Tim Ma is really wishing he'd listened to his lawyer.
About two weeks ago, Ma received a cease-and-desist letter from the Sydell Group, a New York-based hospitality firm whose portfolio includes Manhattan's Nomad hotel, a planned hotel called the Line in Adams Morgan and, apparently, a chain of hostels called Freehand with locations in Miami, Chicago and, next year, Los Angeles.
The identical name was news to Ma, who didn't take his lawyer's advice to run Freehand by an expert in trademarks. On the bright side, Ma said, "I made it. The fact that somebody from New York cares what I'm doing is awesome."
Sydell's position, Ma said, is that while it had trademarked Freehand as a hotel, a restaurant is close enough in mission to lead to confusion.
We've reached out to the lawyer representing Sydell, as well as its public relations representatives, and will update if we hear from them.
Ma doubts he'll fight the cease-and-desist. His lawyer doesn't think he'd win, and this time Ma is ready to take the legal advice. Ma said he's willing to compromise -- Freehand by Tim Ma, perhaps -- but isn't optimistic.
"We started working on other names, but nothing's jumping out," Ma said of the French-Asian bistro scheduled to open in November. "Honestly, we'd never had a backup. We'd picked this name so long ago."
Ma said the situation puts a "wrench" in what he and his wife and co-owner, Joey Hernandez, have done but doesn't expect it to delay the opening. The only thing that might be late now is the restaurant's signage. Logos will have to be redesigned too, and once they come up with a new name, they'll have to redo a lot of paperwork, including the lease on the space in the Shay apartment building.
Ma is just the latest local business owner to encounter legal issues regarding names. Earlier this year, energy-drink giant Red Bull filed its objection to Ashburn's Old Ox Brewery because of the bovine similarities of the ox and bull. Also this year, charcuterie shop Three Little Pigs changed its name to Straw Stick & Brick after it was the subject of a lawsuit from New York shop Les Trois Petits Cochons.
So, chef, any advice for yourself or other restaurateurs and businesses?
"Never assume that you're so small that no one's going to care," Ma said.