Starbucks' 'Christmas Blend' stirs brouhaha Local firm, monastery warned on trademark

December 25, 1997|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

The owner of a Timonium-based coffee company -- and the abbot of a tiny monastery in Washington state -- are steamed over what they see as heavy-handed tactics by Starbucks Corp. to protect its trademark for its "Christmas Blend" holiday coffee.

Two East Coast distributors of specialty coffee -- Baltimore Coffee & Tea Co. Inc. and a sister venture in Williamsburg, Va. -- were warned by letter this month that marketing their holiday coffee as Christmas Blend infringed on a federally protected trademark. The two companies have stopped using the label, but the abbot of a two-monk monastery on Vashon Island in Puget Sound that sells coffee via the Internet refuses to do so.

"They called yesterday and wanted to talk over the phone, but I told them that on the advice of counsel I would decline," said the abbot, Hieromonk Tryphon, who says he's the head of the All-Merciful Saviour Monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad.

Tryphon said he doesn't have a lawyer; indeed, he says his monastery is so poor that most of the buildings there are little more than foundations, even after 10 years on the island.

The 30-employee Baltimore Coffee & Tea Co. and the Virginia operation were notified in a Dec. 11 letter from a Los Angeles law firm to "immediately cease" using the words Christmas Blend to market their, well, Christmas blend of coffee. The brewing disagreement didn't boil over until a spokesman for Seattle-based Starbucks allegedly said the monks would soon get a letter with a similar message. Newspapers around the country have carried articles that make it look as if Starbucks is being a big bully, and one of the television networks was even planning to air a segment on it this morning.

Starbucks says this whole thing is just a tempest in a teapot.

"What Starbucks has done is what any company would do to protect its trademark," spokesman Alan Gulick said.

Christmas Blend is one of the company's 95 registered trademarks -- trademarks that include "Frappuccino" and "Starbucks" itself, Gulick said. In any given week, the company may be working on 20 to 30 cases of infringement.

It has used Christmas Blend since 1985 and registered it as a trademark in 1992.

"For a lot of our customers, it's more than just coffee, it's a holiday tradition," Gulick said of the spicy blend, a combination of coffee beans from Latin America and India.

Under law, if a company wants to protect a trademark, it must demonstrate a good-faith effort to keep the term from becoming part of the public domain.

However, Stanley Constantine, president of Baltimore Coffee & Tea, said he thinks it's ridiculous that the federal government allowed a company to trademark linked-together words as common as "Christmas" and "blend."

"This will become a case study to Media 101 -- how not to handle a crisis," Constantine said.

"These guys are just so arrogant."

With all the media attention, Starbucks seems to have tempered its rhetoric.

And the dispute actually seems to have lighted a fire under formerly tepid sales of the Timonium firm's holiday brew -- now called "Christmas Coffee."

Besides, Constantine says, customers say they like the new name better.

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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