Friday, April 11, 2008

Story of the Week - April 7-11

Waffle Kerfuffle

Here's something I learned this week that I never knew before: chicken and waffles is a popular dish. Very popular, in fact. And I'm not sure how I feel about that. I mean, one minute I think, "hm, sounds good," and the next minute I think "no, it's either breakfast, or it's dinner, but you can't mix them." On the other hand I think maybe you can.

Regardless of what I think, this dish previously unbeknownst to me is well beknownst to others and has a rich and diverse history and even mythology behind it. But that's not why it's an essential part of Story of the Week.

The story of the week involves a pair of restaurants that specialize in Chicken and Waffles - Roscoe's House of Chicken n' Waffles in California (actually a chain of restaurants), and Rosscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in Chicago. Roscoe's sued Rosscoe's for trademark infringement, and won. First though, the curious history of Chicken and Waffles.

The curious history of Chicken and Waffles may have begun in the late 18th century, when Thomas Jefferson brought a waffle iron back to America from Paris. Soon after, chicken and waffles started appearing in southern cookbooks.

But some say the waffle iron was brought over earlier by German and Dutch settlers and to attribute its arrival with Thomas Jefferson is silly. The Pennsylvania Dutch to this day put creamed chicken on waffles and possibly a host of other savory ingredients once found their way onto the indented delights. The traditional Chicken and Waffles dish may also have originated in the south as a luxury meal for newly freed African American slaves, who subsisted mostly on table scraps.

Of course, not everyone agrees on that origin. Many historians aren't certain at all and often go back and forth ascribing to different theories. There is little consensus to be found until the 1930s, when Chicken and Waffles went through a renaissance in Harlem, at the famous Wells Supper Club.

Wells was frequented by the likes of Miles Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr, and Frank Sinatra. The restaurant was famous for staying open late. So late, in fact, that in the wee hours its clientele struggled to decide between breakfast and dinner. Wells didn't want to see its clients risk ordering dinner only to regret not ordering breakfast. Instead (perhaps hearkening back to old southern traditions, and perhaps not, then again perhaps...or not) Wells compromised, slapping down some fried chicken on top of a waffle, and the dish was born again.

In the early 1970s, Herb Hudson took the dish west to Los Angeles and opened up Roscoe's House of Chicken n' Waffles, where it has become a fixture in California's obsession with fast food and fast food oddities.

Which brings us to this week's story.

Roscoe's has thrived in California and grown into a popular chain. I guess there are a lot of indecisive people in California. Then again, maybe chicken and waffles is just that good. Then again...

Anyway, all was well with Roscoe's until recently, when owner Herb Hudson learned of Don Johnson's new restaurant in Chicago, IL. The restaurant is similar to one Johnson owned in Harlem in the 1990's and is called Rosscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles.

Herb Hudson took exception to the new restaurant in Chicago and sued Don Johnson for trademark infringement. Don Johnson can't have been surprised by this move. The names of the two eateries are nearly identical. The extra "s" and proper spelling of "and" aren't fooling anyone. Both restaurants also have the same logo - a cartoon chicken standing in front of a waffle (though one could argue that's the only natural choice). There's also an eerily similar menu (but again, when the name of your restaurant is "Chicken and Waffles" you're kind of pigeonholed) and both restaurants offer "sunrise" and "sunset" drinks (ok that's going too far). A lawsuit was inevitable.

On the other hand, maybe Don Johnson could have felt surprised. That's because when Johnson owned Rosscoe's restaurant in New York for 8 years, Hudson knew about it and did nothing. Hudson says he didn't plan to open any restaurant in New York, so he let it go. But he wants to expand to Chicago, soon in fact. He plans to open a Roscoe's in Chicago within a year. So he's no longer indifferent to there being a Rosscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in the windy city.

Another reason Hudson might be suing is the hideous response Rosscoe's in Chicago is getting. Customers have been complaining of poor service and long lines, and naturally compare it to the original, more famous Roscoe's in California. No more though, as Don Johnson has agreed to change the name to "Chicago's House of Chicken and Waffles", change the signage and get a new logo and everything.

Hudson isn't done. His attorney is seeking damages.

Said Don Johnson (seemingly the big, big loser here): "I'm as happy as a chicken eating waffles."

Which brings up the most important question of all: just how happy is a chicken eating waffles? On one hand, he's very happy. Waffles are delicious. But, maybe chickens don't like waffles, in which case they wouldn't be very happy eating them. Well maybe chickens think waffles are ok, but they don't affect their moods. On the other hand, how can you tell whether or not a chicken is happy? Then again...

I was surprised to find that someone getting sued for trademark infringement and about to get taken for a substantial sum of money could be happy at all. Maybe he's also happy to have poor service and bad reviews. Or, maybe a chicken eating waffles isn't very happy after all.

Happy or not, the chicken and waffles battle will continue, one-sided as it appears to be. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan is pleased with the way the case is going so far, and its good to know that all involved understand the most important issue: that "waffle" is both a noun and a verb.

Said the judge at the end of Wednesday's hearing: "I see that both parties understand the issues and facts of life and none of the parties are waffling on the issue."

I couldn't agree more. Well, I could agree more but it doesn't feel necessary. On the other hand, I could disagree. Then again...

1 comment:

Eric said...

can you get that at a Waffle House in North Carolina, or can you only get spare teeth from the men's room...