Our names are fundamental to our identities. They’re our calling card. Some say they’re our favorite word to hear. Maybe it’s a load of hoopla, but I get the impression I’d be a different sort of guy if I was a Tim or a Hugh. I’m defined by an intrinsic “Jack-ness,” however lame I know that sounds. All this means to say is—I can see why somebody might get a little funny when another starts to muck with their name. So we see Railtown Brewing getting understandably defensive as a new brewery is poised to open close by with a similar name.
In December 2014, owners Justin Buiter and Gim Lee founded Railtown with a dream like many startups in the industry: sell enough beer to quit their day jobs. Two weeks after opening their doors, they turned in letters of resignation to their former employers and haven’t looked back. This past July, they made a big move, expanding into a pole barn megaplex that can fit twice the number of Railtown enthusiasts. Their steady growth and support from the community has exceeded their wildest expectations. I’d call it karma paying out dividends to two happy-go-lucky guys who deserve success.
That said, with such success comes the need to protect their brand, which brings us to their yet-to-be competitor Railbird Taphouse and Brewery where a couple obvious questions arise. Are the names too close for comfort? And to go Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Maybe. Unfortunately, when entering the arena of intellectual property things get a little hairier than the soliloquies of star-crossed lovers.
Railtown is alleging four counts of trademark infringement in a consumer confusion case substantiated by several accounts where people are already mixing the two up. The examples range from employment applications inquiring and implying the two are under the same ownership to patrons wondering why Railtown would want to open two locations at once. Railbird argues that this confusion could be handled through consumer education, and that Railtown doesn’t own exclusive rights to the word “rail.” Joel Baar, Railbird’s lawyer, made a distinction between the industrial and the aviary, “In fact, most of the beer-related businesses that use “rail” as a formative part of their mark have a clear railroad industry connotation.” True, but there’s a larger issue at hand. Is ten miles a far enough degree of separation to prevent people from making associations they shouldn’t? The jury’s out on this one for now.
Railtown’s end game is pretty simple, without much wiggle room for a middle ground—Railbird needs to change their name. “We registered first, we trademarked first, we operate in the same industry, and we’re drawing from the exact same consumer base,” Buiter said. When put that way, it does look pretty cut and dry. “We’re basically neighbors and we have very similar names.”
But in talking with Buiter, you can tell he didn’t want it to go this way. Early on he met with members of Railbird to hear their story and hammer out a solution over a couple pints. “We were recently in the startup phase, about three and a half years ago, on a really tight budget. We know what it’s like. We didn’t want this to put them in a position preventing them from opening up their doors.”
Buiter extended an olive branch. “We offered to assist them with rebranding and the associated fees. We wanted to get them in a good spot moving forward, but they had no interest in changing their name.” Instead Railbird moved forward with the name showing no indication of folding. Aware of their infringement on the Railtown trademark, they dismissed those concerns, deeming Railtown—in their words—as “just a strip mall brewery.” Insult aside, should the size of another brewery determine how creative you are when coming up with a business name?
It is, at the very least, an awful coincidence how clearly Railbird’s name parallels Railtown’s, and how perfectly it aligns with a slice of Byron Center history. Taking home in the old Byron Hotel, Railbird sought to honor the legacy of ‘The Chicken’, both the meal and the goofy statue that stood guard out front as a roadside attraction. Positioned with a view of the Kent trails, the term railbird—a person who spectates, usually at a horse race—effectively kills two birds with one stone. In a statement sent to MittenBrew, Railbird said, “Given our location, the fact that no one owns the word “rail,” and the homage we desire to pay to The Chicken, we can think of no better name for our taphouse than Railbird Taphouse & Brewery.”
While it is a good name, it comes off as perplexing that Railbird would pour money into court fees and dig their heels into a brand they’ve hardly established, especially before even opening. Just recently we’ve seen another brewery handle a similar situation with a touch more grace. Formerly known as Kings Brewing, this first African-American owned brewery in Michigan got a call from another Kings Brewery based out of California. Obviously the name was taken. Opting for the populist route, FKA Kings let its fans take the reigns, hosting a competition to see who could devise the best new name. It was a bright move that deepened their consumer relations while maneuvering them out of a tight spot too.
We should also note the large helping of irony to this whole situation. Railtown originally formed under the LLC Grinning Mitten only to scrap the name after deciding it best to avoid conflict and confusion in the marketplace with fellow Michigan brewery, The Mitten Brewing Company. In regards to the switch, Buiter reflects on it matter of factly, “It’s in everyone’s best interest to have a unique name for their business.” I imagine it must be frustrating for Railtown to watch a new brewery mire themselves in a problem they were able to so easily sidestep.
In an industry which prides itself on camaraderie and community, it’s odd that Railbird would stay staunchly opposed to any sort of compromise from the get-go. Whether in the circuit court or the court of public opinion, a stubbornness to adapt could be their downfall. The craft beer industry is booming, with plenty of room left for fresh faces to join the fray. It’s important that these voices come from original places.