Brands on the Run: Food Truck Trademarks

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Last century, when we were kids and it came to mobile food our choices were limited – there were hot dog pushcarts, the musical ice cream man truck, and maybe an occasional trailer that had been converted into a walk-away diner. In the 1970s, taco trucks started showing up on the West Coast (LA), but it was not until “The Great Recession” (circa 2008) – when fewer restaurants were opening, and chefs were being laid off – that specialty dining food trucks exploded onto the American scene.

Today, food trucks are woven into the fabric of U.S. life, appearing at festivals, concerts, parks, and breweries near you. Each food truck presents a foodie niche dining option such as, for example, fancy burgers, specialty pizzas, gourmet hot dogs, kimchi dishes, or lobster rolls. According to one source, by 2023 there were over 35,000 food trucks in the United States, and the food truck industry was estimated to be worth over $1.2 billion and growing.


PPC for Legal

As the business lawyer for a food truck owner, you have lots of issues to deal with. There are numerous laws and ordinances to comply with, relating to such topics as food safety, permits, health inspections, insurance, employment issues, and compostable product packaging.

Each food truck is a mobile restaurant kitchen, and each food truck is a business – the kind of business where quality products and services are critical to success. The kind of business where it really helps to have a strong, unique, and memorable brand (i.e., food truck name). This may be even more important to a food truck than a restaurant since a food truck is always on the move. Social media postings and the food truck’s website may be the only way for consumers to track down those Polish pączki (POONCH-kee) that they’ve been craving since the last time they had them. With that in mind, you might say that the food truck industry is another one made possible only by the universal adoption of the smartphone in our society, since the industry’s communication lifeline with its consuming public depends on immediate information access.

A food truck owner usually wants a food truck name (service mark) that is suggestive of the type of food being made and sold (without being merely descriptive of that product), that is easy to remember, and that is usually fun (or punny) in some way. Of course, the ultimate goal with any brand is to be “distinctive,” so the brand serves to clearly distinguish your client’s food truck from other food trucks or restaurants.


Dram Shop Experts

The “strength” of a trademark, in terms of its legal protectability, is often equated with its distinctiveness. Trademark lawyers like us view the distinctiveness of marks on a sliding scale. From most to least distinctive (i.e., strongest to weakest), marks range from “fanciful” to “arbitrary” to “suggestive” to “descriptive.” Merely descriptive marks are not protectable as trademarks or service marks without proof of acquired distinctiveness. “Generic” terms are not protectable at all.

Let’s consider some suggestive examples for food trucks:
• GUAC N ROLL – for guacamole, tamales, burritos
• MOVERS & SHAKERS – milkshakes, floats
• DINE-1-1 – sandwiches (served out of a converted ambulance)
• GRILLENIUM FALCON – sandwiches
• THE PURPLE PEOPLE FEEDER – sandwiches, wings
• HAMBURGHINI – burgers, sandwiches
• I DREAM OF WEENIE – gourmet hot dogs

Of course, there is the very remote chance that your client’s food truck will (literally) explode. We occasionally hear about this happening, with the most dynamic example locally being the 2016 propane explosion of the MOTLEY CREWS HEAVY METAL GRILL in its owner’s driveway, causing damage to 11 neighboring homes (but thankfully, no injuries). But hey now, we are not trying to give food trucks a bad name.

In fact, just the opposite. We are trying to give each food truck a good name! A great and memorable service mark!


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Z. Peter Sawicki and James L. Young

Mr. Sawicki and Mr. James L. Young are shareholders at Westman, Champlin & Koehler. Pete and Jim both have over 30 years of experience obtaining, licensing, evaluating and enforcing patents. Each has also developed an extensive practice regarding the clearance, registration, licensing and enforcement of trademarks. They work closely with clients to understand their values and business plans and provide customized and effective strategies for intellectual property asset procurement, growth, management and protection. To contact Z. Peter Sawicki, call (612) 330-0581 or call James L. Young at (612) 330-0495. Please email them directly at either [email protected] or [email protected].

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