When it comes to steamed crabs, there is usually one option — and the company that makes Old Bay seasoning, beloved and iconic in Baltimore, wants to keep it that way. McCormick, the Baltimore-based spice company that produces the popular seafood blend, filed suit in federal court on Monday for trademark infringement, seeking to prevent Pittsburgh-based Primal Palate from producing a similar spice blend it calls “New Bae.”
Primal Palate specializes in organic spices, and is geared toward consumers who follow the paleo diet. When it announced the spice blend in 2017, the company acknowledged that the name was “a terrible pun.” Bae is a slang acronym for a boyfriend or girlfriend that stands for “before anyone else.” Husband-and-wife founders Bill and Hayley Staley said they chose the name because it was playful.
“It was a nod to Old Bay,” Haley said. “We weren’t intending to create a replication of Old Bay.”
“Old Bay is obviously a respected, revered brand in American cupboards,” Bill said. “We never had any intention of confusion. Everything is spelled differently, it looks different.”
Old Bay lists its ingredients as celery salt and “spices (including red pepper and black pepper) and paprika.” That proprietary spice blend, according to copycat recipes, may include mustard, pepper, bay leaves, cloves, pimento, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon and paprika. The Staleys said they decided to create New Bae as a paleo tribute to the spice — but this time, with all the ingredients disclosed for their health-conscious consumers who might be wary of hidden sources of gluten and sugar. In the announcement for the new spice, which is organic, they called it “a fiery new flavor in your life, giving quite the kick to anything from seafood to roast vegetables to epic potatoes.” It’s made of Himalayan pink salt, paprika, celery seed, black pepper, ancho chile powder, cayenne, cardamom, allspice, mace and bay leaves.
They filed for the trademark in November 2017, and when McCormick sent a cease-and-desist letter to Primal Palate in April, the couple was surprised.
“We’re a very small company,” Hayley said. “We were definitely puzzled, for sure.”
They said they had tried to engage McCormick in conversations about the brand, but the company declined. In the suit, McCormick points out that Primal Palate has used slogans like “Out with the Old, and in with the NEW” to capitalize on Old Bay’s “fame and goodwill.” The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We don’t think we’re doing anything wrong here,” Bill Staley said. “This is a product we think can coexist in the marketplace. The target audience for them doesn’t have a lot of overlap.”
Old Bay is more than just a seasoning in the Mid-Atlantic. It is practically a way of life. Invented in 1939 by a Jewish immigrant from Germany, Gustav Brunn, the spice is a mainstay of summer crab feasts, but has expanded into beer, vodka, and, briefly, McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish.
“Only a select group of foods can claim the cult status of Old Bay,” wrote Jane Black for The Washington Post on the spice’s 70th anniversary. “Probably only bacon inspires fiercer loyalty. And bacon, it has been noted, tastes pretty good sprinkled with a little Old Bay.”
When Marylanders heard about the lawsuit, they came to the brand’s defense:
The Staleys say their lawyer plans to respond to the McCormick suit, which asks for damages as well as the destruction of all of the “New Bae” product. They hope they will prevail, and be able to keep the name — “And not for any similarity to Old Bay,” Bill said. “We love how cute and fun the name is.”
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Correction: A previous version this story said the Staleys filed for their trademark in November. They filed in November 2017.