Taco Feliz is opening soon in Ambler, as indicated by this sign in the window, but it has nothing to do with Fairmount’s La Calaca Feliz, Fort Washington’s Cantina Feliz or Manayunk’s impending Taqueria Feliz, and the owners of those three restaurants are suing to protect their brand name.
On Tuesday, Timothy Spinner and Brian Sirhal of Feliz Restaurants, LLC filed a federal lawsuit against Taco Feliz, LLC and its owner, Rene Hernandez Zepeda, for trademark infringement and for the “passing off of Taco Feliz restaurant as one of the highly acclaimed Feliz Restaurants,” according to the suit.
The complaint mentions Craig LaBan’s review (three bells!) of La Calaca andPhiladelphia magazine’s 2012 Best of Philly award for Cantina Feliz as evidence of the restaurants’ prominence in the region and says that “the Feliz Restaurants have made ‘Feliz’ a well-known brand of innovative Mexican cuisine” in the area.
Zepeda’s Taco Feliz will be less than two miles from Cantina Feliz, the brand’s flagship, and under twenty miles from the other two Feliz Restaurants locations. “The likelihood of confusion is unmistakable,” reads the suit. Zepeda also owns La Villa Mexican Grille in Skippack.
Before there was any talk of federal lawsuits, Michael Klein noted the “¿Mucha confusión?” over the name last week on Philly.com. Zepeda told Klein that he had “never heard of it”, referring to Cantina Feliz. But the plaintiffs aren’t buying that. “Defendants’ conduct is knowing, intentional, and egregious,” they claim, alleging that there’s no way Zepeda could be oblivious to their restaurants, since he’s in the exact same business, and because he lives very close to Cantina.
The thing is, Spinner and Sirhal don’t actually own any trademarks on their restaurant names just yet. They only submitted their applications on May 10th once the issue arose, applying for trademarks on the following: Cantina Feliz, La Calaca Feliz, Taqueria Feliz and Feliz Restaurants.
I reached out to Montgomery County attorney Shawn Farmer, an expert in trademark issues, for his take on the Feliz feud. “Absent smoking gun evidence of bad faith by the defendants, the outcome of this case will depend on the plaintiffs’ ability to prove that consumers strongly associate the ‘feliz’ term with their existing restaurants,” Farmer explains. “The defendants will likely counter that the ‘feliz’ term, and the English equivalent ‘happy’ term, are very commonly used in the restaurant industry and should only be afforded very narrow trademark protection.” Too close to call, says Farmer.
Zepeda declined to comment for this story. He suggested that I reach out to his lawyer, but then said that he couldn’t remember his lawyer’s name. “I’ll call you when I have it,” he promised.