Small Roaster Beats Starbucks Over Their Charbucks Blend

from the cool-beans dept

If you’re like me, you’d be surprised to learn how much legal action exists surrounding sweet, sweet java. See, I love coffee. It’s what makes my morning routine work, like the on button of my entire day. On the other hand, once I’ve worked myself up into a caffeine-driven frenzy, I really hate to see overly-aggressive intellectual property actions. Yet that’s exactly what I’m dealing with today, reading about how megalithic Starbucks went after a tiny New Hampshire coffee roaster over one of their blends, Charbucks.

“We’re just a mom-and-pop little roastery,” said Annie Clark, who with her husband, Jim, owns Black Bear Micro Roastery in Tuftonboro. They were sued in 2001 in federal district court in New York by Starbucks, which alleged Black Bear’s use of the name “Charbucks” infringed, blurred and tarnished its famous trademarks.

So why did Black Bear offer a brew called Charbucks? Well, apparently there’s something of a public perception that Starbucks roasted beans appeared to be abnormally dark in color, indicating something or other about their quality. In other words, it was a gentle jab at a Goliath-like company from a roasting David. The name only worked to begin with as a distinction between the quality of Starbucks beans and Black Bear beans. That didn’t stop Starbucks from suing for trademark infringement, however, and then following up with an appeal when Black Bear won round one in court. Fortunately, the appeals court agreed with the original ruling.

The appeals court noted that “one of the reasons Black Bear used the term ‘Charbucks’ was the public perception that Starbucks roasted its beans unusually darkly.” But it agreed with the district court in finding minimal similarity and weak evidence of actual association between the brands.

“Their sales haven’t been hurt,” Clark said, noting that Black Bear’s haven’t changed much over the years. “Their growth hasn’t been hurt.”

In other words, no harm no foul, particularly given that the name of the brew required customers to make a distinction between the brands. Starbucks has since offered some quotes to sound reasonable about their claim, and indeed it appears they were not seeking any monetary damages, but this was still a silly move to begin with. No need to jump at shadows, Starbucks. Perhaps you’ve been drinking too much of your own coffee.

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Companies: black bear, starbucks

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Comments on “Small Roaster Beats Starbucks Over Their Charbucks Blend”

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John Fendersonsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Charbucks

In large swaths of the country, there is almost no good coffee to be had at all. Starbucks coffee isn’t great, but it’s better than the alternatives in those areas. I understand their success there.

What I don’t understand, and will probably never understand, is how so many Starbucks can stay in business in the parts of the country which are blessed to have really excellent coffee available. Places like Seattle, for instance.

John Fendersonsays:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re: Re: Re: Re: Charbucks

There is no arguing that there are an awful lot of Starbucks in Seattle. Not as many as in some other places, but still. They’re selling coffee to somebody.

There is great coffee available outside of Seattle. In fact, the top five best coffee places I’ve ever been in aren’t even in the state of Washington. However, I’m not so sure there is any great coffee outside of the Pacific Northwest at all. At least, I haven’t found it.


The first time I heard the term “Charbucks” was from legendary coffee diety George Howell. He used it in interviews back in the early 90s when S-bucks was expanding into the Boston area for the first time, and Howell’s Coffee Connection was standing in its way. Sadly, Howell eventually sold out (for a reported $45 million) and soon Coffee Connection was no more. (Damn you Howard Schultz, Damn you to Hell!)

I would totally buy a coffee called “charbucks.” I would not be confused about where it came from.


Starbucks 'Coffee'

For people that like the flavor of coffee, rather than having egos tied up in it, Starbucks is a nonstarter. There is good strong coffee, and then there is Starbucks. There are really good dark roasts, and then there is Starbucks. I’ve tried to guess what the secret to their signature flavor might be: is it rinsing the coffee through an ashtray or a gas station urinal?

Seriously, I think the coffee taste is just great marketing. No-one with working tastebuds is going to want to taste a $3 Starbucks black coffee, so you pay $5-7 for a donkeyload of flavoring, caramel, and whipped cream to cover it up.


I mean, if you're into burnt stuff...

Being an ex employee of SB’s, they just about killed my like of coffee. They burn their coffee IMO, it’s way too roasted and ultra bitter. Even the espresso shots by themselves were too strong.

Most anyone I ever came across liked them for the name and what you may call ambiance(Yes, people get all uppity when they are carrying a Grande Latte for some fool hardy reason), and occasionally a specific latte. I’ve found more to like in local coffee shops that have better staff and better atmosphere than any SB’s I’ve ever been in.

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