2023 is shaping up to be a great year for Krystal Mack, owner of the Trash Panda Vegan food truck.
In February, his business was an approved vendor for the Super Bowl LVII Business Connect program. She applied for a national trademark license for Trash Panda Vegan in 2022, and was eager to expand her small business beyond Arizona.
In August, Mack received a cease and desist letter from Panda Restaurant Group Inc., the parent company of Panda Inn, Panda Express and Hibachi-San. The letter points out that his vegan food truck is encroaching on a global fast-food franchise.
The corporation has filed a lawsuit against a pending trademark for Trash Panda Vegan, arguing that the food truck’s logo, name and general business are too similar to Panda Express and therefore harmful to the brand, according to court documents obtained by The Arizona Republic.
“We’ve never been asked if we’re Panda Express,” Mack told the Republic. “No one has ever confused us with that.”
Panda Express claims the Trash Panda Vegan will “confuse” customers
In the notice of opposition – which names Panda Restaurant Group as the “Opposer” and Trash Panda Vegan as the Petitioner – Panda claims that the target audience for both its brands and Trash Panda Vegan are the same type of consumers and that by using a similar product, the name, vegan food truck will create “confusion, error or deception” by causing the public to mistakenly assume or believe that the Services originate from, or are endorsed, licensed or sponsored by, affiliated with, or in any way related to, Panda. It’s about Panda.”
Mack told The Republic that he believes Panda Express is using its limited vegan menu items to help its argument.
The Republic has contacted Panda Restaurant Group’s attorney Masahiro Noda for comment. Noda had not responded at the time of writing.
Vegan options at Panda Express include vegetable broths and eggplant tofu, which are only available at select locations. The corporation has also introduced several limited-time products in recent years, such as vegan orange chicken, which is no longer available.
“A lot of businesses are getting into the billion-dollar circle that vegetarians are making now just to make money, when it’s our way of life all the time,” Mack said. The Garbage Panda Vegan menu lacks Asian-inspired dishes, as Mack’s offerings focus on plant-based dishes based on soul food classics like sliders, mac and cheese, and chicken wings.
“Opposer is a world leader in Asian dining experiences and offers gourmet Chinese cuisine, including restaurant services, cafe services, catering services, tea bar services and vegan meals,” said the Notice of Opposition, which is currently pending trademark litigation and appeal. board.
“We don’t take anything from them”
The document further states: “Applicant’s Mark and Opponent’s PANDA Marks are very similar in general appearance, sound and commercial feel. Applicant’s Mark application covers services substantially identical to those to which Opponent has rights in the PANDA Marks.”
Panda Express’s trademark logo features a panda cub inside a concentric circle.
Trash Panda Vegan’s logo depicts a cartoon panda sitting on a trash can and holding a burger.
There was also an alternate Garbage Panda Vegan logo designed for the Super Bowl. This logo features a panda holding a football instead of a burger, a pink and turquoise circle around it that is meant to represent Arizona, and uses a color palette similar to the other Superstates. Bowl LVII stamp. An alternate version of the logo was used on limited-edition shirts and merchandise after Trash Panda Vegan was selected as the NFL’s approved supplier.
“We just wanted to have the opportunity to grow and now it’s happening,” Mack said. “We’ve spent a lot of money, resources and time building the brand to where it is today, and starting all over again is bad for business.”
Mack said Panda Express initially asked him to withdraw the trademark application entirely. But he’s been in business as Trash Panda Vegan since 2019 and had to relaunch the brand without the name that fans of his food know and recognize him as.
“Trash panda” is a slang term for a raccoon, Mack explained, but he used a real panda in his logo because he thought it would be cuter. While he is willing to revise his logo, he said the name is very important to his business.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want to do any of that. They’re telling me, ‘I’m allowed to do this with what I’ve got,'” Mack said. “A big giant corporation wants to put their foot down on us and stop us from growing, and it’s like we’re not taking anything from them.”
Panda Restaurant Group has a history of lawsuits against small businesses
This isn’t the first time Panda Restaurant Group has taken legal action against a local business in Arizona. In 2020, the chain sued Panda Libre, a Mexican-Asian fusion restaurant in Gilbert.
“It’s not like every panda is a Panda Express,” Panda Libre owner Paul Fan told The Republic in January 2020.
After months of going back and forth between the two establishments, Fan decided to rebrand the restaurant with a new menu and concept.
Kung Pow closed permanently in October 2021.
Panda Restaurant Group recently went after a family-owned restaurant in California and forced them to change their business name from Panda Panda Chinese to Bamboo Bamboo Chinese, according to SFGATE.
Panda Express reportedly trademarked the word “Panda” in 2001 for all uses related to Chinese cuisine. How this will affect restaurants and food businesses that don’t serve Chinese food like Mack’s still remains to be seen.
What’s next for Trash Panda Vegan?
Mack said she will fight to keep the business as Trash Panda Vegan as long as she can, but fears that her ability to pay legal fees will run out long before the corporation will.
“I’m asking people to come support us at the restaurant (his brick-and-mortar, Early Bird Vegan) and food truck, because it all makes a difference,” Mack said. “Because we need it, you know, we’ve spent some money on legal fees and I’m sure there’s more to come. And we want to be here to fight.”
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