David & Goliath
Mi Cocina chain pursues hapless little Mi Cocina Hondurena restaurant in Garland
In a case that could only have been fueled by an overactive Google Alert, Mi Cocina — the big-gun Dallas chain known for its glossy, white-people-friendly version of Tex-Mex — has initiated a trademark infringement action against Mi Cocina Hondurena, a tiny, authentic Honduran restaurant in Garland.
On September 7, lawyers for Mi Cocina filed a lawsuit in the Texas Northern District Court against Martin E. Solis-Martinez, owner of Mi Cocina Hondurena, for "Intellectual Property — Trademark."
Attempts to contact Mi Cocina's lawyers — David A. Carman and Thomas E. McElyea of the Benenati Law Firm, which has offices in Beverly Hills and Bedford — went ignored. McElyea was eventually reached on October 16, but he reneged on his promise to call back within 12 hours.
Based on conversations with the staff at Mi Cocina Hondurena, it's entirely possible owner Martin Solis-Martinez doesn't know he's being sued.
Solis-Martinez was unreachable at the restaurant. The filed complaint does not show his legal representation and, based on conversations with the staff at the restaurant, it's entirely possible he doesn't know he's being sued. His summons was delivered on September 10, and he had 21 days to respond. But by October 17, there was no indication that he had filed a response.
Not responding would put Solis-Martinez in a pickle, says Anthony Lowenberg, an attorney with Taber Estes Thorne & Carr PLLC in Dallas.
"It's a problem when someone doesn't answer," Lowenberg says. "If someone doesn't respond, then the plaintiff can start the process of taking a default. At that point, as more time goes by, there is less and less that the defendant can do to prevent a default judgment."
In other words, the little guy gets screwed.
Mi Cocina has the words "Mi Cocina" trademarked and is therefore within its rights to track down other restaurants that try to use the name. Putting aside the fact that the words "mi cocina" mean "my kitchen" in the native language of those who make that kind of food, is it possible anyone might confuse Mi Cocina Hondurena with a Mi Cocina?
Time for a comparison:
Neighborhood: Whereas most Mi Cocinas are located in upscale neighborhoods like Highland Park or West Village, Mi Cocina Hondurena is in a sleepy, modest strip center in Garland.
Atmosphere: Mi Cocinas are big and shiny, with pricey lighting fixtures, ample patios and seating for 70 to 200 people, depending on location. From the outside, they look like any other big American chain.
It seems unlikely that Mi Cocina Hondurena would ever be mistaken for a Mi Cocina, unless Mi Cocina has plans to add snail soup to its menu.
Mi Cocina Hondurena has menu items stenciled on its mirrored glass windows, lacks a patio and seats maybe 40. Behind the cashier sits a white home-style refrigerator with a couple of notes pinned on the freezer door, and a small TV precariously perched on top. Proudly hanging over the window to the kitchen is the Honduran flag — blue and white with little stars.
Alcohol: Mi Cocina serves pumped-up margaritas such as the Mambo Taxi. Mi Cocina Hondurena has no liquor, but it does have coffee at the ready, served steaming hot and creamy white, thanks to a heavy dose of powdered milk. (Hondurans like to drink coffee with every meal.)
Menu: Mi Cocina has its signature sunset fajitas, smothered in chili sauce with onions and spicy queso, for $12.25, and beef nachos served on tortilla rounds and topped with gooey yellow cheese, guacamole, pico and jalapeños for $11.25.
Mi Cocina Hondurena has baleadas, a signature Honduran dish with mashed beans and cheese stuffed into a folded tortilla (which the restaurant makes onsite) for $1.99 to $4.50. Hondurena's most exotic specialty, $11.99 snail soup, could serve the whole family.
Service: Servers at Mi Cocina are quick and efficient; the place is a well-oiled machine. At Mi Cocina Hondurena, when the young server was asked what dishes might spotlight vegetables, she had the kitchen make a special order of tajadas, a home-style dish in which crisp, fried green bananas were topped with a cool, sloppy salad of shredded raw cabbage, tomato, and soft-cooked celery and onion.
"It's not on the menu, but I have it all the time," she said.
In summary: It seems unlikely that Mi Cocina Hondurena would ever be mistaken for a Mi Cocina, unless Mi Cocina has plans to add snail soup to its menu.
This Yelp review of Mi Cocina Hondurena seems a fitting way to end:
"This is an amazing authentic Honduran restaurant. Its not supposed to have frills. If your [sic] looking for unauthentic generic and overpriced food try MiCocina or Glorias. If you're looking for the real deal you found the perfect spot."
UPDATE: On October 19, M Crowd CEO Michael Cox called to explain the circumstances of the complaint:
"We fight a lot of use of our name around the country," Cox says. "We trademarked it many years ago. If you have a trademark, you have to protect it, and the only way to protect it is that, anybody you see someone using it, you send them a notice and ask them to stop. They have an opportunity to respond, and if they refuse, your only option is to file suit. We're not trying to put anybody out of business. Some people might be upset, thinking that we've picked on this small restaurant, but if you make an exception, it opens it up to everybody to use the name."