September 19, 2014

Pizzeria dispute costs businesses lots of dough

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Williston restaurant decides to change name

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A Williston pizzeria recently changed its name after a restaurant with a similar moniker threatened legal action.

Picasso’s is now called Today’s Gourmet. Brian Jordan, co-owner of the restaurant in Taft Corners Shopping Center, said the change was made about a month ago to avoid a courtroom showdown with Piecasso Pizzeria & Lounge in Stowe.

“Instead of wasting money on a lawyer, we said ‘let’s change our name,’” Jordan said. “It was just a case of trying to pick your battles. We’d rather use the money to pay our employees right and for advertising.”

Piecasso owner Eduardo Rovetto said he learned of the sound-alike counterpart before it even opened last fall. His son noticed a sign for the new business while shopping in Williston.

“I said, that can’t be, the Secretary of State wouldn’t allow that,” Rovetto said. New businesses are required to register their trade names with the state, and statute forbids names that are “deceptively similar.”

Soon after Picasso’s opened, Rovetto said, customers were congratulating him on the new outlet and vendors were confusing his long-established restaurant with the one in Williston.

Rovetto said he contacted Picasso’s owners and asked them to reconsider the name. They refused.

“They knew I was there, but they still went ahead with it,” he said.

Jordan said he did not learn that there was a similar business name until just two days before Picasso’s opened. He said the business then consulted with both a lawyer and the Secretary of State’s office and were told the name would pass legal muster, so he and his partners decided to stick with Picasso’s.

So began a months-long dispute between the businesses. Rovetto eventually had a lawyer draw up a cease-and-desist order. Even after Picasso’s agreed to change its name, the businesses argued over how soon that would occur, finally settling on June.

“He just wanted us to do it overnight, and it was not possible, nor were we willing,” Jordan said. He noted that the business needed considerable time to alter signs, print new menus and notify vendors.

The businesses do agree that stricter scrutiny of business names by the Secretary of State’s office could have helped them avoid the dispute in the first place.

When he complained to the agency, Rovetto said he was told that his pizzeria’s “cutesy” name was the problem, making it possible for a new business to register a similar name with a more conventional spelling. Rovetto said he spent thousands on legal help to convince Picasso’s to change its name.

“It was unjustified that I had to pay for their mistake,” he said. “In this day and age, the Secretary of State should have a system like Google” that can turn up similar business names with a simple computer search.

Jordan thought registering the name with the state meant he was free to use it without repercussions. He said the dispute also cost him thousands to change names on his signs, menus and delivery vehicles.

“It’s a lesson learned,” he said. “Even if the state says it’s OK, do your own research.”

With 4,317 new “doing business as” names registered in 2006 and a small staff to record them, mistakes can happen, said Deputy Secretary of State Bill Dalton. But after reviewing the pizzeria dispute, Dalton said he thinks the agency made the right decision in permitting the Picasso name.

The agency primarily serves a “filing cabinet function” when registering trade names, Dalton said. When a new business is registered, the agency does check to make sure it does not violate a state law that forbids deceptively similar names. But he said the agency does not have the legal authority to reject a new business name simply because it is like an existing one.

Dalton acknowledged that deciding when the deceptively similar threshold is crossed is often a tough call. But he noted that businesses that are unhappy with a new business name always have recourse in court.

“I’m very comfortable with the decisions the office makes on these issues,” Dalton said. “But I’m also empathetic” with the legal expenses businesses sometimes bear when there is a disagreement.

Picasso’s opened last August, and its menu includes pizzas, sandwiches, salads and chicken wings. The small restaurant includes a handful of tables and features Picasso reproductions on its walls.

Piecasso has been in business for about seven years, first leasing a small space in a shopping center on Mountain Road in Stowe before moving to its own building across the road about two years ago. It offers a wide-ranging menu, which in addition to pizza includes more than a dozen entrees.

There is a lounge with disc jockeys spinning records a couple of times a week. The restaurant is decorated with Picasso reproductions – and a few prints by the master painter himself.

Though he owns by far the larger business, Rovetto said Piecasso was hardly a corporate behemoth throwing its weight around in a name dispute. Nor was he worried about competition from a Williston pizzeria located many miles away.

Instead, Rovetto said, he takes pride in his pizza – he learned how to make it from his parents, who were from Sicily – and wants to protect his brand name.

The pizza made by the Williston restaurant “wasn’t my product,” he said. “And the product is my claim to fame. Without that, we’d be Papa John’s.”

Jordan said he holds no grudge against Rovetto. He hopes publicity about the name change will inform his customers that Today’s Gourmet is still the same business, just with a different name. He also wants to get word out about an expanded menu that will now include pasta.

“We didn’t try to steal anything from anybody,” he said. “Our dough and sauce are different. It was just the name that was similar.”

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