Bar' hurt his business."
We wondered what Colicchio himself would say to that, so we called Craft in New York. And by gum, he called us back.
Telnikova says she briefly considered keeping the name and fighting for her right to it in court. She says a handful of lawyers she consulted thought she could win and that it'd be easy to prove that her business -- a bar and community art space -- was in no way affiliated with Colicchio. But it wasn't enough.
"Ultimately it's my money, my business, my risk. I just thought that I'm really, really, really busy with work all the time, in six months I'll have to re-brand the whole thing and deal with some big bad lawyers breathing down my neck all the way from New York," she says. "After I thought about what all that meant, it didn't sound very fun."
When Colicchio called us back, his first reaction to Telnikova's preemptive decision was that it was a "wise" one.
"We've spent a lot of time and a lot of resources building our brand and, you know, we feel we have an obligation to protect that brand," he says. "I can tell you what we go through when we name a restaurant -- we're currently choosing a name for a project that we're doing in Miami, and we do extensive research to see if we're infringing on someone's rights, and I think that everyone should do that. And I can't believe for a second that this young woman doesn't know -- well, I'm not going to be presumptuous and think that she knows I own a restaurant called Craft -- but a simple Google search will show you. I think the first twenty things that come up on the Google search are, you know, my restaurant, and not just the one in New York but the one in Los Angeles."
He also wants to correct the perception that, because of who he is, he has the luxury of sending high-priced attorneys to threaten and cajole small local business owners into changing their names. He says the letters -- and he says there have only been four or five of them, total -- are polite, let people know that he owns the trademark, and would they mind changing it, please and thank you. He claims most people say they didn't realize and comply.
"I'm not doing it to be punitive, to try to thwart someone's ability to open a restaurant -- which is not what I'm doing. I'm just saying, 'Don't call it 'Craft,'" he says. "Yeah, I'm on TV, trust me, I'm not a movie star, I'm not making millions of dollars on TV. It's cable. I do fine. I make a good living, I'm not pleading poverty, but I certainly don't have time or money to waste on frivolous lawsuits...we're not evil people."
There may be a couple more of those polite letters heading out soon -- Colicchio says he just did another Internet search and found more Crafts he's not happy about.
"There's a brewpub in Breckenridge, Colorado, that we may have to look at, and there's something else in San Diego that we may have to look at," he says. "We try to do it obviously before someone's in business for a while because that would be a problem."
The Top Chef star says it's not like this is all theoretical, either. He tells us there are two restaurants in China, one in Shanghai and one in Hong Kong, both called "Craft" that refuse to change their names.
"I can't tell you how many complaints I've got from people saying, 'I've been to your restaurant in China and it's terrible, and I'll never come to your restaurants in New York.' This is why you have to protect your brand because this is what happens," he says. "Who knows, one day I may have an opportunity in St. Louis. I haven't looked there, but if -- listen, we did restaurants in Atlanta and Dallas, we would consider doing something anywhere if the right opportunity is available."
At this point, Gut Check strayed a bit off-topic and had to ask; When is he going to team back up with St. Louis native and mega-restaurateur Danny Meyer and open something in town?
"He should do a Shake Shack at least in St. Louis. You would think he would. Come on! Come on, Danny," he says. "I may see him later on tonight. I'll nudge him."
That's all we ask.
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