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Sonic Burritos will change name to avoid trademark suit

Tue., June 13, 2006

The owner of Spokane’s Sonic Burritos is trying to raise $20,000 to change the business’s name and avoid a lawsuit from the new and much bigger guy in town, Sonic Drive-In.

Sonic Burritos has operated in Spokane for more than 10 years. In December, attorneys for Sonic Industries, which has 3,100 fast-food restaurants around the country, contacted the burrito restaurant’s 26-year-old owner and said her business name infringes on the Sonic corporate trademark.

“I had no idea who Sonic Drive-In was. They weren’t here (in Spokane) when I bought this business in 2003,” said the owner, Melissa Massie, who worked at Sonic Burritos while attending classes at Eastern Washington University. She bought the burrito shop, at 1415 N. Hamilton, from Terry Ness. A second location, on the South Hill, closed before she bought the business, she said.

Now that Sonic Drive-In has opened at 1313 N. Ruby, several blocks away, that company’s attorneys are threatening to take her to court. They’ve said they’ll seek $75,000 in damages and legal fees, said Massie.

Rather than fight, she’ll switch. But she’ll need about $20,000 to pay for attorney’s fees, new signs, incorporation under a new name, a revised Web site and other costs, Massie said.

She doesn’t want to take a $20,000 loan since she’s still paying off the purchase of Sonic Burritos.

She’s asking for contributions and donations to cover the cost, including using a Web campaign — hosted at a MySpace page built for her at www.myspace.com/sonicburrito.

About 20 area businesses have contributed gift certificates to a fundraising raffle Massie has started. The raffle on July 1 should net several thousand dollars, she said.

The threat of a lawsuit only became an issue as Sonic Industries decided to enter the Washington state market, said Christi Woodworth, a spokeswoman at the company’s Oklahoma City offices.

Spokane’s Sonic Drive-In is the first for the publicly traded corporation in Washington state. The company has several locations in southern Idaho. Woodworth said about 80 percent of all Sonic Drive-Ins are franchised, including the one in Spokane.

After consulting an attorney, Massie realized she had a difficult challenge against Sonic Industries, especially when she learned Ness had failed in 2000 to obtain a legal trademark for the name Sonic Burritos.

Ness didn’t tell her that when she bought the business, said Massie. “I’ve had to learn about trademark law the hard way,” she added.

She is planning on obtaining a trademark for a new name but won’t disclose that name until she’s finished with the process.

Woodworth said Sonic, using the name Sonic, America’s Drive-In, obtained a trademark in 1989 and continues to protect it against infringement. That’s one of the advantages it offers investors who become franchisees, she said.

The Spokane Sonic Drive-In location has been popular since it opened. The chain’s kitschy décor recreates the drive-in diners of the 1950s, complete with carhops who often wear roller skates.

Massie said customers at Sonic Burritos talk to her and encourage her not to quit the business. “People come up and tell me they’ll find people to work on my advertising,” she said.

“One person came up and gave me $20 and said he wanted to make sure we keep it going.”


 

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