Chipotle and Sweetgreen Play Chicken Over Trademark

“[Chipotle’s] complaint alleges that ‘Sweetgreen’s conduct is likely to cause confusion or mistake as to the source of Sweetgreen’s ‘Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl,’ or as to an affiliation, connection, association, sponsorship, or approval between Sweetgreen and Chipotle….’”

Just days after a complaint was filed against restaurant chain Sweetgreen by Chipotle Mexican Grill for trademark infringement, dilution, and deceptive business practices, Sweetgreen has changed the name of its offending product in order to reach possible settlement.

Last week, Chipotle filed a complaint against Sweetgreen for naming its new menu item  “Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl”. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. et al. v. Sweetgreen Inc., case number 8:23-cv-00596, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Chipotle has numerous registered trademarks for variations on the word CHIPOTLE in relation to its restaurant and food, including stylized versions in various fonts. Prior to filing the complaint, Chipotle sent Sweetgreen a cease-and-desist letter asking the salad chain to drop the word “chipotle” from the name, which is the usual practice in trademark related lawsuits.

While Sweetgreen did not initially respond to the cease-and-desist letter, it changed the offending name to “Chicken + Chipotle Pepper Bowl” two days after the lawsuit against it was filed. Sweetgreen told news sources it decided to rename the bowl in order to focus on the business and serving its customers healthy food. “In order to focus on the business and continue serving our guests without distraction, we have decided to rename our bowl to the Chicken + Chipotle Pepper Bowl as part of a tentative agreement to resolve the lawsuit,” said a spokeswoman for the salad chain to NPR.

Chipotle’s Complaint

Although it sounds like the two chains are headed toward settlement, looking at the complaint provides interesting (and entertaining) insight into Chipotle’s assertion of its trademark rights.

Referring to the photo of the sign below, Paragraph 24 on page 8 of the complaint states, “Sweetgreen’s advertisements also feature the CHIPOTLE® mark in all capital letters, in a single line set apart from other words or phrases, and in lightlettering against a background that is nearly identical to Chipotle’s trademarked red color, Adobo Red, and Chipotle’s stylized mark.”

Paragraph 23 of the complaint focuses directly on Chipotle’s stylized font in the CHIPOTLE mark, , alleging that Sweetgreen’s website uses a font “nearly identical” to Chipotle’s stylized mark.

Visually, the most obvious difference in the Sweetgreen outdoor advertisement is the use of a serif font, which the stylized Chipotle mark does not use. By itself, this is a direct distinction in the stylization of the mark.

When dissected further, the stylized uses capital letters, while Sweetgreen’s online ad does not. The crossbar of the “H” and the middle bar of the “E” in  are lower than what the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would consider a “standardized typeface” which is what gives it a distinct style. While arguing these differences may seem like splitting hairs, these minutiae are the details that matter when comparing trademarks.

Chipotle’s complaint also called out Sweetgreen’s social media. Sweetgreen announced its new “Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl” in an Instagram post on March 30, 2023. In paragraph 23 of the complaint, Chipotle alleges, “Sweetgreen’s social media presence confirms its intent to affirmatively create a false association with the famous CHIPOTLE® restaurants and trade off the famous CHIPOTLE® Marks.” A commenter wrote, “Chipotle who?!”, in response to the Instagram post, to which Sweetgreen replied “you said it, not us” and included the emoji with zipped lips. But it was a commenter that made the connection, not Sweetgreen. Sweetgreen goes so far as to make sure the public knows they didn’t say it by saying, “you said it, not us” with the emoji, which does not, by itself, show intent.

Chipotle Underestimates Hungry Consumers

The complaint also alleges that “Sweetgreen’s conduct is likely to cause confusion or mistake as to the source of Sweetgreen’s “Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl,” or as to an affiliation, connection, association, sponsorship, or approval between Sweetgreen and Chipotle, or as to the origin of Sweetgreen’s “Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl” in Paragraph 44.

It’s somewhat unbelievable that a customer would wait in line for hours at Sweetgreen to get their bowl and only at the point of sale realize that they thought they were at  Chipotle.” In addition, the interior of Chipotle restaurants have a unique look and feel not found in other restaurants; Chipotle’s interior is so distinctive that it is protected by its own trademark for its trade dress. Thus, its interior further prevents confusion by assuring any dumbfounded consumer that they are or are not, in fact, ordering from Chipotle while standing in the Sweetgreen line.

Chipotle Everywhere

A quick Google search of “chipotle chicken food near me” yields not just Chipotle Mexican Grill, but a list of other menu items with similar names served by famous restaurants. Taco Bell has a “Chicken Chipotle Melt,” Chili’s has a “Chipotle Chicken Fresh Mex Bowl,” and Panera Bread has a “Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt.” So, until Chipotle Mexican Grill comes after all other restaurants using the term, hungry consumers have an array of Chipotle-themed options that are arguably easily distinguishable from Chipotle Mexican Grill’s fare.

 

 

It will be interesting to see the final resolution of this game of chipotle chicken, but for now, it is time for this famished author to avail herself of one of these restaurant’s services.

 

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