NYC’s dining scene is ripe with restaurant wars, from allegedly stolen pizza recipes to copycat menus — yet most of these battles are settled outside the courtroom, even when lawsuits are fired.
Last week, a Prince Street Pizza veteran was accused of stealing the restaurant’s recipes and recreating its famous square pepperoni slice in a new pizzeria, allegedly aiming to bank on Prince Street’s success. It’s a story New York’s competitive dining industry has seen time and time again, like when Magnolia Bakery’s co-founder branched off to open a new cupcake shop, or when a longtime Pearl Oyster Bar sous chef opened a remarkably similar seafood restaurant.
But stolen-recipe feuds often lack legal standing in a courtroom because a recipe — considered a list of ingredients with instructions — can’t be protected under copyright law, says intellectual property lawyer Sam Israel.
“The courts that have visited the issue have said, ‘No, you can’t have copyright [protection] in a recipe.’ That’s because it’s considered to be a process,” Israel says.
Ways in which restaurateurs can protect their recipes or restaurant concepts are slim. If a recipe is presented in a unique, creative way, like in an illustrated book, then that specific method of presentation could be rendered protectable, the lawyer explains. But the recipe itself could still be copied, as long as it’s presented in a different way on another restaurant’s menu, he says.
Restaurateurs can also protect the names of certain dishes, like Dominique Ansel did with the Cronut. The pastry chef sought to trademark the name “Cronut” before the croissant-doughnut hybrid even went viral. Armed with that trademark protection, he’s been able to fire back at restaurants across the U.S. that have tried to sell similarly named pastries like “Kronuts” or “croi-nuts” — forcing those businesses to call it something else. Still, those restaurants can continue selling their version of the dish, as long as it’s under a different name.
Despite the precariousness of getting into legal battles over recipes, many NYC restaurateurs have gotten into feuds with former employees over rights. Emotions tend to get involved: Some owners take it personally when their protégés leave to start their own business, taking a ton of family-owned recipes with them, while others tirelessly try to protect the quality of the brand they’ve built over decades, specifically by curbing lousy copycat locations.
Here are some of the biggest restaurant battles that have happened over the years.
New York’s ongoing pizza wars
For years, pizzerias have fought over “secret” recipes and trademark infringements — Eater rounded out the top 10 historical feuds here.
One of the more violent pizzeria fights happened over at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst, where a stolen recipe feud dangerously escalated. Eugene Lombardo, the owner of Staten Island pizzeria the Square, allegedly copied L&B Spumoni’s pizza sauce recipe, leading to an ugly trial involving an alleged assault and money extortion. Police even suspected the 2016 murder of L&B Spumoni owner Louis Barbati could be connected to the restaurant fight that began years before.
But most public pizza wars haven’t hit physical altercations, like the most recent quarrel between hit Soho slice shop Prince Street and former employee Frank Badali.
Prince Street says Badali “stole” the recipe for its “Spicy Spring Pie” and recreated it at a new Upper West Side pizzeria called Made In New York Pizza. The restaurant claims Badali is breaching a confidentiality agreement, but Badali says he’s tweaked the recipe and has made the slice his own.
And even though Prince Street owns the trademark to “Spicy Spring Pie” — just like Ansel owns the rights to the name “Cronut” — that doesn’t mean the actual recipe behind the slice is protected, Israel says. It’s probably why Made In New York instead calls its slice “Spicy Pepperoni.”
Some restaurants, like iconic West Village pizzeria Joe’s Pizza, have trademarked their names and logos to stop copycats from opening falsely affiliated restaurants. Most recently Joe’s sued former employee Victor Zarco — who worked at the original location for 17 years — for naming his Park Slope pizza shop “Joe’s Pizza of the Village,” clearly referencing the longstanding pizzeria despite having no relation to it.
The restaurant sued for trademark infringement and accused Zarco of falsely representing its ripoff location as a piece of the original. The court demanded that the Brooklyn shop change its logo. The shop eventually changed its name, too; it’s now called Joe’s Pizza of Park Slope.
This wasn’t Joe’s first run-in with ripoff stores: In 2015, it sued a business called “Little Joe’s Pizza,” also started by a former employee. The court then ruled in Joe’s favor, and the restaurant is now called Little Gio’s.
The Sex and the City cupcake rivalries
Another big rivalry exists in New York’s cupcake circle, with Magnolia Bakery at its center.
The hit Greenwich Village cupcake shop that blew up after starring in Sex and the City was originally founded by Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey in 1996 — but the cupcake wars officially began in 1999, when the founding duo parted ways. Appel soon opened rival Buttercup Bake Shop in Midtown, and according to New York, both bakeries have since spawned several sweet shops around town, like Billy’s Bakery in Chelsea and Sugar Sweet Sunshine in the Lower East Side.
In 2005, a manager from Buttercup split off to create Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Brooklyn. Appel sued, claiming the bakery plagiarized her own Buttercup. But the lawsuit was dropped, and Little Cupcake still stands.
The drama continued after the original Magnolia Bakery was purchased by new owners Steve and Tyra Abrams in 2007. In 2011, they sued Appel for allegedly sharing recipes and trade secrets with a woman who opened an “unauthorized” version of the bakery in Athens, Greece. The Abrams sued for alleged trademark infringement and unfair competition, among other things, but the case was ultimately dismissed, according to court documents.
The seafood bar copycat
Others like Rebecca Charles of Pearl Oyster Bar have also failed to keep former employees from opening similar restaurant concepts. Ten years ago, Charles accused her former sous chef Ed McFarland of plagiarizing her restaurant and stealing her Caesar salad recipe when he opened Ed’s Lobster Bar in Soho.
Charles claimed the lobster spot mirrored “each and every element” of her restaurant, from the white marble bar to the color scheme. Yet the lawsuit never got anywhere and was eventually settled outside of the courtroom.
Both restaurants continue to operate today, and at Ed’s, the Caesar salad remains on the menu.
Taco troubles on Rockaway Beach
A more recent battle brewed between chef Andrew Field and David Selig, the duo who founded hip taco destination Rockaway Taco in Rockaway Beach. The duo split when they couldn’t agree on how to run the business, at which point Field planted his own taco shack called Tacoway Beach a few blocks away.
Selig promptly slapped him with a lawsuit, claiming that the former partner was “unfairly and deliberately destroying his business,” and even asked for a restraining order to prevent the business from opening.
A deal was eventually cut out: Selig got full control of Rockaway Taco and Field was given the green light to open Tacoway Beach. The original has since closed.
Brooklyn doughnut quarrels
Sometimes, these situations don’t end up in a courtroom at all. When Mohamed Saleh left Greenpoint staple Peter Pan Donuts and Pastry Shop after 18 years to start his own doughnut shop down the street, his previous employer wasn’t too happy about it. Cristos and Donna Siafakas of Peter Pan told the Times in 2014 that they believed Saleh took their recipes and replicated them at his new shop, called Moe’s Doughs Donut Shop, to directly compete with them.
The bitter rivalry has since dissipated, Saleh has said. “It’s done, I left, that’s it. I got to move forward,” Saleh told DNA Info in 2017.
Fortunately for Greenpoint diners, both doughnut shops continue to operate, just a few blocks away from one another.