Edible tries taking a bite out of Flavor

Local publisher Melissa Harris launched Flavor this summer.
PHOTO MAGAZINE COVER

As local publisher Melissa Harris prepares to launch her second issue of Flavor, the quarterly magazine on local food and wine culture that debuted over the summer, she's reeling from a blow delivered by the company she almost partnered with, a Santa Fe-based firm that sued her in federal court accusing her of copyright infringement, unfair competition, and breach of contract. And you thought the local food movement was a quaint, idealistic grassroots affair.

On October 8, Edible Communities Inc got Harris to agree that Flavor won't use, among other terms, such feature headings as "imbibe," "in the garden," and as well as the seemingly stock phrase "What's in Season."

It seems that before Harris launched Flavor, she flirted with the idea of partnering with Edible Communities, a small magazine empire that began as a single publication in 2002, covering the local food scene in Ojai, California. Edible has since grown into a publishing company that claims a total readership of over 13 million with over 54 locally-based titles across the country, such as Edible Cape Cod, Edible San Francisco, and Edible New Jersey and so on.

According to a 2007 New York Times article on the franchise publishing company, it costs around $90,000 to set up an Edible outpost– $30,000 up front and $60,000 financed over five years. Fledgling publishers gets help with editorial content, production, training, ad sales, and distribution for the first year. Thereafter, they return the favor by handing over five percent of advertising sales.

"I thought it was an interesting concept," says Harris. "But in the end I thought it was too expensive, too much of a 'cookie cutter' publication. I didn't like the idea of carrying national advertising, and of paying them five percent forever."

Harris claims she made it "very clear" that she was considering publishing her own magazine, a decision she claims company brass appeared to approve.

"I am supposing you've decided to not pursue becoming an edible publisher at all any longer but wanted to double check," wrote Edible Communities cofounder Tracey Ryder in a March email to Harris. "We're about to move forward with the other couple in your area who wanted to do another title but I was going to leave out the 2 counties you wanted to have from their contract if Edible Piedmont was still a possibility for you. If not, that's perfectly fine as well."

Journalism veterans Steve and Natalie Russell plan to launch Edible Blue Ridge in January 2009.
MAGAZINE COVER

Two months later, after Harris launched Flavor's website, Edible's lawyers came calling, accusing her of copyright infringement, unfair competition, and of stealing their "trade dress."

Charlottesville is no stranger to trade dress litigation. In 2005, the Riverside Lunch sued a former employee who opened a competing burger-centric restaurant called Martin's Grill. The suit was settled after several undisclosed changes to the decor and food presentation at Martin's.

As for Harris, she concedes that she signed a non-disclosure agreement to obtain information from Edible as well as a preliminary contract for a publishing franchise in November 2007. But Harris contends she was told by company officials that the contract wasn't binding until money was exchanged. Although Harris cites Ryder's March email as evidence that she could back out, the company demanded that Harris pay $22,500 to honor the two agreements.

"My lawyer said it was ridiculous," says Harris, "but I still had to defend myself, and it ended up costing me a fortune." After spending $50,000 in legal fees, Harris says she elected to settle with the company rather that fight them in federal court.

Harris alleges that Edible Communities was hoping to "take her out" or at least cripple her effort before the launch of its own local food magazine, Edible Blue Ridge, whose website showed up recently at edibleblueridge.com.

The "couple" Ryder spoke of turned out to be veteran journalists Steve and Natalie Russell, who moved here from New York four years ago and plan to launch Edible Blue Ridge during the third week of January. Steve Russell is a former executive editor for Playboy and Maxim, and his wife, Natalie (who will serve as editor), is a former managing editor of Martha Stewart Living Magazine.

In June 2006, Steve Russell opened News to You, the Downtown Mall’

s first newsstand in nearly a decade, right in front of the Regal Cinema. Although the business was short-lived, Russell calls it a "little experiment" that "did okay" that he stopped when he and his wife had their first child.

Russell says he was not a party to the lawsuit against Flavor, though he acknowledges he was aware of the magazine.

"We're fine with Flavor being around, as long as readers and advertisers know the difference between the two magazines," he says. "Besides, there are a million local food stories."

Unlike Harris, Russell found that the Edible concept made alot of sense. "We thought about doing it ourselves, but we like the idea of being a part of a community of magazines, and they help you work out the kinks in the beginning, and supply you with great photographers."

