The owner of Southern kitchen staple Duke's mayonnaise is suing its sandwich spread sibling over which food company has the right to use their founder's name on consumer products.
Sauer Brands Inc., owner of the mayonnaise recipe, filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday accusing Greenville-based Duke Brands of trademark infringement, saying the latter's packaging is designed to trick customers into thinking its products — such as chicken salad and pimiento cheese — are produced by Sauer.
Sauer, which was acquired in June by private equity firm Falfurrias Capital Partners, wants Duke Brands and its affiliated businesses to stop using the Duke name and a "look-alike logo" mimicking the mayonnaise mark on products sold in grocery stores.
Duke Brands, Sauer said in its complaint, has "embarked on an unapologetic mission to exploit" the work Sauer has done "to make Duke's mayonnaise a must-have ingredient for discerning consumers and chefs in the south and nationwide."
John Boyanoski, spokesman for Duke Brands, said the company was "blindsided" by the lawsuit, adding the company plans "to fight to keep our name and our brand."
Boyanoski said Duke Brand's and the mayonnaise owner have coexisted for decades without problem. All of that changed, he said, when the private-equity firm bought Sauer.
At the heart of Sauer's complaint is a 1929 bill of sale in which Eugenia Duke transferred ownership of her mayonnaise business, recipes and trademarks for $121,000 — roughly $1.8 million in today's value.
Richmond, Va.-based Sauer claims that bill of sale gave it the right to all of Duke's business except several Upstate sandwich shops, with a trio of them still in operation. Sauer says the restaurants are the only thing Duke Brands — which purchased the sandwich side of the business in 1923 — can rightfully own.
"Sauer Brands is the sole owner of ... the full line of Duke’s products." Sauer said in a statement. "While it had been our desire to reach an amicable resolution, we will take all necessary steps to protect the interests of our customers and preserve the integrity of the Duke’s brand."
Sauer is seeking unspecified actual and punitive damages and wants a judge to order Duke Brands to stop using its marketing materials. That includes making references to its history with Eugenia Duke, who initially sold sandwiches slathered with her tangy mayonnaise and spreads at a National Guard camp where soldiers were sent to prepare for World War I.
Duke Brands has not yet filed an answer to the lawsuit and no court date has been set in the case filed in Charlotte, where Falfurrias Capital is headquartered.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of another court battle Duke Brands and its Duke Foods subsidiary initiated against a former salesman accused of stealing the company's sandwich spread recipes. Duke Foods last month obtained a permanent injunction against the salesman and his new employer, Knott’s Fine Foods of Paris, Tenn.