Updated: 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 9
A trademark-infringement skirmish that has been simmering for years was quietly resolved late last month when Sweetleaf, the tiny Virginia-based cafe chain, agreed to add a little space and a couple of words to its name.
It will henceforth be known as Sweet Leaf Community Cafe.
The owners of Sweetgreen are breathing a small sigh of relief, even if they were hoping for more dramatic results.
“We’re happy to be done with it. I don’t like spending my time with lawyers,” says Nic Jammet, one of Sweetgreen’s founders who filed a trademark infringement lawsuit in April in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
The lawsuit was a last resort, Jammet says, after many talks between the two businesses to “clear any confusion” that might arise from the competing brands.
How identical were the Sweet Leaf and Sweetgreen brands?
Well, when the first outlet of Sweet Leaf opened in 2009 in McLean, Jammet says, its branding was “almost identical” to Sweetgreen’s. Sweet Leaf’s logo consists of two words smashed into one — sweetleaf, all lowercase. The dominant color is green. To the left of the Sweet Leaf logo is a pair of overlapping leaves, very similar to the original Sweetgreen logo, which featured a pair of overlapping leaves on the right.
What’s more, Jammet says, Sweet Leaf’s Web site looked much like Sweetgreen’s, down to the URLs. Sweetleaf’s is eatsweetleaf.com. Sweetgreen’s used to be eatsweetgreen.com.
As the months went by, Sweetgreen decided to make changes to its own logo, dropping the overlapping leaves and instead reversing the first “e” in the name so that the pair of vowels in “Sweet” suggested the outlines of a leaf. But Jammet and his partners felt there was still enough confusion between the brands to file a suit. They wanted the Virginia business to change its name — or at least drop the “Sweet” from it.
For their part, the sibling owners of Sweet Leaf say their name and brand were based on their mother’s bakery, Sweet Stuff, which opened in McLean in 1992, when the young Sweetgreen owners still “were in diapers,” says Arita Matini.
“We wanted to break away from the Sweet Stuff bakery and be Sweet Leaf. That’s really where [the name] came from,” says Matini, who owns the two-location Sweet Leaf chain with her brother, Andre Matini. “They thought we were going after their Sweetgreen” brand and customers.
“A lot of stuff was coincidental” between the brands, adds Arita. “We wanted people to understand we were the same company as Sweet Stuff.”
Arita says that when she and Andre opened Sweet Leaf, there was only one Sweetgreen location, not the 12 spots there are today. Sweetgreen disputes this assertion and says it had three stores open by the time Sweet Leaf debuted. (Incidentally, Sweetgreen location No. 13 will open next week at City Vista in the space vacated by Michael Landrum.)
All parties to the lawsuit agreed last month that Sweet Leaf could keep its name, as long as Arita and Andre split it into two words, add the “Community Cafe” description and change the color from green.
“We’re not trying to be compared to them,” Arita Matini says. “We just want to do what we’ve been doing since the 1990s.”
In the meantime, the Sweetgreen juggernaut continues unabated, says Jammet. With a new influx of investment money, the owners plan to open one salad-and-yogurt store a month until the end of the year, which could give them 18 locations, depending on whether an outlet or two has to push its debut into January because of construction delays.