Mumbo sauce may be the taste of D.C., but in the eyes of the law its home is Chicago

September 3, 2013

The term for a tangy, spicy sauce that many locals consider to be the flavor of D.C. can no longer claim our region as its home, at least in the eyes of the law. The phrase “mumbo sauce,” which describes a condiment popular at Asian and chicken-wing carryouts in the District, has been upheld as a trademark of a barbecue company in Chicago in what might be considered a crushing blow to local pride.

Yes, the Chicago mumbo sauce has been bottled and sold under that name since the 1950s by a company called Select Brands. But because the recipe is different from D.C.’s — it’s used frequently as a grilling marinade — Arsha Jones, the founder of Capital City Mumbo Sauce, filed a petition to cancel Select Brands’ trademark registration, which was granted in 1958. Besides, in D.C., “mumbo sauce” is a term for a variety of spicy and tangy sauces found at carryouts — not one particular recipe.

Mumbo sauce is D.C.; mumbo sauce is not Chicago,” said Jones, who grew up in the Petworth area. “I don’t care who made what first. There will always be stories on both sides. If you check tweets, if you check Web sites, it points to mumbo sauce as a D.C. thing, and that’s the end.

The courts didn’t agree. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that Capital City was unable to demonstrate that the trademark had become generic and dismissed the petition for cancellation. Although the legal team for Select Brands has urged Jones to change her product’s name, she says she’s not going to budge. She’s seeking pro bono legal help for an appeal she plans to file next month.

The legal test for whether a trademark has become generic is whether, for all consumers, the term primarily refers to the type of item, said Julianne Hartzell, a partner with Marshall, Gerstein & Borun, the firm that represented Select Brands. “Aspirin,” “thermos” and “zipper” are three examples of trademarks that have become generic.

“One of the issues with proving that it has become generic is that the uses that we have seen are somewhat regional,” Hartzell said. She pointed to the use of “mambo” and even “mumble” sauce in D.C. “It did not seem entirely clear to us that there was a primary use of M-U-M-B-O. . . . It did not seem that it was particularly prevalent, even among the D.C. market.

But Jones can’t simply change her product’s name to “Capital City Mambo Sauce,” because similar names can infringe upon a trademark, too. “It comes down to, I have to change the name of the product completely, or I just keep fighting,” Jones said. “The company in Chicago will be sadly mistaken to think that we’re going to give up.”

“This was never about me and my money and my pockets,” she added. “It was about doing what was best for the community of D.C.”

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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