Food Service & Agriculture, Law, and Marketing, PR & Advertising

Breweries doing battle over branding in court

Railtown Brewing files suit against Railbird, citing similarly sounding name.

September 7, 2018
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Railtown Brewing
The new Railtown Brewing location is on 68th Street SE, next to its former facility. Courtesy Railtown Brewing Company

Railtown Brewing Company filed suit against a nearby startup brewery over branding confusion.

Railtown co-owner Justin Buiter said he was first notified of an attempted brewery that sounded similar to his by confused customers who wanted to know when Railtown was opening its “new location” in Byron Center.

But Railtown had no plans to open in Byron Center. The small brewery had only recently expanded into a larger, newly constructed brewery and taproom at 3595 68th St. SE, next door to its old location.

“We just opened up our new location (in Dutton), and folks were confused about where we were building,” Buiter said.

It came to Buiter’s attention people were confused because a group of prospective business owners, for a couple of years, had been planning another brewery in Byron Center under the name Railbird Taphouse and Brewery.

The owners of the planned business bought the old Byron Center Hotel, at 2619 84th St., Byron Center, in 2016 with the intent to renovate it into a brewery and taproom.

Not wanting to start things off on the wrong foot, the owners of Railtown approached the owners of Railbird to talk casually, “brewer to brewer,” over a couple beers and, hopefully, come to an agreement.

“We were a startup not too long ago, we know how hard it is,” Buiter said. “We’re only 10 miles apart, and they’re in one of the areas we draw a lot of our patrons from,” Buiter said. “Our point of view is the names can’t coexist.”

Buiter said Railtown even offered to help Railbird finance a name change. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much reciprocation on Railbird’s end, and the owners refused to change their brewery’s name.

Railtown’s attorneys filed a complaint against Railbird on Aug. 27.

According to an official statement from Railbird, via its attorney, Joel Baar of Baar & Lichterman, the significance behind the name “Railbird” was to pay homage to the large chicken statue that once stood in front of the former Byron Center Hotel.

“Unfortunately, ‘The Chicken’ was sold, prior to us taking possession of the property,” the statement said. “However, we still felt strongly about including an homage to ‘The Chicken’ in our name and logo.”

The owners also wanted to use “Railbird” — meaning a spectator at a horse race or other event — as another nod to the hotel building’s proximity to the Kent Trails, while still maintaining the image of Byron Center’s iconic chicken.

The statement also argued there should be no confusion between the two brands, considering Railbird wishes to stay confined to Byron Center and the company’s logo is a red chicken, which distinguishes it from Railtown’s nod to the train industry, with its train-and-tracks logo.

“Given our location, the fact that no one owns the word ‘rail,’ and the homage we desire to pay to The Chicken, we can think of no better name for our taphouse than Railbird Taphouse and Brewery,” Railbird said in a statement. “So, when we asked Railtown Brewing Company to respond to our analysis of their concerns, the response was a federal court lawsuit, which we believe is unwarranted.”

According to the complaint filed by Railtown Brewing’s attorneys, Joe Infante and Kimberly Berger of Miller Canfield, Railbird’s location and proximity to Railtown meant both breweries would draw business from communities in the southern metro area of Grand Rapids.

“They’re both on that M-6 corridor and drawing from that same community,” Infante said.

Infante also said the branding confusion was a very real concern based on the numerous inquiries Railtown received from community members about its “Byron Center location.”

“The only reason it came up is that (Railtown) started getting what’s called actual confusion,” Infante said. “They’re getting phone calls from people saying, ‘Hey, when are you opening in Byron Center?’ or ‘Can I get a job at your brewery in Byron Center?’”

According to Railbird’s statement, the owners settled on the name “Railbird Taphouse and Brewery” in fall 2016, and the name was approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in March 2017.

“The approval by the USPTO suggests that the USPTO did not believe there was any likelihood of confusion with any other existing names,” the owners said.

According to Railtown’s complaint, Railbird had misrepresented certain facts to the USPTO to receive its trademark registration by claiming that it had used the Railbird Taphouse and Brewery mark in commerce since at least October 2017.

The complaint further argued Railbird’s representation could not be accurate because, at the time of filing, Railbird was not open for business and is not licensed by either the Michigan Liquor Control Commission or the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to manufacture and sell alcohol.

Railbird’s owners could not be reached for comment at press time.

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