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Buffett Claims Restaurant Parroted Name

March 20, 1997|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How much is a Cheeseburger in Paradise worth?

Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett and two Orange-based restaurant operators are squaring off in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to find out.

The longtime performer known for his laid-back, Key West point of view has sued Edna Bayliff and Laren Gartner, alleging that they illegally used the title of his 1978 hit single "Cheeseburger in Paradise" for the name of a popular eatery and bar on Maui that opened in 1989.

Buffett's Beverly Hills-based spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages and demands that the restaurant change its name and abandon trademark protection granted in 1993.

But a New York attorney representing the Orange businesswomen argued that the suit lacks merit because the restaurant has been serving its cheeseburgers since Oct. 25, 1989, and the U.S. Trademark Office granted the women a trademark for the restaurant's name in 1993.

"My clients' reaction to the suit is that they wish Mr. Buffett well," said attorney James Swire. "He has great songs, but we wish he'd leave us alone."

Swire characterized the lawsuit as the latest chapter in an ongoing dispute between the restaurant owners and Buffett, who, in contrast to his onstage reputation as an aging hippie, runs a thriving business empire that grosses an estimated $50 million annually, according to Forbes magazine.

Swire maintained that his clients have owned rights to the restaurant and bar name since 1993, when they successfully petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a "service mark" that recognizes their legal right to use "Cheeseburger in Paradise" in the restaurant industry.

"Before the [trademark] was granted, Mr. Buffett had a chance to oppose," Swire said. "But he didn't. So I'm not sure why he's objecting with a lawsuit eight years after the restaurant opened."

The women said in previous interviews that they took the name from Buffett's song "with Jimmy Buffett's blessing" according to the restaurant's Web page.

Observers said that Buffett's recent legal maneuvering in connection with Cheeseburger in Paradise might be related to plans for a second Cheeseburger in Paradise location planned for Newport Beach.

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Buffett, whose thousands of fans--called Parrotheads--fill large outdoor venues such as Irvine Meadows, earns a huge chunk of his annual revenue from live performances with his Coral Reefer Band, regularly one of the nation's top-grossing acts.

But Buffett and partners also operate restaurants in Key West, Fla., and New Orleans and produce an apparel line, and he once served as a spokesman for a Mexican beer brand. He also has written several books and produced a children's recording.

The suit, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles, claims that the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant that mainlanders Gartner and Bayliff opened on Front Street in Lahaina, was stolen from a paean to cheeseburgers that includes the lines:

"Cheeseburgers in paradise, heaven on earth with an onion slice, not too particular, not too precise, I'm just a cheeseburger in paradise."

Plans for a second Cheeseburger in Paradise location on the mainland might clash with plans that Buffett has for his own eateries, restaurant observers said. He now operates two restaurants--both called Margaritaville, after a hit song of the same name--in Key West and New Orleans.

Quipped one restaurant industry observer: "Maybe Buffett recognized that California is a noticeably bigger market than Hawaii."

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