And Harris' contention that its a generic "cookie cutter" publication?

"No, actually its just the opposite," says Russell. "The content is not dictated, and you're free to make it what you want it to be. It's alot like the Buy Fresh, Buy Local thing. It's a national campaign, but people promote it locally."

Harris, also a veteran of the publishing business, says she observed that most people who bought into the Edible concept didn't have a lot of experience with the business side of publishing.

"There's no secret to publishing," she says, pointing out that hard work and salesmanship are all it takes. "People who buy into this idea will live to regret it."

That's obviously true for Harris.

"What money I saved to help launch Flavor, they took," she says. "But we're still coming out with our second issue in a few weeks, which is nearly 100 pages."

Edible's lawyers, however, stand by their actions and point to the settlement as proof that Harris lifted many of Edible's concepts and trademarks. Indeed, looking at an issue of Edible Grand Traverse (a Michigan-based franchise) alongside the first issue of Flavor it's hard not to notice the similarities. However, the issue of Edible Grand Traverse the Hook saw was published after Flavor's summer issue, and Harris says she instructed her editor and designers to make sure that "nothing looks, smells or tastes even slightly similar to Edible." What's more, Edible Grand Traverse's website (www.ediblegrandetraverse.com) features the same photo of some apples that Edible Blue Ridge is using on their cover. So who is copying who here?

Still, in a general sense, how different can magazines about local food be? In a town where two weekly newspapers appear to be coexisting peaceably, can two magazines on the local food culture do the same?

"It's always a last resort when we take someone to court," says Edible's in-house attorney Andy Huppert. "This is expensive, but it's over. We're not interested in causing this woman any more problems."

Updated 10/23/08

32 comments

t.r. has a long, colorful history of bullying publishers (even those within her network) and her ethics is more than questionable.... my guess is we'll hear a lot more stories like this over time as people who believed that " the local food movement was a quaint, idealistic grassroots affair" and blindly jumped on board uncover the sad, despicable truths.

my copy of flavor got destroyed in a flood friday night, but i peeled apart the waterlogged pages today and spent 40 minutes reading it on the cardio machine, & it was really impressive, especially compared to virginia wine lover, which is illiterate, sycophantic drivel. educational articles, & the recipes looked good. thanks, free magazine people!

this is so disturbing. i have seen the edible chesapeake which keeps popping in our area, even though we are not in the chesapeake and i have read the summer issue of flavor magazine as well. the two are nothing alike in my opinion. the edible publication is dry and lackluster at best, i read bits and pieces until i was bored. flavor magazine i actually read cover to cover, it was smart and exciting. i am thoroughly looking forward to the fall issue. i do not think this area needs another franchise edible magazine here. i am wondering if the folks at edible blue ridge did their research before attempting to start a magazine here or just assumed we would embrace this sort of franchise junk magazine. i am very involved in the local food movement in the area and i can tell you i have heard nothing about or from these folks to date. good luck flavor folks, keep doing what your doing, it is working! don't let GOLIATH scare you!

Edible sounds like a whiny bully. Unfortunately large companies who are afraid to compete have the resources to just sue instead, and a lot of people probably just fold instead of paying attorneys fees. At least they have the class to say they aren't interested in the topic anymore.

i totally agree with "farm boy's" comments, t.r. from edible comm is a bully and has long been using her magazine franchise's to take advantage of the local food movement, one regional area at a time...watch out, you will hear more about her in the future.
i am pleased to see a local publisher stood up to her and won, many have had to close up shop due to her misuse of the legal system.
good job flavor magazine, keep it up guys, we are cheering for you!

i am not sure if they are being classy or they are simply not interested in the "bad press",
when one conducts themselves in unsavory business, one probably likes to keep it hush-hush. i think they are interested in getting their new franchisees off the ground and making more money. just a thought

In the past being an intellectual committed to perserving our planet was an oxymoron. After reading Flavor magazine I am delighted to see the changing paradigm.

local foodie: they are not interested in the bad press. and keeping it hush-hush is the name of the game when you're trying to lure new franchisees while dancing around both ethics and the law. sadly, it's all about ego and money and t.r. is not lacking in either. that being said, the individual publishers are for the most part in it for the right reasons- however, most of them are unaware of exactly what it is they are in. I will not be surprised when I read about a class action suit against t.r. and edible communities, inc. Karma.

farm boy- if you have had a run in with t.r we would love some insight. this was the worst, most under-handed business strategy we have ever experienced in our lives, it felt like we were being strong armed by the mafia. we would like to believe local publishers do not know the depth of their ways, but it seems to us it is merely part of the edible communities "business plan".

