“It was identical,” Chovil said. “The same menu, the same items, the same names, the same prices. It’s even the same chalkboard, like we had.”
There are indeed striking similarities between the two menus. According to photos on Yelp and Instagram, much of what fell under “Perros” at Fast Gourmet can be found under “Urban Dogs” at Panino, and a section called “Flair” appears on both chalkboards with almost identical offerings. Many sandwiches at Panino appear to imitate Fast Gourmet’s construction. The meatball sandwiches, for example, were both made with Angus beef, chorizo, marinara and a fontina garlic baguette, while both pulled-pork sandwiches included pineapple and lemon grass coleslaw. Several salads and wraps share a name as well.
Fast Gourmet received much praise for its chivito, a meaty Uruguayan sandwich that it prepared with beef tenderloin, roasted black forest ham, mozzarella, bacon, olives, hard-boiled egg and escabeche. Panino’s menu highlights the same creation, right under its “Flair” heading.
Notable on Panino’s menu is the name of the chef, Jose Melgar. Melgar worked at Fast Gourmet as a cook, Chovil said, using what she alleged were the recipes of a former partner, Juan Olivera. Fast Gourmet shuttered in March because Chovil and co-owner Fernando Almiron were more than $330,000 behind on D.C. sales and withholding taxes, and Chovil said they still owe Melgar (and other cooks who also joined Panino) some money.
“We’re trying to do everything to get back on our feet,” she said. “But they took our recipes, our business. What are we supposed to do now?”
Chovil’s claims were first reported by the PoPville blog.
Johanna Hezchias, part owner of Panino, said it is “unfortunate” that Chovil accused Melgar of being a thief. Hezchias said she and the other owner, a silent investor, came across the vacant space, met with Melgar and “basically reopened the restaurant that was once so popular.” She decided to let him handle the menu because of his experience cooking for Fast Gourmet, and said that he came up with the recipes himself.
“It was an executive decision on my end to let the chef do what he does best,” Hezchias said. “He was working there for seven years. These are the dishes he loved to make.”
Chovil initially found out about Panino’s menu on Facebook, when the community page U Street Buzz posted that the new place would feature “the same sandwiches but different owners.” (Kevin Rooney, of U Street Buzz, clarified in a Facebook message that he had asked “a guy going in and out” of the building about Panino.) She has taken to the social media platform to condemn Hezchias and Melgar’s actions, claiming that the recipes were stolen to profit off her business.
The controversy has not affected Almiron and Chovil’s goal of eventually opening a Fast Gourmet food truck, she said, but they do plan to sue Panino’s owners.
“We’re going to court,” Chovil said. “We have enough to prove that they’re copying our concept and everything.”
Hezchias is not concerned, she said, as Melgar did not sign any agreements that would have restricted his use of the recipes.
Chovil is “just upset,” Hezchias said. “There’s nothing more to it. We’re not losing sleep over it or anything.”
The law appears to be on Hezchias’s side. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of “Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction,” said copyright law does not protect recipes that are merely a list of ingredients. Intellectual protection in the food industry generally extends to trade secrets, such as the Coca-Cola formula; trademarks, such as Starbucks’s Frappuccino; or substantial creative elements of a published cookbook, such as illustrations or the text describing a dish.
“There really is no legal cause of action here,” Vaidhyanathan said. “Even if those restaurants existed in different spaces at the same time, you cannot protect recipes. You certainly can’t protect a sandwich. A sandwich is a pretty basic design.”
Vaidhyanathan said he was “baffled” by the situation. “People are supposed to be able to compete against each other,” he said. “Sandwich shops are all competing with each other right now for the best ham sandwich at the best price. And that’s how it should be — they shouldn’t involve lawyers in every level of that.”
Hezchias, meanwhile, said she was not familiar with Almiron and Chovil’s financial woes while opening Panino, but was sympathetic to former Fast Gourmet employees who suffered financially from Fast Gourmet’s closing.
“At the end of the day I created jobs for, what, five employees?” she said. “That’s a big thing.”
This post has been updated.