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'Taco Tuesday' Trademark Tussle

Marketing: The owners of Tortilla Flats restaurant file suit alleging rivals have usurped their slogan.

July 23, 1997|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — For years, lawyers for the 48-year-old Tortilla Flats restaurant have been firing off warnings to rivals that use its trademark "Taco Tuesday" promotional slogan.

On Tuesday, the Mexican restaurant's owners escalated their battle, filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit attempting to banish the phrase from the advertising and menus of eight competitors once and for all.

Steve and Ellen Levinson, who bought the Coast Highway landmark in Laguna Beach in 1972, began spicing up Tuesday nights a decade later with 47-cent tacos to lure singles into the bar.

The promotion was so successful that they made the name a trademark in 1984, and Taco Tuesdays became a key part of a second Tortilla Flats that opened in Mission Viejo in 1985.

"We took the slowest night of the week, and it's now our biggest night of the week by 40%," Steve Levinson said.

All this was duly noted--and imitated--by competitors, according to the suit. And the Levinsons say they have waged a battle of threatening letters ever since to protect their Taco Tuesday exclusivity.

A bigger gun came out this Tuesday: a lawsuit in Santa Ana federal court. The El Torito chain, owned by Family Restaurants Inc. of Irvine, and seven other Orange County restaurants are accused of trademark infringement, unfair competition, false advertising, defamation and other offenses.

Some had promised to banish the words Taco Tuesdays, but kept using them on the sly, the suit contends.

"We're not trying to stop anyone from selling cheap tacos on Tuesday night," said Levinson lawyer William E. Levin of Laguna Beach. "It's the trademark we're concerned about--calling it Taco Tuesday or something close to that."

In addition to a court order cracking down on illicit taco promotions, the Levinson's are seeking $3 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.

Several competitors contacted for comment seemed taken by surprise.

El Torito said it ended its Taco Tuesdays in 1991, renaming the nights Taco Mania.

Family Restaurants general counsel Todd Doyle said he's aware of no recent Tortilla Flats beefs about unauthorized use of the trademark orally, on menus or in advertisements.

At Casey's Back Alley Bar and Grill in Orange, manager Dave Prieto said the first he heard of any complaints was when a reporter told him the restaurant was a defendant in the federal suit. The action is unnecessary, he said, since Casey's already had banished its giveaway taco nights as too expensive.

Others characterized the suit as, well, loco, given the extent to which Taco Tuesdays apparently now pervade popular culture.

"Give me a break. Everybody has Taco Tuesdays," said Cathay Seabol, a waitress at La Siesta Mexican Food in San Clemente, one of the defendants.

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