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Starbucks sued for allegedly ripping off coffee-flavored lip balm idea

Oct. 28, 2022 Updated Fri., Oct. 28, 2022 at 10:33 p.m.

An employee hands a bag to a customer at the drive-thru of a Starbucks coffee shop in Hercules, California.  (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg )
An employee hands a bag to a customer at the drive-thru of a Starbucks coffee shop in Hercules, California. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg )
By Renata Geraldo Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Dr. Oz and a lip balm maker walk into a Starbucks. The punchline: A lawsuit is filed.

Coffee-flavored lip balm is at the center of a legal dispute between Starbucks and a relative of Mehmet Oz, who is popularly known as Dr. Oz and is currently running for Senate in Pennsylvania.

Nearly five years ago, Oz helped his sister-in-law and actress Samantha Lemole connect with Starbucks for a pitch meeting in New York. Now, Lemole’s company alleges that the Seattle-based coffee giant didn’t keep its word, and it stole, manufactured and sold its product concept.

Representatives for Oz did not respond to inquiries.

A Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement that the claims are without merit. “We look forward to presenting our case in court,” the spokesperson said.

According to a federal lawsuit filed last week, Lemole was a managing member at Balmuccino, a coffee-flavored lip balm company based in Los Angeles. The company was searching for a partner that could help manufacture and sell its products. Oz connected her with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who allegedly directed her to the then-head of product development and senior vice president, Mesh Gelman.

Lemole brought a pitch deck and prototypes to a meeting with Starbucks executives and asked them to sign a nondisclosure agreement, according to the suit filed in Western Washington District Court. The executives allegedly “deflected,” claiming the relationship between Schultz and Oz was enough protection.

The lawsuit alleges that Gelman questioned Balmuccino representatives about their concepts and products, the creation process, and the different flavor possibilities during the pitch meeting. Balmuccino also shared the names of its material suppliers and manufacturers.

At the end of the meeting, Gelman “asked if he could hold on to the pitch deck so that he could run the idea ‘up the flagpole’ and explore the possibility of a partnership moving forward,” the complaint states.

Gelman did not respond to inquiries.

Two weeks later, Gelman left Starbucks without informing Balmuccino representatives of the status of the product pitch, according to the suit.

In 2018, suppliers told Balmuccino that Starbucks had reached out to them to inquire about coffee-flavored lip balms, and the specifications received by a potential manufacturer for these prototypes were identical to Balmuccino’s given to Gelman during the 2017 meeting, the suit says.

Starbucks allegedly used Balmuccino’s concept and launched in 2019 a limited-edition kit of four lip glosses that smelled and tasted like s’mores Frappuccinos: Chocolicious Bliss, Marshmallow Glow, Campfire Spark and Graham Glam. The Frappuccino flavor was discontinued in 2021.

Balmuccino is suing Starbucks for damages for stealing, manufacturing and selling its products. It claims it suffered at least $75,000 in damages, the complaint alleges. Balmuccino originally filed a suit against Starbucks in a California state court in 2019, but it was dismissed the following year.

The case was dismissed in California because the court ruled that it was outside Starbucks’ jurisdiction, said Balmuccino’s lawyer Eduardo Matorell in an email. Matorell added the case now will proceed on its merits since it has been filed in Washington. He had no additional comments on the litigation.

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