Caribou Coffee Co. has won a settlement in a trademark infringement case but is taking heat from supporters and owners of the Blue Caribou Cafe, the small Michigan business that it sued.
The Brooklyn Center-based coffee company, founded in 1992 and purchased by a German firm in late 2012, is the nation’s second-largest retail coffee-store chain. It claimed in court documents that the Michigan cafe’s name and logo misused trademarks in ways that are “likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive,” and constitute unfair competition that can cause “irreparable harm.”
The company first learned of the cafe shortly after Eric and Kelly Chorley opened it in 2014 in the northwestern Michigan town of Beulah, about 35 miles southwest of Traverse City. Caribou attorneys sent several letters asking the restaurant to change its name, received no response, and filed a lawsuit last November in federal district court in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The cafe’s website shows that it offers breakfast all day, a full coffee bar, dinner, desserts, Moomers ice cream and homemade bakery items.
Kelly Chorley said the lawsuit was ridiculous, but that she and her husband can’t afford to fight the giant coffee company in court. “There is no way we could possibly come up with the money to fight back against this corporate giant, even though we have a chance at winning,” she wrote on GoFundMe, a social media website designed to help individuals raise money for personal causes.
Under terms of the legal settlement, the restaurant has until early July to change the name and stop using any caribou symbols or designs in its business. It can use its outdoor sign until September. The Chorleys are using social media to solicit money to help with the rebranding and to pay off $5,000 in attorney’s fees. As of Wednesday, more than 200 people had contributed more than $12,000 on GoFundMe.
Comments on social media show that fans of the cafe and of small businesses generally are unhappy with Caribou Coffee for bringing the legal action, and some said they would boycott the company’s stores and products. Some of the strongest criticism has been posted on Caribou’s own Facebook page.
A Caribou Coffee spokesperson said in a statement that the company “engaged in this litigation to protect our coffeehouse name and existing trademarks,” and that it understands and respects the hard work that goes into realizing a business dream.
“We recognize the burden this transition is having on the Blue Caribou Café, and given this unique situation, have contributed to their GoFundMe fundraising page to help with their rebranding efforts,” the company said.
Although Caribou declined to comment on specifics, one anonymous donation on the page — by far the largest — is for $5,000.
Caribou has more than 500 coffee shop locations in 18 states and other countries, and its coffee and related products are sold in thousands of grocery stores.