The small business community in Seminole Heights is known as a tight-knit and supportive environment for entrepreneurs.
At Brew Bus, for example, a whimsical map labeled “We love the Heights” promotes neighboring shops. A sticker represents the adorably hip Spaddy’s Coffee Co. trailer, which operates a mile down Florida Avenue.
Meanwhile, Brew Bus has been suing Spaddy’s owner.
In the lawsuit filed April 15, Brew Bus, a brewery and restaurant that makes beer under the Florida Avenue Brewing Co. label, claims that Florida Avenue Eats, a new, healthy, bowl and wrap eatery from the owner of Spaddy’s, is infringing on the Florida Avenue Brewing Co. trademark.
That’s when what seemed like a small dispute between a small business and a very small business became the whole neighborhood’s business, as things tend to do in Seminole Heights.
First came the Facebook page, “Boycott Florida Avenue Brewing Co.,” a pin board for righteous indignation to live alongside funny memes skewering the lawsuit. A banner image at the top declared the brewery to be all-caps, scary, bright red “CORPORATE.”
“Claiming ownership of something you didn’t even come up with is greed. Period,” went a typical comment. “Feeling cute ... might change the name of my company to Florida Ave Air later ... IDK,” read a taunting meme posted by the owner of a local air conditioning company.
Someone posted a parody news story featuring two other neighborhood businesses headlined “Rooster & the Till sues Jug & Bottle for using Ampersand.” When the Tampa Bay Times sent a message to the Facebook page asking who was running it, someone responding would only write, “It’s an anonymous collective,” though it appears to be people from the business community.
Soon after, Spaddy’s owner Greg Spadaccini started a Gofundme page seeking money for a lawyer. In the description, Spadaccini wrote: “Not only are they taking legal action against my business Florida Avenue Eats, but they have decided sue me personally. With a newborn at home and incurring the recent expenses of a new restaurant buildout, I simply do not have the funds to personally protect myself and my family legally.”
Many Gofundme campaigns wither and die. This one snowballed. As of Wednesday, nearly 200 donations had totaled more than $7,000 of a $10,000 goal. The indignant residents of this hip, gentrifying Tampa community put their money where their keyboards were.
Spadaccini added in the Gofundme description that “Florida Avenue is a public road, one of Tampa’s longest stretching business roads, and the road we operate business on. Adding the name ‘Florida Avenue’ to the name of a business is not in any way unique and should not prohibit business owners like myself from operating under that naming convention.”
Wrong, said Dan Ravicher, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law who grew up in Tampa. He has no direct role in the situation.
“I respect customers’ right to boycott,” Ravicher said, “but on the face of this, I can’t see anything that Florida Avenue Brewing has done wrong, and I don’t believe their claims are frivolous. I can understand why people might think it sounds ridiculous, but under trademark law, it’s not.”
A business can acquire a trademark that includes a geographic location if it has been using it for five years, Ravicher said. Documents show the company filed for and was awarded the federal trademark for the name in 2014. Brew Bus has produced beer commercially under the name since 2010. That, Ravicher said, makes their claim on it presumably "incontestable."
“We make a presumption in trademark law that, at that point, people associate you with that name,” he said. “They’re going to argue that consumers could be confused by Florida Avenue Eats.”
State records show that at least 11 active business entities in Tampa use “Florida Avenue” in their name, though Brew Bus would have a hard time claiming customers seeking a pint of its Passion of the Heights wheat ale would accidentally wander in to, for example, Florida Avenue Cleaners.
Florida Avenue Eats could try to defend itself by proving in an expensive court battle that people couldn’t possibly confuse its business with Florida Avenue Brewing, Ravicher said. Small businesses rarely have the funds to take it that far.
The lawsuit also claims Spadaccini contacted Brew Bus founder and CEO Anthony Derby to ask about using the name Florida Avenue Eats. When he was told no, he went ahead with it anyway, according to the complaint. If there’s proof of that, Ravicher said it would bode badly for Spadaccini in court, because it would show he knew there was an issue.
Prominent Tampa strip club owner Joe Redner, who owns Brew Bus and Florida Avenue Brewing Co., said he gets why people were upset.
“A lot of people don’t understand the nuances,” Redner said. “They think there’s no conflict, and at first blush, that’s what I thought, too. But there seems to be a conflict because we serve food. You know, if you have a trademark and you don’t defend it, you lose it, so we had advice from a lawyer that we could lose it.
“I really didn’t like going after these people, but you have to defend your trademark.”
The whole matter will soon be settled, he said, with Florida Avenue Eats changing its name.
“They contacted us, and they submitted some names,” he said. “I think we’ve found a name that could be agreeable.”
Derby confirmed that a settlement is close, though it’s not a done deal yet.
Though they have heard from some upset residents, Derby said, “our numbers have not changed at all.”
“It’s very regrettable in the sense that we’re friends,” Derby said. “We’re two young business owners in the neighborhood. It’s sad. We’re just trying to repair and move on.”
Spadaccini echoed that in an email.
“My relationship with Anthony and Brew Bus is one of mutual respect,” he wrote. ... “We are very thankful for the help of our community.”
He was able to hire a lawyer a day after his Gofundme page went up, he said, and that if any money is left over he’ll give it back to donors, or give it back to the community in some way.
Contact Christopher Spata at email@example.com or follow @spatatimes on Twitter.