Tempest in a Fishbowl

Rigazzi's looks through a beer glass darkly at the Sidney Saloon

Jan 27, 1999 at 4:00 am
Call it much ado about glassware. Rigazzi's, an established restaurant on the Hill, has sued a new bar/restaurant, the Sidney Saloon in Soulard, over the use of the term "fishbowl."

This is not the sort of fishbowl that houses some neurotic, overfed goldfish. No, this fishbowl is a vessel from which one may drink like a fish. In the bar trade, a "fishbowl" refers to a 32-ounce chilled goblet in which libation, usually beer, is served. Insofar as mugs, steins or schooners are concerned, the fishbowl is (with the exception of those big glass boots the Germans quaff so lustily from during Fasching) the granddaddy of drinking glasses. It is a heapin' slug o' suds, and to St. Louisans the fishbowl has been uniquely associated with Rigazzi's, just as the concrete is associated with Ted Drewes.

In fact, says Jim Childress, lawyer for Rigazzi's, the restaurant started using the image of a beer-filled goblet as an advertising element as early as 1960. Indeed, a quaint backlit sign on the corner of the building at Daggett and Boardman, a beacon to Rigazzi's, depicts, yes, a fishbowl, its foamy head running over. That fishbowl, along with the accompanying phrase "Rigazzi's -- Home of the Frozen Fishbowl," has been the restaurant's registered service mark since 1979. Moreover, the restaurant, by increments, has put that service mark on a copious array of promotional items, including but not limited to shirts, hats, napkins, menus, salad dressing and bus benches.

Never mind that other taverns and restaurants, both in St. Louis and other cities, serve beer in a fishbowl. (Some call it a schooner, although in other parts of the country a schooner is nowhere near the volume of 2 pints.) Bevo Mill, for example, serves a fishbowl, but they don't call themselves the "Home of the Fishbowl," and, really, that is the rub here. The gist of this litigation is who gets to use this rather cliched slogan.

For the longest while, things were fine in the Rigazzi galaxy. A jillion fishbowls were consumed over pasta prima vera or spaghetti Bolognese because that's what one orders when dining at Rigazzi's, capisci? Honestly, though, at $3.95, it's not that great a deal. There are places where you can get a pint of Budweiser for $1.50 or a whole pitcher for $4. It's the novelty of the vessel that sells. It just feels good to heft that Big Gulp of beers. At Rigazzi's recently, spiffily attired waiters came and went carrying trays of fishbowls, empty or filled, as the case might be. Near the bar sat a table of eight, and all eight had fishbowls: three colas and five beers. "What you hear at the tables, constantly," says manager Burt Walsh, "is, 'We've got to get a fishbowl, because we're at Rigazzi's.'"

But when the Sidney Saloon, established in 1998, placed ads in the local fish wraps reading, "Soulard's Home of the Fishbowl," it caused ripples in the galaxy. Somebody's toes were being stepped on. When Rigazzi's owner Mark Aiazzi (pronounced "oz-zie") first saw the ads, he got on the horn to lawyer Childress, who happens to be a brother-in-law: This isn't right. Put some heat on these upstarts, will you?

World's Fare Management Group owns both Sidney Saloon and Llywelyn's in the Central West End. "I wrote them in September," says Childress, "'This is in contravention of Rigazzi's registered service mark, so cut it out.' They made no response at all. I called them; they wouldn't talk to me. So, with that, they came out with another ad that says, 'Home of the 32-Ounce Fishbowl.' They were just rubbing salt, so we filed a suit."

"When I got the lawsuit, I could hardly believe they were serious," says Chris Marshall, owner/operator of World's Fare. His take on the situation? "Our goal when we started Sidney was to re-create a turn-of-the-century bar. You go in, you'll see it has the tin ceiling, the mosaic floor, the antique backbar. We picked schooners to use in our advertising because that gives you the look. It wasn't going to be our one-and-only slogan. It was in a few pieces of advertising -- advertising, I might add, that was never meant to take anything away from anybody."

The petition for injunctive relief and damages alleges that the defendant's use of the term "fishbowl" in connection with the selling, advertising and/or promotion of its establishment, namely the Sidney Saloon, tarnishes and dilutes the value of the plaintiff's service mark. The lawsuit also alleges that the defendant's course of conduct "is likely to cause confusion as to the identity of defendant's business and plaintiff's business."

The public is often bewildered, it's true, but give us a little credit. We know the difference between the Hill and Soulard: One smells of sausage, the other of beer.

To the unbiased observer, the dispute may seem like fodder for "News of the Weird." One thing's for sure: One side seems to be darn serious about proprietary rights. "We don't know how long they've traded on our name," says Childress. "Besides a cease-and-desist, one of things we're asking for is that they account to us for product sold through use of the fishbowl in their advertising. But," he concedes, "we probably won't get that."

The other side seems to be mildly amused by the course of events. "I thought of trying 'Soulard's Home of the Aquariumlike Glass,'" deadpans Marshall.

"It's a nonissue," says Sidney Saloon manager Joshua Alt, "except for the fact we got sued over it. We're in two completely different areas of the city -- no way we're stealing their customers. Anyway, to advertise 'Home of the Fishbowl' was ineffective. It didn't bring any new business in -- that's why I know we're not stealing their customers."

"People are free to use any container they want," counters Childress. "They can have a fishbowl, they can serve beer in a boot, but they can't abscond with our service mark. And," he adds ominously, "I think they're going to realize that very soon."

Though a hearing is scheduled later this week, the squabble will probably be settled out of court. Says an exasperated Marshall, "Since the lawsuit, we've agreed not to use the word 'fishbowl,' because I'm not going to fight something that silly. But, really, we're done with it. If we do any advertising, we're going to call it a schooner, because that's what it is." He pauses, strokes his chin. "To be honest, I've never paid as much attention to glassware as I have in the last three months.