I think it is really strange that people would have any reason or ability to bad mouth a company that's entire mission has been championing family farms, small business and local food. What I read above sounds nothing more than simple jealousy. It goes without saying that as a company gets bigger they also are more apt for ridicule. While I do not know Tracey rider I have read and subscribed to a number of the edible magazines and I find them lovely and informative. This is simple let both magazines co-exist and may the best publication win. Flavor by the sheer act of you commenting on this thread you lose my vote...Edible has shown restraint and dignity by not jumping into this.

innocent bystander- while the individual edible publications may, in fact, be "championing family farms, small business and local food" and t.r.'s pr machine would lead you to believe that this is her mission as well it is absolutely not. no jealousy is involved, only a sense that those lacking in ethics should be called out for their actions. edible created this- as far as restraint and dignity, they only stay out for fear that the truth be revealed. as andy said: "[edible communities is] not interested in causing this woman any more problems" - that's right, they feel like they beat her up sufficiently for the moment. as far as it being "a last resort when ECI takes someone to court", perhaps- but they are very quick to make the threat. again, for the most part the individual publishers who own edible "franchises" are in it for the right reasons and working towards a valuable ned within their communities, but the actions at the top are more than despicable. Nobody is ridiculing Edible (I'm not at any rate) but unethical, above the law, business practices are all the more horrible because of the supposed mission, because the people t.r. preys on have a sense of altruism that she does not share. the truth will be known, eventually.

innocent by stander??? you sound like an edible employee, nice try
i assume the folks at edible br think they are innocent by standers? is that where you thought of that name?
enjoy your franchise mag while you stand in line at your franchise store and we will enjoy reading our authentic local food magazine- FLAVOR, while we stand in line at at our authentic local food stores!

ps. i personally wish edible would comment, i liked the fact that flavor commented as it appears they have nothing to hide.

i had the same initial reaction as local foodie re: "innocent bystander"'s likely affiliation with edible communities- no ethics and no shame. it was edible communities, as big as they are, who had to try to crush the locally based upstart for fear of competition, edible communities who couldn't "co-exist", tracey rider who had to "win" (whatever that means, and I think it's worth contemplating) at all costs.

this sort of thing is everything that is wrong with our society. the big corporations beating up up on the small guys and our government not only supports it, but creates laws to protect it.
"innocent by stander", are you a complete idiot? did edible br pay you to write that, as they seem to have deep enough pockets to do so? because there is no other senario that makes the slightest bit of sense to any intelligent reader. perhaps the new publishers did not know what they got into, but if i were them, i would surly be doing some serious soul searching and investigating to make sure i did not actually just get into bed with the devil herself! what they did not know then, they do know now, so ask the tough questions of your parent company, demand accountability!
this is the exact reason our society is so divided right now in this election, big business greed or middle class small business struggling to succeed...which side are you on? who will you support?
on another note..get out and vote or creepy litigious vultures might sue you next! don't be an "innocent by stander" VOTE!

ps. i am not usually this outspoken, and i have never blogged before, but for once, i was so thrilled to see a magazine like Flavor and to find out they have been beaten up and beaten down by corporate greed just really makes me mad!

I don't even know,fellow!) continued to write in the same vein, it is interesting people!

another interesting note i just read was that edible communities tracey ryder is aggressively trying to sell her community of cookie cutter franchises, so far martha stewart has turned her down, but i just read that she is still looking for a buyer...hmmm, is the kitchen getting a little too hot, or is the franchise laws finally catching up with her???? either way, it just looks like corporate america in sheeps clothing to me.

fyi- flavor folks, the fall issue looks AWESOME, so glad you are in our community, keep up the good work!

Oh dear, thinking maybe I should change the name of my blog! lol! ;) which has no affiliation whatsoever.......

mama-

just because she is selling franchises illegally? why should that stop potential buyers??!!

feisty-

t.r. hasn't sued you yet? amazing!

