I’ve been reading about the Sweetie Pie’s family feud/trademark lawsuit for the past week or so with great interest. If you’re unfamiliar with Sweetie Pie’s and the show “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s,” on the OWN Network, do yourself a favor and watch a few episodes from one of the six (!) seasons its been on air. I must admit, I am not a regular viewer anymore, but that is mostly because I’ve sworn off cable/satellite TV and OWN doesn’t seem too interested in putting its shows on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu.
At any rate, basically the show depicts the Sweetie Pie’s soul food restaurant brand, a family business founded by the family’s matriarch, Ms. Robbie Montgomery, in St. Louis. The family is adorable and hilarious, though they’ve also had a lot of tough times recently. The show’s success has led to an incredible amount of tourist-based business at the St. Louis restaurants, including my own family. The line was so long we couldn’t get in - I was 1000% disappointed that I didn’t get any fried okra that day.
Apparently, all of the publicity from the show led Ms. Robbie’s son, Tim Norman, to open up restaurants in California using the Sweetie Pie’s name and brand. Tim’s restaurants, unfortunately, aren’t receiving the rave reviews that the St. Louis restaurants pull in, and Ms. Robbie ain’t having it. She recently sued Tim for, among other things, trademark infringement based on his use of the Sweetie Pie’s brand.
After reading through the lawsuit, there are a few lessons entrepreneurs can learn from the turmoil in the Sweetie Pie’s family.
#1 When you do business, especially with family, put EVERYTHING, and I mean EVERYTHING, in writing. Clear as day and as official as a black suit. Apparently, Tim’s restaurants weren’t a secret and took time to develop - at least one of his locations appeared on an episode of the show in 2015. I don’t know what Ms. Robbie knew or didn’t know, but there couldn’t have been the proper channels in place at that time, at least when it came to Tim’s ventures. At a minimum, he didn’t feel like he needed all of the appropriate permissions. Setting expectations (and consequences) up front could have helped here.
#2 If any logo, phrase, or design is important to your business, and if unauthorized use of that thing would harm your business, file a federal trademark application. Spend a few thousand dollars upfront, with a good trademark lawyer, so that you do not end up in court later. Here, one of the issues in the lawsuit is that Tim filed a federal trademark application for a logo that Ms. Robbie had already been using to franchise her restaurants but had not filed a trademark application for. Had she filed first, that could have saved a lot of headaches.
#2.5 In point #2 I mentioned using a “good trademark lawyer.” Yes, it can be expensive and intimidating, but good counsel is worth its weight in gold. From my reading of the complaint and trademark documents, Tim seems to be shoestringing (if that is a word) a lot of his operations, and it shows in his trademark applications.
#3 Growth in business is great, especially with a platform like the OWN Network behind you, but a good (or bad) intellectual property strategy can make or break a company. Ideas, identities, and brands are the most valuable components of a business, and if you don’t own these things in some way, your business can suffer. With Sweetie Pie’s, it seems that trademark counsel may have been called in after the money and publicity starting rolling in, which happens a lot with entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, they weren’t there early enough to catch some of the common missteps made by new and growing companies.
I wish the Montgomery/Norman crew a speedy resolution to this. Family is way more important than any business venture, and lawsuits can suck the life right out of even the strongest man or woman. I also hope the Sweetie Pie’s organization gets their intellectual property strategy in order so that it can continue building a restaurant empire. I still want the fried okra I missed out on during my last trip to St. Louis!