Wesley Heights newcomer La Forchetta has decided to change its name this summer, rather than risk a legal battle with La Fourchette. The Adams Morgan French restaurant sent a letter to La Forchetta three months back complaining about the similarities between the two names — the second name-related controversy the Italian restaurant went through upon opening in April, thanks to its logo that's an exact copy of that of a Venezuelan restaurant.
La Forchetta owner Hakan Ilhan tells Eater that La Fourchette had not filed a lawsuit and that he was not legally required to change the name — in fact, he says he felt he would have had a strong case had it gone to trial. That said, he says he decided to go ahead and change the name anyway because, "we just didn't want to have a fight with a restaurant that's been in business for 30 years. It just would not make much business sense."
So beginning July 23 through August 15, the public will be able to submit ideas for a new name through the restaurant's website. While the winning name may not necessarily be the name of the restaurant — Ilhan says he has a few names in mind already — the best name submitted will still win $2,000 for the charity of the winner's choice. In the following Q&A, Ilhan explains his decision to change the name and what will become of that logo.
Did you ever receive the letter from La Fourchette?
We received a letter from their attorney asking us to give up the Forchetta name. They were claiming that it was causing confusion amongst their customers. We had a meeting with our attorneys and we looked at the merits of the case. We could fight this, of course, assuming they would pursue it. It wasn't very clear if they would.
But you know to be honest with you I really didn't want to have a fight with a restaurant that has been in business for 30 years. So we decided to forget about it and get a new name and start fresh. At the end of the day, people come for the food that you serve, not the name that you have.
Did they end up pursuing the case?
No. We talked to them and we told them we were going to change the name end of August and they were OK with that. But there's no lawsuit or anything like that that's been filed.
So in no way were you legally required...
No, at the moment we are not. If it went to trial, we had a lot going for our case, the fact that it's trademarked, the fact that it's two different languages, the fact that it's two different cuisine and the fact that it's two different neighborhoods. We felt that legally for a battle we probably would fare well. But that really is not the point. The point was do we really want to get into a fight with a neighborhood restaurant like they are in Adams Morgan? And we are a neighborhood restaurant. I felt that taking the high road would pay off better than fighting this thing.
Considering this first came to light in April, I'm just wondering what happened over the last three months. Your statement to Washingtonian seemed you were pretty determined to keep with the name.
Yes, we were. Things change. At the end of the interview with Washingtonian, I was under the impression that we had the name trademarked and that's that and these are two different languages. But it evolved into more of a media thing. As I said, there's no legal obligations for us to do it, there's no lawsuit or anything like that has been filed. But it's not a good business track to have a fight. At the end of the day, it is a name. I'm much more focused on trying to please my customers rather than trying to fight a name that at the end of the day doesn't mean much.
We are running a competition as you know and we have a prize. We are going to get the community involved. Of course, we have some names on the drawing board that we are looking at. Even if we don't choose the one that people recommend, we will award the $2000 to the runner-up and we might use that for a different project.
Of course, this is costing a lot of money. I guess the initial hesitation on our part was all the signage has to be changed, the uniforms, all the packaging. All these kind of things do add up. I think this is going to end up being close to a $50,000 price tag on it. It's not easy to just change the name. What we're going to do because we want this thing to be as seamless as possible, we are going to have everything changed overnight. That means all the signage has to be made brand new.
So are you going to be changing the logo too? I remember the last time you and I talked it was about the logo.
Right. We are tweaking that around. As you know, it was a fork on top, Forchetta referencing to the fork with a swoop right underneath. What we are going to be doing, whatever the name that we choose, we are going to keep the fork on top, but the bottom we are going to turn that into a knife. So it's going to be a fork and a knife and the name of the restaurant will be in between like a plate. So yes of course it's changing the logo.
When we talked about the logo you said you didn't know about the Venezuelan restaurant and you were going to ask your designer. Did you?
I did, of course, His response was this is a logo that is not in the US and it wouldn't have confused anyone. I told him at least you could have changed the font on it, not just cut-and-paste. Of course, we had a heated conversation nonetheless and he won't be working for us anymore.
So why not just change the logo entirely rather than just tweak the bottom?
Well, it fits the canopy we have, the way it kind of curves. But of course, at the end of the day, we really don't know 100 percent what name that's going to be. It might be a name that totally doesn't fit in. It's not concrete. That's what I'm thinking right now. It depends what name we really choose. It might be a name that doesn't really match the knife and fork. Let's say we choose a name, I'm giving you an example, a flower name in Italian. You can't really put a knife and fork on the bottom of it. So the name is going to determine it.
Why put it up for a public vote?
Well, to get the people involved and create an awareness that we are changing the name and get them interested. Putting out the fact that the only thing that is changing is the name. Our menu and menu prices and our executive chef, everything is status quo. Sometimes you really get great ideas from your customers. I think it's all good to get the people involved and also you might get a great name that you never thought about.
If you were so concerned about trademarks, how did you not Google the name and come across that logo in Venezuela and the La Fourchette issue?
On the logo part, you know, when you google La Forchetta you get maybe 100 or 150 of them throughout the world. You google them, you look at them, but I never really looked at the logos. Had I seen it, we would probably change the font at least if we decided to go that route, if we liked it that much. I hadn't seen it because I really didn't open up all the websites we were looking at. When I googled La Forchetta, I googled it to see whether there was any in this area or in the US. I wasn't really interested in the overseas part. I don't even think that we ever clicked on the link, the Forchetta in Venezuela.
La Fourchette, as I said in Washingtonian interview, of course I was aware of it because it comes up when you google it. But I just simply didn't put two thoughts together on that one. Expensive mistake on my part, right? We did a lot of things right, but it's just an oversight and we certainly don't want to have a public fight about this in the media. We don't want to get dragged into this. This is very bad for business. That really is the reason to be honest with you. I don't know La Fourchette. I never met them personally. I know they've been in business for so many years and they have that location. It's best to just move on.
Was La Fourchette threatening to do more, to make it public?
When you get a letter from an attorney [there's] of course always a threat of take this further. But I personally was a little concerned if there were other elements involved with this. To be honest with you, I think with all the media attention we were getting, if anything it must have helped La Fourchette. If it was me, when you have La Forchetta with a James Beard Award winning chef, I kind of like to write it, you know? They didn't lose a penny in business because of La Forchetta. They may have gained some. If anything, it was probably hurting me.
So do you think it was an opportunistic thing they were doing?
I don't know. I don't want to say anything like that. I really don't know what was going on in their minds. I only had to think from our purposes, do we want to get into this fight if there is any fight? They might have just left it as it is. I don't know what they were thinking, what was in their minds. But I know one thing: They didn't lose a penny because of La Forchetta.
You said you were personally concerned there were other elements involved. What other elements?
I don't know if there were other stuff because there were some opposition to our liquor license initially in the Wesley Heights area. Everything comes to mind. I don't have any evidence to think that way, but when you get a letter like that that doesn't make sense to you, you kind of start thinking, "Is there something else that you don't know?" But I have no evidence there are any other people involved with this. But one tends to wonder why.
I think it's best. It was, of course, a tough decision because we are in business and the restaurant is doing very well. This is kind of an awkward situation to be in. We will overcome this and people will forget about Forchetta name.
La Forchetta, but not for long [Photo: R. Lopez]