An intellectual property lawsuit between a popular chicken nugget takeout chain based in Old Greenwich in Bridgeport, Connecticut and two ex-employee brothers who launched a similar business catering to UConn students in Storrs is heading toward a trial.
Call it the Greenwich “chicken wars” — the owners of Garden Catering, which has eight locations from Mamaroneck, N.Y., to Fairfield, are crying “fowl.” The owners claim that Wally’s Chicken Coop stole their coveted recipes, business model and other trade secrets, and they’ve slapped Michael Natale and Jeff Natale, the owners of Wally’s Chicken Coop, with a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Haven.
Wally’s serves chicken “bits” and side combos in a pint-sized insulated food bag in the same manner as Garden Catering, which the lawsuit said is more than a mere coincidence. Their menu also features a breakfast sandwich dubbed the “Topsy,” which Garden Catering says is a blatant knock-off of its best-seller, the “Hotsy.” A bacon, egg and cheese on a roll with chili and home fries, the sandwich is named after its late creator,Frank Bertino, who worked behind the counter at Garden Catering into his early 90s.
The flap has James Doyle, the lawyer for Wally’s, planning to file a motion next week seeking to dismiss the case.
“It’s that ridiculous,” Doyle said. “All the claims are frivolous.”
Federal court records show this is the third such case pitting Garden Catering as a plaintiff against either a one-time business partner, franchisee or former employee. The previous two ended in settlements.
Frank Carpenteri Jr., whose family owns Garden Catering, issued a statement Monday accusing the brothers of concealing their plans to open a similar business and poaching at least one of their employees.
“I was longtime friends with Michael and Jeff Natale and was happy to employ both of them for many years when they needed work,” Carpenteri said. “When they told me that they were leaving to open in Storrs, they referred to it as a `burger joint,’ with no mention of the true focus of the business. We also believe that they sought to create a false impression that they were affiliated with Garden Catering in a number of ways, including telling their customers that they were `just like Garden Catering.’ “
The 31-page lawsuit, filed by Greenwich attorney James C. Riley of Whitman, Breed, Abbott & Morgan, alleges that Michael Natale formed a limited liability corporation while he was still a Garden Catering employee and even discussed his business plans with a major distributor of the chain.
Wally’s tried to associate itself with Garden Catering on its Facebook page and Twitter account, according to the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified punitive damages and reimbursement of court expenses.
“They traded off the goodwill and name recognition that my family and I have worked extremely hard to create over the last 20 years,” Carpenteri said in his statement.
Doyle said Wally’s, located in a storefront 104 miles from Greenwich, is not a competitor and that his clients did nothing wrong.
“There’s no secret recipe,” Doyle said. “They don’t use the trademarks.”
In 2005, Garden Catering sued rival Chicken Joe’s — operated by Joe Marini, a former business partner of the Carpenteris — over the use of the name “High School Special” for its chicken nuggets and fries in a bag combination. The case resulted in a settlement, with Chicken Joe’s retaining the name and Garden Catering going with “The Special” for its signature menu item. Marini declined to comment on the feud Monday.
In 2011, Garden Catering sued two of its Stamford franchises on High Ridge Road and East Main Street for trademark infringement. The case also wound up in a settlement, with the two locations changing their names to Reddi Rooster. A message seeking comment from the owner of the two former franchises was left Monday at the High Ridge Road location.
“In my view, the cases are really unrelated,” Doyle said. “They’re certainly really litigious.”
Bertino’s daughter, Jackie Fabricatore, of Stamford, is siding with Garden Catering in the dispute, however.
“I honestly agree with them 100 percent,” Fabricatore said. “Hotsy is Hotsy. Hotsy is king. They should take (the Topsy) off the menu because the idea comes from my father’s chili.”
In a bizarre twist, Bertino’s son, who is named Frank, is suing Garden Catering in state Superior Court in Stamford. He alleges that the popular eatery neglected the welfare of his 91-year-old father.
Fabricatore lamented the actions of her brother.
“Frank Carpenteri and his family, they’re wonderful people,” she said. “They treated my father just like family.”