A partnership that started with a buzz has melted into an alcohol-infused mess with competing truck vendors selling booze-filled ice pops in the Charleston area now fighting each other in court.
Summerville-based Booze Pops and one-time business partner Buzz Pop Cocktails, now headquartered in Florida, have filed federal lawsuits accusing the other of trademark violations and other misdeeds. The cases, while in the early stages, offer a glimpse inside the cut-throat business of selling adults-only frozen desserts.
Once a novelty, food trucks offering iced treats containing alcohol are now showing up across the country, and some retailers have started stocking their shelves with the frozen treats. There's even a penny-stock company — Pacific Ventures Group — that's hoping to take its Snobar products nationwide.
"The popularity of such treats speaks to the idea that there is something almost invitingly naughty about combining alcohol with frozen fare," The Wall Street Journal reported last spring.
The competition has vendors looking for a marketing edge that, court documents say, sometimes crosses the line.
In one instance, for example, Buzz Pop CEO Joseph Isaacs thrust one of his frozen treats into the hands of a Booze Pops truck vendor and then started snapping photos — all in an attempt to make it appear on social media that Booze Pops employees prefer their competition's product, according to a lawsuit filed by Booze Pops owner Woody Norris.
Isaacs has also disparaged Booze Pops on social media, the lawsuit states, calling the competition "Mr. Imitation" in a video shot in Charleston, adding: "Not quite sure what they sell but it certainly isn't Buzz Pop."
Buzz Pop hasn't yet responded to the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Charleston, but Isaacs told The Post and Courier there's no truth to Norris' allegations.
"There is no merit to the lawsuit," Isaacs said, adding Norris is responding to a trademark infringement lawsuit Buzz Pop filed against him last year in Florida.
That lawsuit accuses Booze Pops of trying to trick consumers into thinking it's affiliated with Buzz Pops. The lawsuit also says Booze Pops failed to pay $31,492.50 for 114 cases of Buzz Pop treats.
The relationship between Norris and Isaacs hasn't always been acrimonious. In June 2018, the two men announced a three-year deal in which Isaacs' company would be the sole manufacturer for alcohol-infused treats sold exclusively by a franchise of Booze Pops trucks.
"We feel privileged to be part of the Booze Pops expansion," Isaacs said in a statement at the time, adding "we wish Booze Pops great success."
But by the end of that year, Isaacs had transferred the Buzz Pop name to a new corporation and started selling alcoholic treats on his own — a violation of the exclusive retail sales agreement Buzz Pop and Booze Pops had signed, Norris' lawsuit states. Isaacs said the agreement had been canceled by that time.
Last year, Buzz Pop brought a truck to Charleston for head-to-head competition with Booze Pops, sparking further allegations of wrongdoing.
Norris said in court documents that lab tests show Buzz Pop treats have far less than the 15 percent alcohol advertised, something he says he didn't know when he was selling them.
And Facebook posts by Buzz Pop mislead consumers into thinking celebrities endorse the product, the lawsuit states. For example, one post shows Lady Gaga appearing to reach for a Buzz Pop cocktail, with the phrase: "Go ahead Gaga, indulge!"
Booze Pops counters that it's actually had celebrities — among them Jamie Lee Curtis and Elliott Gould — stop at one of its trucks for a taste.
Norris is no stranger to legal challenges. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg in 2017 asked the S.C. Department of Revenue, which regulates alcoholic beverage licensing, to review whether Booze Pops can legally sell its treats on city streets. The agency said the pre-packaged items are considered food, and food with alcohol in it isn't regulated by state laws.
No court dates are scheduled for either trademark lawsuit. Booze Pops has asked a federal judge to dismiss the case filed there, saying it's an attempt to harass Norris and that the Florida court does not have jurisdiction. Buzz Pop has until March 23 to file an answer in the South Carolina case.
Note: This story has been updated to note that Buzz Pops was to be the manufacturer of products for Booze Pops, not the distributor.