John Wong runs Big Joe's Broiler on Irving Street. Big Joe's is a nice place with 15 seats and a counter. Breakfast costs $1.35. The menu includes grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers - Wong makes a tasty hamburger.
A while back, Wong decided the Coca-Cola syrup he was using cost too much, so he switched to a lower-priced cola syrup made by the Seven Up Co.
The Coca-Cola Co., which has its headquarters in Atlanta - not exactly down the street from Big Joe's - somehow got word of John Wong's defection and instructed him last year by certified letter that neither he, his two waitresses, nor his wall-posted menu were to make use of the word "Coke."
The letter was followed by a phone call, which was followed by more letters. Big Joe's was not simply to stop referring to its cola as Coke. Wong and his two waitresses (both of whom are recent Chinese immigrants) were to tell each customer ordering Coke that the cola being served was another brand.
The waitresses are not terrific at English, but they tried. Wong posted a sign on his wall, next to the menu, which reads, "We don't serve Coke, but we serve a nice seven-up cola."
The Coca Cola Co. was not happy. They sent representatives to Big Joe's Broiler, some from the local offices, some all the way from Atlanta. They told him he was not doing enough, that the waitresses were not delivering the proper and complete warning, which goes something like. "We do not serve Coke, but it is not really Coke. It is a substitute cola."
Wong said that was the stupidest thing he had ever heard and how did they think some poor harrassed lunch customer with 10 minutes to wolf down his hamburger was going to feel if he got hit with that speech, especially by a waitress who doesn't really speak English.
Whereupon the Coca Cola Co., using a San Francisco law firm, charged John Wong with "copyright infringement" and sued him for $10,000.
The public relations man for Coca Cola, William Pruett, explained this over the phone, in his polite Southern voice. "A trademark owner is required by law to protect vigorously that trade-mark," he said. "Otherwise it will become a generic term."
Pruett said the Coca Cola Co. has no intention of allowing its trademark name to suffer the same fate that befell "cellophane" and "aspirin," both of which were once trademaked but now belong to the public domain.
And furthermore, Pruett said, it is a denial of the customers rights to serve him a Coca-Cola substitute without thoroughly informing him in advance. "If you go to a newsstand and ask for a copy of Times magazine, and the person (See COLA, K2, Col. 2) (COLA, From K1) hands you a Newsweek, did you get what you asked for?"
Pruett had been talking to other reporters about Big Joe's Broiler, and was sounding just a trifle impatient. There was nothing unusual about the action against Big Joe's, he said. The Coca Cola Co. files these suits all the time. They retain lawyers all over the country, in fact, to make sure their trademark protection) are in no way connected with the sales department."
[In 1975, Ulysses Auger, owner of Blackle's House of beef and 12 other restaurants here, ended a similar lawsuit by promising in a consent agreement to tell customers that the cola they were getting was not Coca-Cola.]
Wong, who emigrated from South China in 1952, figures this thing has gone far enough. "I'm doing my best here," he said from behind the counter recently, "and what do I get? I get kicked in the butt."
Six hundred of his customers have signed a petition that reads: "We, the undersigned, hereby acclaim that the folks here at Big Joe's Broiler do not misrepresent their cola. At Big Joe's, a cola is not a Coke, nor is a Coke a cola."
The Coca Cola Company wants Wong to promise them in writing that his waitresses will deliver the full substitute cola warning speech. Wong says many things to that, some of which are printable.
The gauntlet is down.
A trial date has been set for August.
And surely somebody is waltzing into Big Joe's Broiler even now, singing "Coke adds strife . . ."