After denial of cheesesteak trademark, there’s frustration in Philly

October 12, 2012

Philly cheesesteakI went to Madison a month or two ago. As my friend and I were strolling the farmers’ market, she said “We should try to get some of this cheese bread, but not at this stand. We’ll get it at the stand that sells the real version.”

Evidently, Stella’s of Madison makes a spicy cheese bread that’s of some renown, but a rival vendor has started selling something of a knockoff version. People who want to avoid long lines go to the copycat, it seems, but those in the know hold out for Stella’s.

These days, everything has cache. Your sheets are better if they’re “premium,” your dress is trendier if it’s “vintage” and your food is better, too, if it’s “heirloom” or has pedigree and authenticity.

I saw this trend at play in a recent lawsuit filed over Philadelphia Cheesesteak.

Campo’s Deli at Market in the City of Brotherly Love tried to trademark the slogan “Philadelphia’s Cheesesteak.”  Its theory was that the possessive in “Philadelphia’s” made it so superlative that it was a properly unique phrase. Because this is the best cheesesteak in all of Philadelphia, the message seemed to be, it belongs to the entire city – our cheesesteak is the one Philadelphia chooses.

But on Aug. 7, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the application, finding that a Philadelphia cheesesteak is a generic sandwich (made from thinly sliced beef, melted cheese and peppers served on a long roll, in case you’re a sad enough to have never had one) and that the requested trademark was too similar to three other already registered trademarks: “Philadelphia’s Cheesesteak Co.,” “Original Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co.” and “Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co.”

Just this week, the owner of Campo’s sued the PTO over the rejection. The man’s attorney said it should have received the trademark, and it if doesn’t get it, Campo’s business will wither. Naturally, when people visit Philadelphia, they don’t want just any Philadelphia cheesesteak. They want the Philadelphia cheesesteak, the original and authentic one and Campo’s wants to capture that market.

To me, it makes sense to deny Campo’s the trademark, but for perhaps different reasons than the PTO seemed to take into consideration.

I completely understand the drive people have to eat “real” sourdough when they’re in San Francisco or a “traditional” cherry pie when they’re traveling through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After all, you want the Real McCoy.

Whether you can ever really pinpoint the “original” version of a regional delicacy is an issue I won’t get into here (hint: I’m skeptical), but to me, allowing someone to imply that their product is the original, locally famous item you’re looking for when it’s too hard to prove that it actually is amounts to taking advantage of people.  (At least the three other trademarks have “Company” in them, which implies that they’re branding the company, not the sandwich itself.)