Burger battle: Flat-out legal warfare... ended

It was flat out.. legal warfare. Venerable burger bar Riverside Lunch was suing its former employee, Ryan Martin, for allegedly ripping off the Riverside concept.

The suit, filed in January 2005, claimed that Riverside's décor– as well as its methods of cooking and serving hamburgers and other fried foods– was unique and that customers might get confused if they stepped into Martin's Grill, which opened nearly a year ago at Forest Lakes.

Riverside claimed it was a victim of such "unfair competition" that it made a federal case out of it. The theory of the case, filed in U.S. District Court, rested on a special concept in intellectual law called "trade dress."

Riverside has long touted its burgers as "flat out" the best in town. But is the "trade dress" of the Riverside– including tiny disposable plates and fries served in a plastic basket– so distinctive that Martin should change the way he does business?

The question never made it to a jury. The two sides worked out a secret settlement, and the case was dismissed by the court September 15. And while both sides may have returned to slinging grease instead of mud, there was a time when acrimony ruled the Charlottesville burger world.

"I think it's frivolous," said Martin of the case in a February interview. "I think it's ridiculous."

A veteran of several restaurants including Aberdeen Barn and Ruby Tuesday, Martin said he incorporated ideas from many places into the restaurant that carries his name. "All businesses are derived from something else," he said. "This is the way the economy goes."

Opened in November 2004, Martin's Grill quickly won fans, he says, not for imitation, but for "no frills" food and atmosphere. Customer Keith Herring agreed.

"Who would want a hamburger from McDonald's when you could just go here," he said. "It's close and convenient. I like his food– I like the attitude."

As Martin revealed in an April affidavit, he served for many years as the "public face" of the Riverside, even after that eatery’s 1999 move to Hazel Street when the old Long Street location was demolished for a new CVS pharmacy.

Martin had not signed an employment or non-compete contract and swore that he would never have rented the Forest Lakes location for Martin's Grill had he realized that Riverside owner Buster Taylor was serious about opening his own outpost of the Riverside in that area. (Taylor opened Riverside North in April.)

In court papers, Taylor fired back that the issue at hand was Riverside's "unique and distinctive atmosphere." Such features include an open cooking area, bar seating, light colored furniture, disposable plates and cups, advertising posters on the walls, directed lighting, large floor tile, and a large plastic tip jar by the cash register. Among other things.

"What can't you get sued about today?" asked Herring, who called the lawsuit a "crock of crap." "This is America," he added. "You should be able to start what you want."

And yet the controlling law on "trade dress" might strike fear into the hearts of potential emulative entrepreneurs. In a landmark 1992 case, the Supreme Court ruled that a burgeoning chain of brightly colored Mexican restaurants ripped off the concept of another chain of brightly colored Mexican restaurants.

In Taco Cabana vs. Two Pesos, the Court upheld a lower court that heard arguments over the alleged similarities between the two Texas-based chains. The similarities included open-air eating areas, boldly colored window awnings, umbrellas, and murals.

The court didn't say that Two Pesos used the same "festive and vivid" color scheme (it didn't) or the same "bright awning pattern” (ditto). But as the District Court instructed the jury, "Trade dress is the total image of the business." A mix of seemingly mundane design elements combined to kill Two Pesos, since Taco Cabana did it first.

As Buster Taylor told the story, he'd had his eye on expanding his burger business from its lone outpost near the Free Bridge to Forest Lakes way back in 2001. But developer delays and negotiations slowed the move, Taylor said in a faxed statement.

When Martin's Grill opened, Taylor wasn't alone in spotting similarities. Mark Tenekjian, a frequent Riverside diner interviewed shortly after the suit was filed, found a "connection" between the two restaurants. "That really can't be a coincidence," said Tenekjian, who believed Riverside had a right to defend itself against "copycat restaurants."

But in May, the two sides apparently began working toward a settlement.

Contacted earlier this week, neither was eager to speak with the media, but each claimed that no money changed hands.

"The case has been settled," said Taylor's attorney, Brian Wright. "I can't comment, but I encourage you to visit both restaurants."

A visit to Martin's earlier this week found that French fries are now served in a small cardboard dishes– no more plastic basket here– an apparent victory for Riverside's Taylor, who had made a federal case out of it.

–with reporting assistance from Meghan Moran

Note: The following correction appeared in the October 6 edition of the Hook: In our September 22 story entitled "Burger battle: Flat-out legal warfare... ended," about the lawsuit waged by the Riverside Lunch, the side order of fries at Martin's has always been served in a small cardboard dish, and the basket of fries continues to be served in a basket. So what really changed? With neither side talking, we just don't know.