Subway's mistake over Coney Island Drive Inn's 'footlong' leaves a bad taste

The people at Subway's corporate headquarters would like to clarify.

They only bully small, independent sandwich restaurants. They never meant to bully a small, independent hot dog restaurant, Brooksville's Coney Island Drive Inn.

"We're looking to trademark 'footlong' for sandwiches, so the cease and desist (letter) sent to Coney Island was sent in error,'' company spokesman Kevin Kane said on Monday.

A representative from the chain's legal department — which last week had ordered Coney Island owner Blair Hensley to stop using the term "footlong'' in his advertising — called Monday to tell him it was all a mistake.

"Certainly, they didn't intend to cause the owner any concern or hard feelings,'' Kane said.

Sure. A corporation with nearly 33,000 restaurants — more, even, than McDonald's — sends a letter to a guy who owns one. This letter orders him to stop using a common term that he's built his business around and implies that if he doesn't he'll end up in federal court.

That's not "concern'' for a small business owner. That's the kind of internal distress you might get from eating eight loaded footlongs — the Drive Inn's current record — which may or may not be an apt comparison, but does give you an idea what kind of place this is. The records are up on the wall, in chalk, just because it might be fun to watch somebody go after one of them.

Hensley's distress turned out to be briefer and less severe, maybe like that of the guy who set the restaurant standard of 30 chicken wings (not such a vulnerable mark as you might think, Hensley said; the wings are big).

By Monday, he and his customers knew there would be no restrictions on calling Coney Island what it is and always would have been regardless of how this all played out: Brooksville's "Home of the Footlong.'' Mostly, what he got out of it was lots of free publicity.

Sunday's column about Subway's letter spread far and wide on the Internet. Current and former Brooksvillians have sent angry e-mails to the chain's corporate headquarters in Connecticut or offered to pay Hensley's legal bills. A Facebook page devoted to organizing a boycott of Subway on Coney Island's behalf collected 190 friends in six hours.

"The joyful thing has been seeing the community rally in support,'' Hensley said.

There's no joy on the other end of that rally, said Donni Wurster, who has been a partner in the Brooksville Subway franchise since 1986, and until this week wasn't even aware of the chain's trademark claim on the word "footlong.''

"I don't agree with it. I don't think it's necessary,'' she said. Sandwich shops and hot dog stands "using this word are hardly a threat.''

The publicity was so bad, in fact, you wonder if the company's admission of "error'' on Monday was really backpedaling.

After all, lawyers should have seen from the start that they were dealing with a hot dog stand. The very name, Coney Island, means a dog with meat sauce. Visit the website and you see nothing but hot dogs, be they with kraut, chili, onions, or, in the case of the Diggity Dog — the restaurant's 1970s-era cartoon mascot — arms, legs and a chef's hat.

To be fair, though, there are also signs that Subway's order really was just a case of corporate cluelessness.

Coney Island's website, for instance, jokingly refers to its location as "Brooksvegas,'' which is how Subway dutifully addressed its letter.

Also, a search of databases by a Times researcher turned up no other stories about similar letters. Probably there aren't as many sandwich shops as hot dog stands using the word "footlongs.'' And if the company really is just targeting sandwich shops, it stands to reason that it hasn't had to send its legal kneecap busters around to too many other small business owners (which, without revealing the exact number, Kane confirmed).

That doesn't change the fact that Subway's claim to exclusive right to use "footlong'' is, as Wurster said, unnecessary. It's also a guaranteed loser from a public relations standpoint and legally dubious.

Footlong is, after all, a measure of size, that the public or other companies should have the right to use regardless of what it's selling. If any company needs to cease and desist, I'd say it's Subway.

Subway's mistake over Coney Island Drive Inn's 'footlong' leaves a bad taste 05/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 8:54pm]

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