Dear Concerned Locals,

Just on a personal note to all of this my wife and I have been reading. We have been pursued by both Flavor Magazine's publisher and Edible's publisher for our advertising dollars. It has been like night and day. The publisher of Flavor Magazine, Melissa Harris is one of the most magnanimous and interesting people I have spoken to in a long time, she is so engaging and excited about the local food movement. Her energy and zeal for her community comes though instantly. She was so honest and forthright and we are so happy to be moving forward with Flavor Magazine as our advertising partner. Anyone who has met her or knows her knows this is true, though Mr. Russell personally tried his best to demonize her to us. On the other hand, our interaction with Edible's publisher was cold, sneaky and cloaked in suspicion with a lot of meaningless jargon. We felt really strongly that Steve Russell just wants to make a quick and easy buck off the local food movement and could care less about the actual stories and businesses whatsoever. Asking for any editorial information was a no-no and Steve Russell was extremely hostile when we informed him we were not going to advertise with him. The local food movement in Charlottesville keeps very clear of box stores and franchises, why does Steve Russell and his wife think anyone would want to participate in his bogus franchise endeavor that is on the verge of being sold to potentially someone like Martha Stewart at any moment?

In addition, many of us in the community have received disparaging emails from Mr. Russell disputing validity of The Hook article and basically stating that David McNair is a liar. Wow Mr. Russell, really nice welcome to the local food community, to kick it off by attempting to rip it apart.

Keep your head up Flavor Magazine, we see Edible for who and what they are!
Bob

PS forward this link to folks who might need to know!

Well, I was right. I think maybe "Innocent Bystander" was someone from Edible b/c I got a "cease and desist" letter yesterday! I've notified Mr. McNair, several hundred friends, Flavor magazine, as well as an expert on Internet copyright law. We'll see what happens...

...I should add that the lawyer's letter was full of typos, which gave me much amusement...

wow, it amazes me how big corporate franchises think they can do whatever they want and get away with it...oh, i forgot, they can and do..well i seriously hope our community takes a stand and does not allow this "wolf in sheeps clothing" to infiltrate our really lovely and authentic local food and wine scene, that would really stink.
i have been so incredibly pleased with flavor magazine and the content within, in addition, it thrills me to no end to know that it is a family run business, run by a local family who lives, eats and answers directly to this community, not a dictator at a corporate office far, far away

unlike what "innocent bystander" said, that it is simply jealousy, i think it is far from that, it is straight bullying and i think the couple who bought edible blue ridge are not very bright and did not do their market research. what sense is there in launching a new local food magazine in a community with a great new local food magazine? clearly they planned to bully them out otherwise it makes no logical sense right? but i suppose that same couple have already had one business fail in this community and now perhaps another? wow

fiestly, fight them and keep us posted

don't back down to their threats! especially since they themselves are operating illegally.....

Okay, this is HIGH-sterical. Someone created a profile on Foodbuzz.com, just TODAY, and called themselves "farm boy" and started praising edible and everything edible. Very nervy. Think it might be our innocent bystander? You can read it here: (not sure if you have to register or not...it's at the bottom...)

http://www.foodbuzz.com/forums/643511-cease-and-desist-order-help-

unbelievable! guaranteed it's someone inside. i'd love to read his blog, this blogger they love so much....

i love this blog
anyway, edible came out, it really stinks and perhaps all the vile they have been spuing is over. it looks like a lame attempt to look like flavor and they missed the mark big time. it looks more like flavor than their edible chesapeake buddy franchise magazine i have seen around town, hmmmm

i am getting a flavor subscription to show my support for the better publication, the under dog, the clear visionaries!

okay, well, those are my thoughts and pretty much most of my friends.
peace out

Hello, I’m Barry. My wife Jennifer and I are the present owners of Luminhaus. We want readers to know that because of recent legislation in Amherst County, Luminhaus now cannot be rented for periods under thirty days.
We're thrilled to have Luminhaus compared to a bikini-clad gum-snapper!

How can the county legislate away a viable business -- one which brings tourists, and their valuable dollars, to other local businesses?

Excuse me Barry abnd Jennifer,if the question is too personal, but why are you selling after such a short time of owning the home?

Just came across this. Is the house sold yet? If so, are the new owners enjoying it?

The house is currently off the market but will be back on in about six months. Contact the realtor for more information roger@cvilleproperties.com

Luminhaus is available for vacation rentals. Contact Jennifer (jennifer@luminhaus.com) for more information.