Entrepreneurs Jayne and Dean Bredlau have dealt with many thorny problems while trying to make their fresh produce business bloom, but a recent trademark claim from a restaurant chain blindsided them.
Lawyers for Los Angeles-based Sweetgreen, a chain of more than 90 healthy eateries, sent a cease and desist letter to the Zumbrota couple telling them that they have to stop using the name My Sweet Greens MN for their small fresh vegetable business.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Jayne Bredlau, who left her regular job in August to work on My Sweet Greens full-time. “It’s pretty overwhelming.”
Other than having “sweet” and “green” in their names, the two businesses make a stark contrast.
Sweetgreen, recently valued at $1 billion, has restaurants in major coastal cities like New York, Boston and Santa Monica. Its closest one is in located about 350 miles away in Chicago. The company launched and registered its trademark in 2007.
Sweetgreen charges between $9 to $14 for its salads made with fresh produce.
My Sweet Greens was started in Zumbrota with about $7,000 of personal savings and uses a greenhouse built with free and scavenged materials to grow sweet peas, arugula, radish and other greens.
They sell about 90 to 100 pounds of greens a month in the Rochester, Northfield, Winona and Faribault areas.
The Bredlaus started their “microgreens” business in 2016, after purchasing an Internet domain and searching for any other businesses with a similar name.
My Sweet Greens started to get traction last year, selling young greens at area farmers markets, food cooperatives and directly to restaurants.
Then the Sweetgreen letter rolled in like a dark cloud over My Sweet Greens sunny plans for 2019.
Sweetgreen, which serves salads and grain bowls made from fresh produce, demanded that the Zumbrota couple stop all use of “Sweet Greens” in its name and branding.
“Sweetgreen is concerned consumers will erroneously conclude that your business and its offerings are associated with, or sponsored or endorsed by, Sweetgreen,” wrote Sweetgreen’s attorney Colette Ghazarian.
The Bredlaus are now talking to their own lawyer to determine their next step.
Experts say any business changing its name and branding on labels, shirts and online presence would be disruptive and expensive. For My Sweet Greens, though, it might be unavoidable.
Bill Ryan, a partner at Rochester’s Dunlap & Seeger law firm who is not connected to the case, says this type of situation is not unusual.
“If you have a registered mark, you need to be diligent about enforcing it or it could get diluted losing the benefit… otherwise it can become generic, like Kleenex,” he said to explain why Sweetgreen would pursue a tiny Minnesota business.
Sweetgreen challenged another small business, Virginia-based Sweet Leaf, in 2012. That case went to court and Sweet Leaf agreed to re-name itself Sweet Leaf Community Café to resolve the dispute at that time.
Ryan says the on the surface, this case boils down to a “fact question” of the likelihood of the similarity of the names confusing the average consumer.
Beyond the direct legal challenge, there’s the expense of taking it on to court. Sweetgreen has the money to fight it for a long time, while My Sweet Greens MN doesn’t have resources like that.
“Win, lose or draw, what’s certain about this stuff is the cost and that’s what scares most smaller folks away,” said Ryan.