Potbelly sues Coggins’

The sandwich wars have officially begun.

In a complaint filed in federal court, Potbelly Sandwich Works said an integral part of its success is “the unique look and feel” of its shops. But lawyers for the sandwich shop said a new restaurant has rendered the Potbelly chain not so unique after all: Coggins’, located in the Ivory Tower.

After noticing a series of alleged similarities between it and Coggins’ Sandwich Manufactory, Illinois-based Potbelly filed suit in U.S. District Court last month to make the GW-housed sandwich shop change its ways. The chain is also filing suit for monetary relief and says it wants to prevent any further infringement.

How similar are the two? According to Potbelly, Coggins’ imitation is so profound that customers may actually believe that Coggins’ is in fact a Potbelly store.

Some students said they definitely noticed several commonalties between the restaurants. Others had never eaten at Potbelly, which has more than a dozen stores in downtown D.C.

“The way the stores are laid out is pretty similar, and the menus look really similar,” freshman Kris Moore said. “I’d been to Potbelly first, and that was the first thing I thought (upon entering Coggins’).”

In its complaint, Potbelly says that Coggins’ trade dress infringement was a “willful, deliberate and intentional” effort to help capture consumers without investing time and money needed to help create its own reputation.

It went on to say that Coggins’ actions have damaged Potbelly and continue to do so through causing “immediate and irreparable injury.” Lawyers for Potbelly did not return calls for this article.

Ron Boatwright, Coggins’ vice president of operations, also could not be reached for comment. But in the past, company leaders have said that Coggins’ prides itself on being different from other sandwich shops.

“We’re trying to do something a cut above, different and unique in a way that will set us apart from the competition,” Ross Farro, the president and CEO of Coggins’ parent company, Farro Enterprises, told the Washington Business Journal in November.

Coggins’ attorneys are now requesting permission from the court to photograph and videotape Potbelly stores to prove that the any of the chain’s claimed trade dress infringements are just a collection of standard items.

“The only possible similarities between the restaurants are common, functional features that cannot support a finding of likelihood of confusion,” their response to the lawsuit says.

Coggins’ attorneys, in a statement, said Potbelly has shown no evidence that the chain has been harmed by the new restaurant and is unlikely to win the case.

Among a laundry list of complaints by Potbelly, the chain points out that, like Potbelly, Coggins’ offers similar six-inch conveyor subs all at the same base price, a nearly identical selection of drinks and snacks and the same style of cubby-hole shelf containing chips. Other similarities include natural wood and concrete floors, a tin ceiling, signs with a vintage look and a chalkboard menu. But in fact, sandwiches are listed on a permanent menu, which Coggins’ attorneys point out in their response.

Potbelly also said Coggins’ uses the same type of long paper bags for to-go orders, customers experience the same sequence of ordering and Coggins’ offers a similar restaurant history to Potbelly.

The real life story of Potbelly began in 1977, when the owners of an antique store in Chicago decided to increase business by offering toasted sandwiches and desserts. An entrepreneur bought the store and expanded it, believing that the antique-vintage decor wold be unique in the sandwich shop industry. The look sets Potbelly apart from competitors such as Quiznos and Subway, lawyers said.

But Potbelly says the Coggins’ history, featuring a tale of the life of “J.D. Coggins,” is “phony.”

“Though the first Coggins’ store was opened only a few months ago, its menu falsely suggests a long history and humble beginning that parallels the true story of Potbelly’s,” the suit says.

Coggins’ lawyers responded, saying that the Coggins’ theme revolves around an Industrial Revolution factory, not an antique shop. Coggins’ also said trademark law does not protect a restaurant theme anyway.

Click here to view the legal documents of Potbelly’s suit.

Click here to view the legal documents of Coggins’ response to the suit.

Adobe Acrobat is necessary to open up the court documents which are formatted as .pdf files. Click here to download a free copy of the latest Adobe Acrobat software.

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